Norway’s Swinging Royals Stir Debate on Monarchy


It was the standard Constitution Day spectacle--thousands of children parading through sporadic drizzle, the royal family beaming and waving from their 153-year-old palace.

But there was an unusual addition to the lineup on the palace balcony for last month’s parade: an unwed mother and onetime waitress who is set to marry Crown Prince Haakon on Aug. 25 and one day become Norway’s queen.

The arrival of Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby on the royal scene has set all of Norway atwitter, pitting its broad-minded instincts against a sense that a line has been crossed. Opinion polls are showing a sudden drop in the royal family’s popularity, and Norway’s tiny anti-monarchist movement is stirring.

It’s not just the unwed motherhood. After all, more than half the country’s firstborn children are born to single women. Nor is it simply because Hoiby has been living with Haakon for six months. Unmarried couples routinely cohabit in Norway.


Above the People or Among the People?

Norwegians can easily accept the fact that she’s a commoner; so is their queen, Sonja, wife of 64-year-old King Harald V. And they find much to like about this statuesque blond woman with striking eyes and a ready smile--her down-to-earth manner, her devotion to her 4-year-old boy, Marius, her undisguised love for Haakon.

To many Norwegians, they are a fitting king and queen for the future.

But if royals act like everyone else, some wonder, who needs them?

“Being part of the royal family is not like being part of other families,” political scientist Bernt Aardal said. “You can’t be above the people and be one of the people at the same time.”

“I understand that people talk about it,” 27-year-old Hoiby has said. “I just hope people will accept me for the person I am.”

More troubling to this nation of 4.5 million are media reports associating the princess-in-waiting with drugs. No one has accused her outright of indulging in narcotics, but, according to the media, the father of her son was sentenced to prison for cocaine possession and she was seen at parties where illegal drugs were used.

‘Monarchy Is Digging Its Own Grave’

The royal image has been further tarnished by Princess Martha, Haakon’s sister, being photographed in the company of Ari Behn, a flashy young writer.

A Las Vegas travelogue hosted by Behn on Norwegian TV briefly showed him in the company of prostitutes, some of them sniffing cocaine. Behn said he had only reported on the Las Vegas lifestyle and did not endorse it. But even though the Martha-drugs connection seems stretched, it provoked angry reactions.

“This is just getting worse and worse. First Mette-Marit Tjessem Hoiby’s unrestrained partying and now Ari Behn wading in women and dope. The monarchy is digging its own grave,” Deputy Minister of Municipalities Einar Gelius was quoted as telling Norway’s largest newspaper, Verdens Gang.

Gelius, a Lutheran clergyman, was reprimanded by his minister and has since refused comment. But an editorial in the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten also voiced disapproval: “The Norwegian royal house is really swinging. Or is that shaking?”

“The monarchy is in many ways an illusion,” Aardal, the political scientist, said. “It is supposed to have a stable image, and when anything shakes that image it also shakes the foundation for believing in the monarchy.”

Unlike their kin in Britain--Haakon and his sister are descended from Queen Victoria--Norway’s royals enjoy respect for their privacy, although that is changing as Norwegian journalists become more aggressive.

The first king of modern Norway, King Haakon VII, ascended the throne in 1905 and won undying admiration for refusing to cooperate with the German invaders in World War II. His son, King Olav V, also charmed Norwegians; they still remember him getting on a tram and buying a ticket rather than using his car during the 1973 energy crisis.

“The very idea of a monarchy in a country that stresses egalitarianism is anachronistic. But the Norwegian royal family has done a good job, so it has had broad support,” Aardal said.

Movement Aims to Establish Republic

But there are signs of slippage. Support for the monarchy, steady at more than 80% in polls for 50 years, was down to 59% in a survey published April 4 by Aftenposten.

In another poll of 1,000 people, conducted by Opinion AS just before the Constitution Day parade, 65% supported the monarchy. But 30% described their view of the royals as more negative than a year ago, and of these, 37% cited the Hoiby factor while 16% blamed Princess Martha.

Now, for the first time in modern Norway, a national organization has been founded with the goal of turning Norway into a republic and abolishing the monarchy by 2014.

“We are opposed in principle to the head of state being selected by birth and not through a free election. That’s against the very basis of our democracy,” Bernt Nilsen, the group’s 42-year-old founder, said by telephone from Kirkenes, an Arctic city on the Russian border.

He said the group has about 300 members.

Others are fighting for change in their own way.

Last month, Johan Gjesdahl, a 30-year-old businessman, stood on an Oslo street corner during rush hour with a huge sign saying: “Be heard. Honk for a republic.”

Roughly every fourth vehicle honked. Three large trucks blared air horns and a tram tooted its whistle.

Such opinions are fine, Haakon told the Norwegian news agency NTB. “I think it is important and proper to have debate on the principles of our constitution.”

Norway’s leading political parties are talking about setting up a commission to study alternatives to the monarchy. But no change is likely soon. Only one-third of lawmakers polled by the Oslo newspaper Verdens Gang said they would support turning Norway into a republic.

Many expect the royal family’s popularity to rebound with the pomp of the nation’s first royal wedding since 1968. But it will have to tread carefully.

“I am a supporter of the monarchy but must admit that it has been weakened,” said Johan J. Jakobsen of the Center Party. “The royal children’s choices are an element in the debate.”