Norway's island shooting survivors run for parliament

OSLO Wed Jul 10, 2013 3:14am EDT

1 of 3. Vegard Groeslie Wennesland (L), a survivor of the shooting on Utoeya island, together with Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide (2nd L), speaks with voters in Oslo June 15, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Gwladys Fouche

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OSLO (Reuters) - On a sunny day in Oslo, Vegard Groeslie Wennesland, a survivor of the shooting at the Labour Party's youth camp on Utoeya island, gives out roses and discusses politics with shoppers.

The 29-year old is hoping to get elected to parliament in September, along with 26 others who survived the attack by Anders Behring Breivik on July 22 2011.

Wennesland barricaded himself with others in a red wooden cabin and hid under a bed while Breivik shot dead 69 people hours after planting a car bomb outside the prime minister's office in central Oslo, killing eight.

"Someone tried to kill me for what I believed in. So I am going to fight for it," Wennesland says of his reasons for running for office for Labour. "It is taken for granted that we can freely do politics. It should not be."

It is the first parliamentary vote since the attacks took place but the number of young candidates is not unusual. Norway, like the other Nordic countries, has a long tradition of involving young people early on in politics.

The current prime minister, Labour's Jens Stoltenberg, became a parliamentarian aged 32 while his probable successor, the Conservatives' Erna Solberg, was elected aged 28.

However, the 27 survivors who have been picked from the AUF youth wing of the Labour party to run are expected to be slightly different to previous generations.

The attacks appear to have affirmed the ideas of AUF members' confidence in standing up for their views, which are traditionally more left-leaning than the rest of Labour. Usually, once they get to parliament, they embrace the more mainstream views of the rest of the party.

But this generation is being let through even though there is an expectation that they will stay faithful for longer to different policies.

"The July 22 generation is a very unique generation within the Labour Party: their ideas have been tested in a way that no generation since World War Two in Norway has," said Gunn Karin Gjul, a Labour parliamentarian.

The main disagreement with the wider labor party is on oil. AUF would like to permanently shield some parts of Norway's continental shelf to protect the environment but the rest of the party believes this is not necessary.

The branches also differ on immigration. AUF wants a more liberal policy compared to many in the party. Breivik targeted the AUF camp because he wanted to stop immigration from Muslims into Norway and he saw AUF as a barrier to this.

The survivors have won respect from senior Labour politicians for staying true to their beliefs.

They could have questioned why Norway does not have the death penalty, why Breivik did not have tougher prison conditions or become bitter and aggressive, Gjul said.

"Instead they reaffirmed their belief in democracy and the rule of law ... They have the ability and personalities, they have a strong, passionate belief in democracy.

"So it is extremely important we take care of them and enable them to reach positions of power," she said.

CRITICISM

Not everybody in the Labour Party is as enthusiastic as Gjul about the Utoeya generation coming up through AUF.

Some in Labour believed that the AUF had taken advantage of their experiences although that debate has now subsided.

"There was a time when the AUF cynically used what happened at Utoeya for their own political gain," said a Labour parliamentarian who did not want to be named.

"Since Utoeya, it has been harder to oppose AUF."

The official also said the AUF has had more members since the attacks, so they carry more influence inside the party, making it harder to criticize although Gjul said the branch was not as influential as some thought.

Only a few of the hopefuls are expected to win office.

In Norway a candidate's ranking on a party list is crucial to getting elected. Many of the Utoeya survivors running for parliament are quite low on the list, having lost primary battles for safe positions higher up.

Only three of the 27 survivors have rankings considered safe enough to get elected for sure. The others, like Wennesland, depend on Labour getting a strong election result.

Current polls suggest the opposition Conservatives and their allies will win the elections as voters are eager for change after eight years of rule by Labour and its allies.

For Wennesland, the excitement of the political campaign has been mixed with the feeling that he has stolen the place of his friend Haavard Vederhus, who was the head of Oslo's AUF branch when he was gunned down by Breivik. Wennesland replaced him after the attacks.

"Sometimes I remember the images and the feeling of being on the island, the feeling that I was sure I was going to die, scared, and that I was not in charge at all of my own life," he said. "I have wondered whether Haavard would have been a better candidate than me."

(Additional reporting by Terje Solsvik; Editing by Anna Willard)

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