My Christmas trip to visit the in-laws in Denmark went by at breakneck speed. The husband had not been home in two years and we barely had two weeks in town, so the pace of things was understandable.
The day before New Year’s Eve, we had a bit of time to stroll around the city centre. Whilst in the pedestrian shopping area, we walked towards what sounded like an announcement. We came upon people wearing pig masks on the cold hard winter floor, and a man addressing passerby with a megaphone.
“It’s the vegan guy I saw on the telly!” My husband says, “And he is asking for signatures for the national vegan party.”
My husband Jacob is big on watching Danish shows documenting the lives of ‘real’ people, and it keeps him a little closer to home while in Malaysia. A few months before our trip, he recounted to me a show focusing on this young man who randomly watched a speech on Youtube delivered by animal activist James Aspey. The man’s life had changed in an instant, and began his quest to start his own political party. That young man was in front of us now. Jacob couldn’t believe it. Although I wasn’t allowed to contribute my signature as a non-Dane, the husband contributed his in a heartbeat, and I shared a few words of support to one of the ‘pigs’. And that was that.
The next day, I had this random idea. Why don’t I ask the vegan party for an interview? We were flying back to Kuala Lumpur in a few days… but hey, nothing to lose.
I found Veganerpartiet’s official Instragram account and asked with no expectations.
Someone answered. On the same day.
‘We would love to meet you! Can you stop by our office on 2nd January?”
I was supposed to have ventured out to their office alone but Jacob’s plan with a friend fell through, and he was happy to accompany me instead.
Meeting the team was a dream. Everyone was so welcoming. You could feel enthusiasm in their voices and passion oozing from their pores.
A quick lowdown on who they are and their progress:
For Veganerpartiet (Danish for ‘The Vegan Party’), the highest goal is Total Animal Liberation. They work towards this by educating and disseminating information to Danish citizens about the advantages of a plant-based diet for the planet and for all sentient beings: humans and non-human animals alike. Veganerpartiet is founded by Henrik Vindfeldt and Michael Monberg.
Veganerpartiet needs 20,182 voter declaration signatures before 2023. Each signature collected has a validity of 18 months. So in May 2020, the first signatures collected back in 2018 will start to expire. However, they are earning more signatures than they are losing. The voter declaration tally currently stands at 14,300 and the party expects to have 15,000 by May 1st, 2020.
The party will need approximately 70,000 votes in order to win a minimum representation of 4 seats in parliament (Folketinget in Danish).
The party engages 10 full-time activists, plus a larger group of 50-100 volunteers helping out as and when needed. The party has 400 members and 1500 supporters in their Facebook support group.
My interview is with Veganerpartiet’s Creative and Strategic Developer, Mayanoa Kjaergaard. She is sure-footed, sensible and unapologetic in speech, and there’s a luminous quality about her. Thank you Mayanoa for the hospitality and for taking the time to share Veganerpartiet’s journey so far.
How did the party come to be? Was there a point where the core team realized that Denmark was ready to see veganism as a political agenda?
The party’s founders, Henrik and Michael, would typically say, “This was just two random guys having a crazy idea.” They had a feeling something like this would work, but it wasn’t anything strategic or something they had brainstormed on for months and years. Veganerpartiet started out as a page of Facebook and because of the energy behind the cause and combined personality appeal of Henrik and Michael, it just kept growing.
That being said, it does seem like Denmark is ready for a transition into a more vegan or plant-based lifestyle. Henrik would say that we sat down at the animal liberation “poker table” at the right moment.
There are 19 other animal rights and animal welfare parties already existing around the world. The unique thing about us, is what the other parties have warned us against: using the word ‘vegan’. We want to normalize the term “vegan”. And it is working. Over the past year, we can see the rhetorics and the public debate beginning to evolve. The word ‘vegan’ is now something you can commonly hear and see on the radio, newspapers and TV every day.
It is then safe to say that you are the world’s first official vegan party?
Yes, we believe that is the case.
I felt that way too for the first couple of months. It’s really nice to now see a reaction like that from someone else!
Every vegan has their own definition of what veganism is to them. With so many people involved as a collective, have there been any internal conflicts about what the party wishes to achieve?
I think we all agree that our highest goal is total animal liberation, and have chosen to work on this using a mix of activism and politics.
When we do have disagreements, we debate until we feel we come to an understanding. Sometimes we are faced with the more intricate arguments of veganism and will postpone some of these discussions… For example, the ethics of horseback riding, or the ethics of keeping pets. If we get too caught up in topics like these, we tell ourselves, “Stop. Time out. Let’s bring our focus back to the 32 million pigs in Denmark who are suffering every year, FIRST.” But we still do want to work on new and/or improved laws protecting ALL animals. Laws to protect dogs, cats, exotic animals, natural habitats. We want to leave no stone unturned.
It helps a lot that our two co-founders are also very charismatic. I find that’s a very important trait to have in a leader. Our Vice President, Lisel Vad Olsson, is also very skilled in the area of diplomacy; he often has articles published in some of our major national newspapers.
When all you want to do is to save the animals, reminding ourselves of our bigger purpose is a great way of overcoming hard times. The fire we have in our hearts is what keeps us going.
Has the party gotten into any trouble with the animal agriculture industry, and how does everyone in the party keep each other safe and positive-minded?
Henrik and another board member, Tine Pil Oestberg, is currently preparing their defense in a lawsuit as we speak. In May 2019, they entered a factory farm through an unlocked door, and live-streamed the pigs on Facebook. The big animal agriculture lobby organization representing all the farms here have sued them for almost half a million Danish Crowns (RM315,500) for contamination damages. Many of us receive harsh messages on social media. They vary from wanting us being thrown into a vat of pig feces, to more serious threats like breaking into our homes. However, since Denmark is a very safe country, we are not very worried that these threats will be carried out.
How we keep ourselves motivated? It’s a blessing that we all stay very close. We spent Christmas and New Years together; for Christmas we gave out food to the marginalized immigrant community. We make sure we stay honest with each other. We acknowledge that what we are doing is tough and try to support each other in difficult times. We have a remarkable ability to process situations for what they are very efficiently.
Again, we remind ourselves of the work to be done for the animals and that there’s noone else who’s going to do it. We try to keep our spirits high and praise each other for every effort made. And we are very good at giving hugs! Since none of us are on a payroll, praise, recognition and cooperation is all the more important.
What is the party’s opinion on doing something a little more pragmatic on the legislative level – finding ‘middle ground’ versus being abolitionists?
We are aware that we have many types of supporters. Some want us to talk only about total liberation. Others expect us to talk about reductionism. However, we are also very aware of the dilemma of acting as reductionists at the risk of losing supporters. How we frame our political programme is that a vegan world requires many small steps along the way. Our programme starts with dismantling all forms of conventional animal agriculture, where the greatest volume of animal suffering occurs. People reducing their overall meat consumption, embracing meat-free days, going vegetarian or even omitting red meat from their diet, are all small but important steps along the way that contribute towards the final goal of total animal liberation. We are trying to strike a balance to let everybody understand that everything we strive for comes from veganism as our core ideology.
Luckily, we have Holland and Portugal who already have experience in the form of animal welfare representation in parliament. We are in correspondence with them (especially Holland) and will for sure be looking a lot to them for inspiration, support, and to try to learn from their experiences.
Could you share any outstanding lows and highs that the party has experienced?
The most highs and lows we’ve had so far have been with regards to the collection of signatures. The times when our collection stagnated, like when we were stuck at three to four thousand signatures, then at seven to eight thousand, some of our activists were losing hope in this endeavour succeeding at all.
But now we are very close to fifteen thousand. When we do our peaceful street demonstrations, people are beginning to come running to us asking to sign our voter declaration form! We can see that citizens and organizations and companies alike are starting to acknowledge the benefits of veganism and a plant-based lifestyle in Denmark.
A large event we organized brought an overwhelming high for us – a music festival called the ‘Greener Concert’ in Copenhagen last September. We had more than 100 volunteers supporting the event, and seven vegan performers in our festival lineup who shared their music to promote the cause. Our activists brought their families. Suddenly, the vegan movement and support of our allies was something we could see and hear. We had a lot of media attention, and families and friends were realizing that Veganerpartiet was more than just a bedroom project.
We have now hit 71% of our voter declaration quota. Since the coronavirus lockdown, we have been working to collect signatures online exclusively. It is a lot more expensive, since it requires more funds for advertising. We have asked for respite from the government, but they don’t seem to be willing to grant it. But we haven’t given up yet! We will be in touch with the Danish Ombudsman next week.
For other like-minded groups around the world, what kind of advice would you like to offer?
GO FOR IT! Be bold, be courageous, and be willing to make mistakes. Also, be ready for people to either love you or hate you. If you want to go for populism, vegan politics is probably not the way.
If you too wish to start a vegan political party in your own country, here are some tips.
We have an extremely good mix of competencies in the team, ranging from public relations to graphic design, from art to video-making, from tech to language and education. I am consistently surprised to see this party attracting such a variety of people with amazing skills that we need in order to succeed. That’s what we highly suggest: finding people to who can offer some key skills. I don’t know if social media is as important in Malaysia as it is in Denmark, but if so, it’s important to source for team members who can do in-house IT work, content production and marketing. Outsourcing those services is so expensive.
Our party focuses equally on work AND visibility. The times we live in are unique in a way that all of us ‘ordinary’ people have access to reaching thousands of other people through social media. Using the party’s social media channels, we constantly keep the world informed about what we do. If you attend a demo without documenting it, the audience reach starts and ends at the demo itself. But if you document the demos you do, the reach is that much larger. Whatever activities we do outside the office, we are always ready to use smartphones to take photos and do live-streaming. So document everything you do and put it all out there.
We have a mindset at Veganerpartiet of trying out many different things and strategies to see if they work, rather than being doubtful and not try at all. So dive in! We’re always here to answer your questions and offer advice. We’d love to collaborate with anybody and everybody anywhere in world who shares our vision, so don’t be afraid to get in touch!