Norwegian radical right minister of justice steps down to avoid collapse of government

Overview

The Norwegian right-wing government coalition was close to collapse in March 2018. The radical right Minister of Justice (including “Immigration and Preparedness”), Sylvi Listhaug, posted a Facebook social media status with a photo of a group of Islamist terrorists.  The accompanying caption attacked the Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet, AP) for being too lenient on suspected terrorists. AP had helped defeat a bill aimed at taking away citizenship from terror suspects as well as those who might pose a future terrorist threat. Listhaug’s Facebook post coincided with the premiere of the film ‘Utøya 22’.  The film is based upon the experience of the victims in the most fatal extreme right terror attack in Norway on 22 July 2011. In Anders Breivik’s shooting massacre on Utøya island, AP lost 68 young activists.

Norway’s radical right is in its second consecutive period of government, the first being between 2013-2017. It is now an accepted player in Norwegian national politics after many years of a cordon sanitaire approach by mainstream politicians.  Yet the leading radical right group, the Progress Party, has a long history of collaboration with the mainstream at a local and regional level. The increasingly conservative, neoliberal Norwegian Labour Party had been confident of winning the elections in 2017, but were defeated by forces to their right. The current coalition is a collaboration between the mainstream right (Høyre, H) the radical right (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) and liberals (Venstre, V).  It also heavily relies upon the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti KrF) who play a pivotal role in parliament.

Since 9/11, linking terror with immigration has featured in Norway’s political discourse in much the same way as it has across the west. The Norwegian government has even gone so far as to add immigration to the job description for the Minister of Justice; a clear signal to voters that immigration is a security issue.  The media contributes to this scaremongering by focusing on issues raised by immigration and immigrants in general. Despite this milieu, Listhaug went too far with her Facebook post and faced a rebellion in parliament, the Storting. The combination of a massive public outcry and opposition in parliament forced her resignation.  The opposition was united in backing Bjørnar Moxnes’s motion – the only MP from the socialist party Rødt (Red) – who advocated a vote of no confidence in the government if Listhaug continued in hr post. In resigning on 20 March, Listhaug managed only a half-hearted apology.  Even that, however, exceeded expectations from this controversial politician.

Listhaug’s Claims

More troubling than even Listhaug’s insinuation that immigrants are terrorists is that the mainstream, conservative Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, continues to support her.  After Listhaug left her post, the PM chastised MPs who spoke out in parliament against Listhaug. A more or less united press core claimed that Solberg handled the crisis badly and that, as a result, both her position and the government’s standing is weakened. In the meantime the Progress Party has attracted increased public support. In one revealing instance, Listhaug was showered with flowers by radical right supporters and even neo Nazis. Listhaug posed for the press buried in flowers, but subsequently appealed to her Facebook followers to distance themselves from ‘gruesome’ individuals and groups who spread hatred on social media. Listhaug also claims to speak on behalf of ordinary people, claiming that she only expresses what most people are thinking. She believes she has been censored for her views, and does not accept that other politicians disagree with her on the issue of immigration. Instead, Listhaug insists that the radical right is the victim of a witch hunt.

The radical right argues that the most recent Norwegian political crisis shows that freedom of speech and democracy are under threat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Listhaug will continue as an MP and says she will not be quiet.  It is clear however, that she will lose media traction given an invariably lower profile. Listhaug’s methods as a government minister (she was the Minister of Immigration in the previous government) are not dissimilar to the Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 1990s, or to Jörg Haider in Austria during his leadership of the Freedom Party, or FPÖ. Her strategy has been to appeal to the most extreme of supporters. She is praised by neo-Nazis as well as by less extreme groups and activists. Yet when Listhaug realised she had gone too far, she apologised and called upon her supporters to distance themselves from extremist groups – whilst those very groups rest assured that she speaks for them too.

Listhaug dabbles in radical right conspiracy theories such as the notion of Eurabia (the idea that the West is being invaded by Muslim extremists). She also accuses AP of prioritising Islamist terrorists over the Norway’s security, thus allegedly contributing to the destruction of Norway from within. This is despite the fact that no other country in Europe has returned as many asylum seekers to Afghanistan as Norway.

Moreover, the Norwegian government has attracted unwanted attention from the United Nations and Amnesty International over the last couple of years due to concerns with human rights violations. The most recent criticism has been over the government’s treatment of asylum seekers, especially those underage. Families with children who have never lived in Afghanistan are nonetheless being deported there, with several having been injured or killed upon return.

Conclusion

Mainstream Norwegian political parties have to accept some of the blame for a situation where extreme rhetoric comes from the government. Since 2011, AP has had an immigration policy that is all too similar to the radical right’s. In the 2017 elections they missed an opportunity to form a government with parties to the left of them. Due to public outcry and opposition politicians the right has experienced a massive defeat, it now remains to see how whether this political pressure can be sustained. This very much depends upon AP and how they might use this opportunity to become an opposition party – rather than a support for a right wing government that cost them the previous election. A final question is why Listhaug was not sacked sooner; indeed, her resignation seems to have come as a surprise to the Prime Minister and the leader of the Frp. Were they surprised because radical right rhetoric looked to them wholly ‘mainstreamed’?

Dr Mette Wiggen is a Senior Fellow with CARR, and is an expert on the Radical Right and Welfare Chauvinism in Scandinavia. See her profile at:

© Mette Wiggen. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

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