HAMAR, Norway (Reuters) - Young Norwegians, politicized by the massacre of 77 people by far-right militant Anders Behring Breivik, will play a key role in an election next week that could hinge on issues close to their hearts such as climate change.
In 2011 Breivik killed eight people in a bombing in central Oslo and gunned down another 69 at a Labour Party youth camp on Utoeya Island, in the worst attacks in Norway since World War Two.
They motivated a generation of young people, often children or teenagers at the time, to become more involved in mainstream politics - both on the left and the right - in a backlash against his xenophobic and anti-Muslim world view. And data shows young voters are now more likely than in the past to actually cast their ballots.
(For a graphic on Norway's parliamentary elections click tmsnrt.rs/2ugJCjo)
“I felt so powerless that day. It was a way to fight back,” said Anja Ariel Toernes Brekke, 21, who joined the youth wing of the Labour Party a few weeks after Breivik’s attacks. She is now the general secretary of the far-left Red party’s youth wing.
“I wanted to prove that the left was not weakened, that there would be people with those beliefs to replace those who had died,” she told Reuters.
Brekke is touring schools in Norway to get the youth vote out. On a recent morning, she was at the Cathedral School in Hamar, 120 km (75 miles) north of Oslo, to take part in a debate with other young politicians in front of 1,250 high-school students packed in a gym hall.
“Our society is more unequal. What we lack is justice. We need a new politics,” she told the crowd, to applause.
Her party, the Reds, could be one of several kingmakers in Monday’s parliamentary election, in which the right-wing bloc of Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg is neck-and-neck in opinion polls with an opposition grouping led by Jonas Gahr Stoere’s Labour.
Younger voters tend to care more than the average Norwegian about issues such as schools, climate change and the environment, especially linked to Norway’s oil and gas production, researchers say.
The trend has been called “Generation Utoeya” by the political scientist who identified it, Johannes Bergh at the Institute of Social Research in Oslo.
According to Bergh’s research, published in the 2015 book “The Vote and Voters” he co-edited with Bernt Aardal, some 13.8 percent of first-time voters said they belonged to a party in 2013, the last time a parliamentary election took place, up from 6.0 percent in 2009.
This more-than-doubling was higher than the increase reported for all voters, to 9.3 percent from 7.2 percent, and it was spread across the political spectrum - not just for Labour, the target of Breivik’s attack.
“It did come as a surprise. We had sort of expected that young people would (go) for Labour,” Bergh told Reuters.
“We saw a spike in the membership of the youth wing of the Labour party immediately after the attacks. But the same thing happened with the Conservatives too. The attacks were an attack on Norwegian democracy, not on a political party.”
Young people are also voting more since “July 22” - the common shorthand for the killings by Breivik, who is serving a 21-year jail term that can be extended indefinitely.
At the last election in 2013, 66.5 percent of 18- to 21-year-olds cast ballots, up more than 10 percentage points from 2009.
Parties are paying more attention to this young constituency. “Politicians have to listen to young people and have to make an effort to appeal to young people,” said Bergh.
In the longer term, he believes the Utoeya generation effect will help ensure the renewal of democracy in Norway. “It is going to be positive. Once young people start voting, they tend to continue later in life.”
The future of Norway’s oil industry has emerged as a key issue for voters this time around. The small but growing Green Party, which pledges to stop oil exploration and phase out production within 15 years, is emerging as a potential key in deciding who will get to govern the Scandinavian country.
It was certainly on the mind of some first-time voters in Hamar. “We need to phase out oil production and respect the Paris climate agreement,” said 17-year-old student Signe Dahl.
“We need to turn Norway into an environmental nation from an oil nation,” she told Reuters. Dahl, who can vote as she is turning 18 later this year, said she had whittled down her choice of party to between the Green Party and the Reds.
Her friend Silje Fugleberg, 18, agreed: “We must think about other resources to use than oil. We must think about Norway’s future and the environment.”
Before the debate, she was considering voting either for the Socialist Left Party or the Red Party. After the debate and listening to Brekke, “I think I have decided and will vote for the Reds,” she said.
Editing by Mark Trevelyan