The Norwegian shift to the right: 10 short lessons on The Progress Party

Notes from EICNorway seems to have taken a sharp turn to the right, and some have warned of right-wing extremism in a bastion of social democracy. A ten-step guide to understanding The Progress Party. 

Today the centre-left coalition that has governed Norway for eight years will hand over the office key cards to a coalition of the Conservatives and junior partner, The Progress Party. They don’t have a majority alone, but will be supported in parliament by the centrist Liberal and Christian parties.

International media has paid most attention not to the defeat of the government but to the inclusion of the Progress Party – a right-wing party in a country thought of as deeply social democratic – in the new government. The coverage had its share of hyperbole and inaccuracies, so here’s a ten-point guide to the third largest party in the world’s 118th largest nation.

1) They’re not ”the Breivik party”. The Independent recently wrote they had ”links” to the terrorist who massacred 77 young people, most of them members of Labour Youth. 

Technically you could argue a connection, though hardly a ‘link’, which implies a two-way conscious connection, so while correct it is a journalistically shoddy claim. Breivik joined, tried to gain influence, failed, and left the party which he found too moderate. He was the leader of a local youth branch for a while in 2002 and sat on that chapter’s board until 2004, but there’s nothing to indicate the party had any clue of his extremism. It would be unreasonable to attribute blame to any political party for a low-level member’s criminal activities many years after he left.

2) It’s wholly unsurprising they were Breivik’s favourite. Deep skepticism of ”the others” and sharp anti-immigration rhetoric has been a mainstay of the party’s platform and modus operandi. It’s what fuelled their rise from a small anti-tax party in 1973 to the country’s third largest party.

In the late 80s the party realized that a large minority of the population harboured fear and/or dislike of the growing number of immigrants, but no politicians catered to their opinions on this. Soon many saw them as the only party who spoke out and took the challenges of immigration seriously, and by fanning the flames of fear and suspicion, painting immigrants as criminals and fraudsters (and, after 9/11, religious fundamentalists) they created even more voters of the same ilk.

In the past they’ve received money from the apartheid regime of South Africa and mingled with neo-nazis, but those times have been left far behind and the worst elements have been chucked out. These days most of their rhetoric is fine-tuned to appear ethically defensible while still pushing the right buttons with nationalist voters – but it must surely be uncomfortable to the liberal faction to see how blatantly their party is courting xenophobes.

In 2009 the party’s leader, Siv Jensen, coined the term “stealth Islamisation” in her party conference speech, criticising the centre-left government for letting prisons serve halal food, and warning of a slippery slope.

In 2010 the leader of the Oslo chapter, Christian Tybring-Gjedde, co-wrote an infamous op-ed where he claimed that the governing Labour party wanted to “stab our own culture in the back” and “replace it with multiculture”. He vowed not participate in this"cultural treason" and to fight multiculturalism because Labour’s project was “tearing our nation apart”. He promised to do this even if posters were hung promising death by shooting to those who did, bravely defying hypothetical threats that only ever existed as wildly unrealistic figments of his own imagination.

Tybring-Gjedde is one of the party’s calculated “loose cannons”; he’ll go “a bit too far” – the leadership won’t embrace but vaguely criticize his statements not to scare off more moderate voters or potential political partners – but the message is still received by those it was meant for. Every time immigration is on top of the media agenda, even if it’s sharp criticism of some Progress Party statement, they get a bump in the polls.

From The Prograss Party election campaign brochure 2005: “ ‘The criminal is of foreign origin!’ (A press quote we read frequently) “

3) It’s not a single issue party. While immigration has been a top issue for The Progress Party since the late 80s, the party’s original name was Anders Lange's Party for a Strong Reduction in Taxes, Duties and Public Intervention, and tax cuts and removal of bureaucracy remain amongst their top priorities. They have a visceral loathing for toll roads, potholes and expensive petrol, which has resonated with many drivers.

Other important issues include improvements of the health service, better care for the elderly, more (and armed) police, economic liberalisation and deep cuts in foreign aid as well as agricultural, media and culture subsidies.

On foreign policy (not a main priority) they are more closely aligned with the USA and Israel than the other parties. 

4) They fight dirty – and they’re good at it. Carl I. Hagen led the party from 1978 to 2006, and is personally responsible for turning what could easily have become a short-lived protest party into a formidable political force. He did so with few ethical qualms and a well-honed and deeply cynical rhetoric that has changed Norwegian politics forever. 

The political establishment was unprepared and discounted him as a wing-nut, but for a large portion of the population he was the only person on the podium that made sense and had the guts to say what they were privately thinking.

Just before the 1987 local elections, Hagen read out a dramatic letter he’d received, purportedly from a Muslim in Oslo, detailing how Muslims were planning to take over the nation and replace all churches with mosques. The letter was easily established as a fake, but Hagen had done nothing to test its authenticity, and the message worked: the party’s result was triple that of the previous election.

As the party has moderated itself since the new leader Siv Jensen took over, Hagen the Godfather has also become one of the abovementioned “loose cannons”.

5) They’re not extreme-right.  Barry White, the outgoing US ambassador to Norway, recently laughed at the idea of the party being extreme right, imploring those who claimed so to get a reality check by traveling to America and chatting with the Tea Party. He has a point.

Their policies are most certainly rightist, even more so in the local context, and the anti-immigration vitriol and populism are not dissimilar to SD in Sweden or Front Nationale in France. Still there is a lot to distinguish them from such parties. They have worked hard to mainstream themselves in the last two decades, and the transformation has been successful; they're now palatable enough for centrists like the Liberal and Christian parties to support them in government, and their organisation is as professional as any party’s.

Their platform incorporated plenty of social democracy, so while they preach less state interference and encourage a liberalisation of the economy, they also want to strengthen the national health service, keep the welfare state in place and are not averse to state ownership of strategic companies. While they are alone in the country in talking up US Republicans, much of their programme would be to the left of the Democratic party.

6) They revel in playing the underdog and victim. Just after election night, the party reacted with deep affront and outrage when a socialist politician called them right-wing populists in a tweet, reacting as if they had been terribly wronged.

They are unquestionably populist, and are even on the record endorsing the term. But they’ve perfected this role of the victim, the underdog standing up for the average Joe, only to be brusquely brushed aside by the political establishment and the “socialist media” calling them mean names and refusing to see them as the sole voice of the real Norwegians.

An example of how deeply imbedded this tactic had become occurred shortly after the Breivik terror, and after a couple of people had suggested that their alarmist rhetoric on immigration bore some indirect blame for creating the terrorist. Party leader Jensen said on live TV that such allegations meant her party was just as much a victim as the terror victims, and that the claims were as bad as the actual terror. She later apologised for her choice of words, and surely didn’t mean what she said literally; nevertheless it was a revealing reaction.

7) They love to cut tax and spend cash – but won’t go overboard.  Like most parties that have never tasted the sweet nectar of government power, or the annoying responsibilities that come with it, The Progress Party has been generous with their promises. They want large tax cuts while government spending is increased in many areas, especially infrastructure and health. 

Norway is in the peculiar situation where access to money isn’t what constrains the spending (there’s about £500 billion tucked away, earmarked future pensions), but rather how much can be spent without overheating and ruining the economy. The Progress Party is alone in challenging a broad political consensus that the nation shouldn’t spend oil income worth more than 4% of the fund in any normal year, and have proposed alternative methods of calculation that would allow them to keep the costs of building roads and hospitals outside the quota.

Even though the party is tipped to get the Minister of Finance, and the coalition platform promises new funding and tax cuts galore, there is unlikely to be unchecked spending: there is plenty of oil cash to play with within the 4% (too much according to almost all economists), and both their government partner and the support parties are in line with the opposition on responsible spending.

8) They are anti-green. Does The Progress Party leadership think human beings have caused climate change for real? It’s hard to tell, but they certainly aren’t worried about it, and strive to appeal to those voters who refuse to accept the uncomfortable reality.

Their current line has evolved to admitting there is some climate change, probably partly due to human influence, but they don’t think it’s a major cause, and keep referring to the ostensibly “big controversy among scientists” on the issue.

While hostile to any environmental regulation, this pandering to so-called climate skeptics will likely be tempered by sitting in a government where both their partner and support parties accept that anthropomorphic climate change is real and appropriate action is necessary. They at least talk the talk - the amount of walking that will be done remains to be seen.

The start was promising: the small, centrist Liberals, in exchange for their support for the coalition, won the concession that there won’t be oil exploration in the vulnerable Lofoten, Vesterålen and Senja areas, a major victory for environmentalists. But the coalition platform published since barely touches upon the environment or climate, and it’s clear there will be higher speed limits, bigger roads and no more regulation of snowmobile driving in nature. 

9) It won’t be a far-right government. The Norwegian political spectrum is narrower than most, and has its centre a tad left of centre in an international context. The new government will be much further to the right than the previous, but the changes are unlikely to be dramatic.

Where The Progress Party has radical ideas, they mostly clash with their relatively moderate government partner and centrist support parties. They know all too well they’ll have to accept defeats and compromises to gain power, and have said as much publicly numerous times since the election, readying their voters for disappointment. Several key fights have already been surrendered in the name of cooperation.

10) They will need some victories. For four decades the party have promised their voters real and dramatic change if they only get to enter the government offices. Now those voters expect action. All parties in or supporting the coalition know they will need some visible victories, even though they might taste foul to the rest of the flock.

Perhaps most important of all is immigration policy, and here they run into a particular problem: even in opposition the party has shaped the debate on the issue the last decades, resulting in many of their policies first being derided, then later adopted by other parties, Labour in particular.

There simply aren’t that many things left to do to decrease immigration without breaking international conventions, something their fellow travellers would refuse. But be sure, they will find some rules to tighten, some asylum seekers to deport and some fences to build – and they’ll hail their victories and hope the electorate goes along with it.

One of these will probably be so-called “closed asylum centres”, jails in everything but the word, where those who have lawfully applied for asylum but had their plea rejected will be interned until they can be sent out of the country. 

Having acheived their long ambition of government power, it now remains to be seen how successful they'll be in - using Jensen's words - creating "solid Progress Party footprints" on government policies. 

About the author

Magnus Nome is Editor-in-Chief of openDemocracy. Before he joined oD in June 2012 he worked as a writer, journalist and broadcaster in Oslo, and was Editor-in-Chief of Teddy TV. Twitter: @magnusnome