With the Collapse of a Right-Wing Coalition, Has Norway Turned Its Populist Tide?

Stortinget Parliament building, Oslo, Norway © Anna Jedynak / Shutterstock

The radical-right Progress Party (FRP) withdrew from Norway’s coalition government on January 20. This is a big defeat for FRP leader Siv Jensen, whose big ambition was to prove his party was koalitionsfähig, or “coalition capable.” After six years in government, the conflict between the populist radicals and the more moderate wing of the party has reached crisis point, and the FRP could no longer agree to a compromise with the three other governing parties — the Conservatives, the Christian Democrats and the Liberal Party.

The issue that broke the pact was the FRP’s refusal to agree to the return of an “ISIS bride” and her children, one of them said to be gravely ill. The situation has left the FRP looking punitive and lacking compassion.

The crisis was a convenient way out of government for the FRP. The party has long struggled to get any of its policy suggestions through in the last version of the coalition government led by Erna Solberg, of the Conservative Party. Local FRP leaders have long complained that the parliamentary wing had compromised too much and had moved away from the party program’s radical-right agenda.

Grassroots Gap

The gap between the FRP’s grassroots and parliamentary factions has been widening for a while, with local activists and politicians being significantly more radical than their parliamentary colleagues. For example, many local activists and leaders have been involved with Stop the Islamization of Norway (SIAN) — a radical anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant movement often operating in conflict with the law.

SIAN’s leader Lars Thorsen has long insinuated that the movement was in conversation with local FRP politicians who, SIAN suggests, were getting increasingly disillusioned with their parliamentary party. In October 2019, it was revealed that more than 20 FRP candidates standing in local elections were active on SIAN’s Facebook page despite Jensen declaring in 2019 that membership of SIAN was not acceptable for FRP members and candidates.

Tactically, leaving government might work in FRP’s favor in the period leading up to the national elections in 2021. Erna Solberg is now in charge of a minority government with two other parties that are both closer to the center left than the right. In opposition, the FRP will gain more power and influence than it had in government. It is also likely that the governing coalition will depend on it for votes in Norway’s parliament, the Storting, on a case-by-case basis.

The party, therefore, has quite a lot of influence in its hands, which will not make it easy for Solberg, who has already announced that she intends to continue to work closely with FRP. For example, the radical-populist, evangelist FRP MP Sylvi Listhaug spells trouble. Listhaug, labeled in some circles as the “Norwegian Trump,” once declared that “in Norway we eat pork and drink alcohol.” Listhaug is uncompromising on immigration and integration, and will revel in the attention she will get in opposition. Since the party left the government, support for it in the polls has jumped from around 10% to 15.7%.

The FRP’s is a classic dilemma of a minor party in a government coalition: It had to compromise in more policy areas than its supporters were prepared to accept, and its leader, Siv Jensen, appears to have lost touch with the more radical grassroots while clinging to power for as long as possible.

The Solberg government project has been deemed a fiasco for both Solberg and Jensen. Going from crisis to crisis, Solberg was no longer willing to put up with threats and counterdemands from Jensen, standing her ground this time. Solberg had put a lot of prestige and pride into leading a successful government, but the FRP didn’t make it easy. According to senior political commentator, Arne Strand, as long as the government coalition consisted of two parties, it worked, but “The expansion of a four-party government, which was Erna Solberg’s work, is a disaster.”

Receding Tide?

The racist, punitive tide in Norway’s government might have turned with the end of the radical-right coalition. But radical populist politicians like the former minister of justice and immigration, the FRP’s Joran Kallmyr, and Sylvi Listhaug will not go away. They will be making their voices heard in parliament, and the party will be able to block any initiative by the minority government.

Kallmyr takes great pride in Norway being one of the strictest countries in Europe when it comes to immigration, taking credit for the fact that hardly anyone seeks asylum here. He argues against rescuing refugees in the Mediterranean, as he thinks it will encourage more refugees and more crime. These politicians will not disappear from social media or the mainstream press, who will continue to give them a disproportionate amount of attention, especially on issues of security and identity politics.

The FRP’s exit from government is a big defeat for Jensen, who took the party into coalition for the first time in 2013. Power and a role in government have eluded the FRP’s previous leader, Carl I. Hagen, who led the party from 1978 to 2000. Jensen, who took over in 2000, managed to transform the FRP, which has been in opposition since 1973, into a governing party, keeping it in government for six years — which is no small feat.

Interesting times lie ahead for the FRP, which has become increasingly populist and is moving toward a more radical platform. In theory, this should not gain it more support, but recent polls indicate otherwise. Unfortunately, the party might follow in a pan-European trend, where the electorate seems to have an unlimited appetite for blatantly racist and extremist politics.

Dr Mette Wiggen is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at University of Leeds. See her profile here.

© 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).

This article was originally published at CARR’s media partner, Fair Observer. See the original article here.