The Oslo Election Campaign in Retrospective

Voting ballot

In 2007 a local chapter of the Scandinavian organization Democratic Alternative ran for office in the elections to the city council in Oslo, Norway. In the years that have past, we have received several requests for an assessment of the experiences of the election campaign, how it wen, what went good and bad, was it worth it and what was its lessons? Finally, here’s such an assessment.

Let us start with the preparations for the elections.  Norwegian electoral law demands that you to put forward a list of a minimum seven candidates and collect at least 500 signatures from fellow citizens in order to participate in local elections.

Filling a list of seven candidates was not a big challenge for the group, but collecting the signatures required more work.

We started first by asking family and friends that we knew would support our initiative to sign our list. Then we continued to convince colleges and fellow students to stand behind our initiative. Finally we moved onto the streets and asked people sitting on street-side cafes or in parks, or just people moving around in the city to sign our list.

We spent about two months collecting signatures. Our basic message during this part of the campaign was that the political elite in our city has accumulated way too much power in their own hands. They have given private business free reigns to buy public assets, and to act as the de facto city planners of Oslo. 

What has to be done, we argued, is to transfer power back to ordinary citizens. This can be done by opening assemblies in the neighborhoods where all residents are invited to discuss municipal policies and distribute public funds.

We collected nearly 2000 signatures for our initiative. This was probably the most “successful” part of the whole campaign.

Poor Outcome

The election program was developed while we collected signatures during the spring of 2007. It was presented to the public during the summer about two months before the election date in September.

The program was mainly spread to the public by handing out pamphlets and flyers with both short and long versions of the program. The hand-out was done on streets and squares after working hours and on weekends. We also organized some open meetings, participated in a few debates and were interviewed by some newspapers and radio stations.

However, it is safe to say that we basically drowned in the election campaigns of the other parties, and their coverage in the conventional media.

Compared to the signature collection where we had a pretty good outreach in at least certain parts of the city, the outreach of our actual electoral campaign was extremely limited. 

The end result also speaks for itself: We received around 200 votes in a city where more than 470.000 citizens have voting rights. Those who voted for us were probably only the core followers or sympathizers of Democratic Alternative in Oslo at that time. We did, in other words, not seem to reach a broader audience through the actual electoral campaign.

Reviewing the Program

Our program presented a broad range of demands on how to democratize the city, to strengthen municipal self-government, enforce social justice and to make Oslo more ecological. Most of the demands we represented were general. By this I mean that most of them would probably not only be applicable in other Norwegian cities, but also in other cities around the world.

Some of the most important demands were that city plans, borough plans and the budget were to be decided in open assemblies in boroughs, an increased use of referendums, that the municipality should reserve a greater portion of its tax revenues, re-municipalization of privatized public services, regulation of the housing market, a 6 hours working day for public employees, citizen commissions on discrimination, the development of a binding plan to reduce fossil fuel consumption and free public transport.

One could object that the general character of our program was one of its weaknesses – that the fact that many of them would also fit in other places in the world made the program less interesting for the citizens of Oslo. I think this criticism is partly right, even though we tried our best to put these demands in an Oslo-context in the written text.

But there are two other more important reasons that these demands were quite generally formulated. The first is that our program had a very clear focus on institutional changes necessary to develop a participatory democracy in Oslo. As we wrote in the program, the main reasons we were participating, was “to create another Oslo where it is the inhabitants who shape politics and the popularly elected who execute it – instead of politicians and market forces making decisions while the people have to passively bear the consequences.” 

There are several other political initiatives who present demands to create a greener and more equitable Oslo, but none other who actually demand the transfer of power to the people that inhabit the city. Since this is what makes us unique on the Oslo political scene, this is why we wanted to emphasize the direct and participatory democracy aspect of our politics.

The second, and the weakest of the reasons, was that these demands were the most thought-through in our political program. The activities of Democratic Alternative in Oslo previously to the election had mainly been to promote direct and participatory democracy in social movements and at a municipal level. Therefore, the focus on such demands came more natural to our electoral campaign – even though we as a political organization had opinions on a wide range of matters.

What we tried to do with the program was to show how demands for participatory democracy, ecology and social justice are intertwined and not isolated issues. We stated, for example, that Oslo would not be an environmentally friendly city until its economic forces are put under participatory democratic control, and that a participatory democracy is not possible until we achieve social justice.

Strengths and Weaknesses

I think there are many things we did badly during the election process, but there were also some things we did right.

Let’s start with the right things. We had some very good experiences with collecting signatures for our list of candidates before the other parties started their election campaigns. This gave us the peace and quiet we needed to get our message to – by our standards – quite a lot of people. 

We had to talk to these people face-to-face in order to get their signatures. This gave us a phenomenal opportunity to discuss the future of democracy and equality in Oslo with people who we would not otherwise reach. This personal contact is way more profound than just receiving a leaflet or getting some kind of political message through the news.

Another thing we did right was to build our program on demands that had earlier been voiced by democracy initiatives in Oslo – and specifically an earlier campaign for participatory budgeting. Several of the people we had talked to had heard about this campaign, and thought it was very positive that somebody took up its thread.

This is also gave us an opportunity to hook up again with groups and individuals whom we worked together with in this campaign, and tell them why we represented a continuation of the sentiments that drove the participatory budgeting initiative.

One of the worst things we did was to present our program way too late. We should have had it ready much earlier, even when we did not know if we would be able to collect the required amount of signatures or not. This would have made it possible for us to have a much clearer voice before the elections, even while we were collecting signatures.

A second thing that we did not do very well was to connect our demands for direct and participatory democracy to demands that would improve the lives of citizens of Oslo. In our program both set of demands are presented – although we have an overweight of democracy demands – but the link between them is not formulated clearly enough.

Third, we should also have prepared ourselves more for the difficulties we would encounter once the other parties commenced with their campaigns. Our leaflets and meetings drowned in the activities of the other parties in the last few months before the election, and if we had foreseen this a little better we could probably have been thinking of a better media and community outreach strategy to make better use of our resources.

Finally, there are of course thousands of things we could have done, but did not do – which is natural considering our resources. With a group of ten to fifteen activists there is a limit to how much you can do in an election in the capital city of a country.

To sum up, we got a horrible election result, but we managed catch the interest and sympathy of nearly two thousand people before the election. It is therefore difficult to say whether if the campaign was a success or a failure, but it was definitively worth the effort.

Some Lessons

One lesson – although it is not a novelty coming from this particular campaign – is that it is not enough to mobilize around the idea of a direct democracy. Most people will try to figure out whether this direct democracy will lead to a better life for themselves and their fellow citizens, and not just judge it on its merits of being inclusive or participatory.

Social ecologists and communalist running for elections should have this in mind. In one way direct democracy is an end in itself, but it is also a means of achieving social improvements. 

Another seminal problem was that the people in the streets did not know us from before. Previously, Democratic Alternative in Oslo had mainly been active in the globalization movement, and was known on the Left activist scene where we had promoted social ecology and communalism. Most of those activists, however, were active in other parties and found it more meaningful to campaign for them than for us.

If non-activists are going to support you in an election, they have to know you beforehand and trust that you will do a solid job once elected. This trust can only come through long-term engagement in issues that is important for “ordinary people” and disadvantaged groups – and not through ideological battles on the Left.

That is not to say that ideological battles are unimportant, but they cannot sustain a broad based movement and certainly rally support during a, election campaign.

A practical advice, therefore, is for social ecologists to forget a little bit about the discussion with others on the Left, distance themselves a little bit from the activist scene and instead seek to build a reputation among people who are not already organized.

Not Only Education

I have heard social ecologists claim that the only legitimate reason to participatory in local elections, is to use it as a platform to spread radical ideas and through this hope to ignite an “extra-parliamentary” movement.

I can agree that this is the most important role of an election campaign when you have a small group. But in my mind the main aim of electoral participation is not only educational, but actually to win positions of power. What you want to achieve through getting access to municipal power, is the best argument for running radical candidates in local elections.

Electoral participation is no magical bullet. If a social ecology politics is to work, it is dependent on an active citizenry that is ready to inhabit open assemblies and other participatory institutions.

It is not enough to win local positions. In fact, in winner-takes-it-all electoral systems you could risk winning enough positions to, let’s say, open up popular assemblies in neighborhoods, but risk not having enough people to inhabit these assemblies. This is probably only a minor risk, since people are not likely to support a communalist initiative if they don’t feel ready to take a more active role in politics.

If campaigns of social ecologists are only educational, I doubt that any of them will receive very much support in elections.

The main reasons for citizens to support social ecologists will be – as it always is in politics – the belief that it can imply a better life for themselves and their fellow citizens. If people are to support demands for participatory democracy, it is only because they think it can better solve their problems than conventional party politics.

A more likely danger of electoral participation is that of cooptation, or rather that of extreme difficulties in implementing social ecology politics once elected. First, most municipalities do not have the power to decide over the most important aspect of people’s lives.

One way to counter this is to have candidates running in many municipalities simultaneously, and to mobilize a broad based social movement behind these candidates. This movement of both elected officials and grassroots organizations will have to demand transfer of power to municipalities, and seek to control ever greater aspects of economic life. If not, such a movement would fail.

On the other hand: If you are not willing to risk involving yourself with power, you are most likely to risk not achieving anything at all.

Editorial Comment

For more articles on electoral participation, see also Social Ecologists in Local Elections and Occupy Local Government?