The Norwegian Progress Party (FrP) has had the most extraordinary year since leaving the government in January 2020. At that time, the leadership decided they could no longer work with the rest of the centre right government coalition as they were losing support among their core members. The background was a groundswell of opposition among the grassroots and the local parties who did not support the compromises the party had made in coalition so far. The issue that broke the coalition was that the other coalition partners were in agreement over returning back to Norway a so-called ´ISIS bride´ and her son. The FrP, however, could not tolerate a compromise with parties in their view were being too lenient with people who willingly had joined terrorist organisations and still posed a threat to the country´s security, said the party leader Siv Jensen.
Out of government, the FrP has suffered many problems that has crippled the organisation; an ideological split, outward signs of xenophobia, difficulties among its core electorate and a very strange and scandalous court case have all conspired to make a perfect storm against the party.
Ideological Splits and Overt Xenophobia in the FrP
The internal ideological split between the moderate neoliberal wing and the national conservative wing has become more obvious and public and can be extremely damaging for the party already struggling in the polls. The inflammatory language FrP politicians use has reached a new level lately as they have increasingly blamed immigrants for the spread of COVID-19 in the country. Blatant xenophobia and racism will turn moderate supporters away, but could also attract support from many who voted for FrP purely because of the party´s anti-immigrant platform. FrP politicians have linked the pandemic to immigrants and are accusing immigrant communities of spreading the virus through so-called irresponsible behaviour. Only last week, for example, FrP politicians introduced a new word (“innvandrersmitte” or “contagion from immigrants”) that created much upset and debate; and cemented their position on immigrants as spreaders of pest and harm. This immediately caused wave in the Norwegian public, as associations with the Nazis depicting Jewish people as vermin and rats during the second world war was not lost on even the idlest of observers. It is worrying that the word caught on so fast that the respected conservative newspaper Aftenposten used it on the front page of its 12 November issue. After reactions from the public and politicians the paper changed the headline online, issued an apology and changed it to “infection among immigrants”. The FrP’s focus on ´problems´ with immigration and immigrants might, however, still appeal to the older voters who’s welfare chauvinism around what they see as inadequate welfare provision, only increases demands for welfare to be withdrawn from perceived outsiders. This is peculiar as public funding to nursing homes was cut on the FrP´s watch. It seems like the FrP has reached a point in their lifecycle of development when the party needs to decide who they are talking to and who their voters should be.
A Looming Criminal Case: FrP Politician’s Partner on Trial
As if the above isn´t enough and possibly the most damaging issue for the party, Norway’s FrP is facing a scandal and a criminal case that has tainted the party since March 2019 when the minister of immigration and justice, Tor Mikkel Wara, was targeted with what looked like a hate crime. Wara´s car was set on fire, graffiti was sprayed on the car and the politician´s house; later hate mail started arriving to the private address of the FrP politicians Ingvil Smines Thybring-Gjedde and Christian Thybring-Gjedde . (On a side note, Christian Thybring-Gjedde is the politician who suggested Donald Trump for the peace prize, that didn´t do FrP any good either). The police security services treated it as a hate crime and the media spread the notion widely within Norway. The Police Security Service, PST identified left wing anti-racists as the possible culprits but soon realised the crime was not committed by any activist group. Actually, Wara´s partner Laila Anita Bertheussen became the prime suspect. Bertheussen was subsequently arrested on suspicion of arson and for trying to give the impression that others were behind the criminal acts Bertheussen´s arrest. The upshot of the case was that Wara resigned and the wholes case has attracted much interest, ridicule and disbelief over the last year-and-a-half. In March 2019 Bertheussen -who has several previous criminal convictions – stood accused for issuing threats to a minister and for attacks on the Norwegian democracy. The prosecutor suggested 2 years in prison for such threats, attacks on the state´s supreme legitimate authority, and accusations of fabricating criminal acts. The jury has not yet delivered the verdict.
Digging deeper into the case, what had spurred Bertheussen was a production of John Berger´s ´Ways of Seeing´ at Blackbox theatre and it looks like Bertheussen was trying to frame the Black Box team for the attacks. Photos of Bertheussen and Wara´s house had been used as part of the scenography and the production exposed FrP´s harsh immigration policies´ impact on individuals. The theatre company says they should be the victims in the case as they have been falsely accused of being linked to the perpetrator. Wara has stood by Bertheussen´s side all the time and the police think Bertheussen had an accomplice as threatening, anonymous letters (they suspect) were written by her were arriving to the house when she was away. In October 2020, the state prosecutor Marit Formo concluded all the evidence gathered pointed towards the accused Bertheussen as the only possible perpetrator.
There are many reasons for the changes in the FrP´s fortune but it remains to be seen what direction the party will move and who they decide to be their core electorate. As expected the FrP had reached a point as many other opposition parties in coalitions and have had to consider if responsibility, power and compromise are in fact damaging for the party in the long run. The FrP´s influence – especially on immigration – is great as both mainstream parties on the left and the right have accepted its policies and largely co-opted them into their own programmes. Since the 1990s, the FrP has been a mainstream party in Norway and welcomed into coalitions both at a local and a national level, they have never experienced a cordon sanitaire as is the case for the Sweden Democrats across the border but it remains to be seen if that continues if the party will move further to the right.
Dr Mette Wiggen is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Lecturer in Politics and International Studies at the 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).