Following a few months of relaxed measures, where people could socialise and go about most of their daily business, Norway closed its borders on 29 January 2021, after a new strain of COVID-19 was detected in the UK. Large parts of the Oslo region are also in lockdown.
But with the new variant of the virus spreading in Norway, conflict over the countermeasures is heating up.
Norway is one of the countries that´s been hailed as a success story when it comes to controlling the pandemic. As of mid-February, just 592 people have died in the country – compared to more than 12,480 in neighbouring Sweden, and 117,166 in the UK.
Xenophobia and the virus in the mainstream
In Norway, there was a broad political consensus around the need for the lockdown and economic support measures that were introduced in March 2020.
However, as expected, the anti-immigration Progress Party, Fremskrittspartiet (FrP), has since demanded stricter control of borders, migrants and migrant labour due to the possibility of what it called ‘import infection’.
But unlike many other far-Right parties across the rest of the world, the FrP has shown no support for anti-vaxxers and COVID-19 deniers. In fact, the pandemic hasn´t given the FrP many chances to shine.
Despite having withdrawn from the government coalition in January 2020 – over the repatriation of a Norwegian citizen who had volunteered in the Islamic State – the party has been mostly compromising and collaborating with the government on issues ever since.
The FrP put immigration on Norway’s political map in the 1980s, and has set the agenda on immigration and refugee policy in the country for more than a decade. So much so that in 2011, a governing coalition between the labour party, Arbeiderpartiet, the socialist left Sosialistisk Venstreparti and the centre party, Senterpartiet, almost copied FrP´s anti-immigration strategy.
But now, after having had ‘issue ownership’ of immigration for decades, the FrP is now starting to lose out to the mainstream.
No party for far-Right voters
The FrP is struggling, despite how willing the government and the opposition parties have been to accept its suggestions. Or perhaps that is why the party is struggling.
For many of its core supporters, the party has been too compromising with the mainstream. This was one of the reasons why the FrP left the right-wing governing coalition in January 2020 – in an attempt to rebuild its popularity.
In what appeared to be an effort to win back support from moderate voters, the party’s leader, Siv Jensen, recently said she is very concerned about small businesses that depend on immigrant labour. But no matter what it does, the party’s popularity continues to drop; in January the polls showed 8.4% support, nearly half of what it polled the previous year.
The FrP has in recent months been suffering from internal political and personal conflicts and a ridiculous court case, which has amused large parts of the media and the Norwegian population.
The case involved Laila Anita Bertheussen, the wife of the former minister of justice, Tor Mikkel Wara. In January 2021, Bertheussen was sentenced to one year and eight months in prison for threatening democracy.
Bertheussen, who says she will appeal the court’s verdict, was found guilty of staging threats to her family and vandalising her own house in an attempt to make it look like she was being harassed by a left-wing theatre group. The high-profile case resulted in Wara stepping down as minister of justice.
Meanwhile, internal squabbles came to a high in December 2020, with the exclusion of the radical leader of the Oslo branch, Geir Ugland Jacobsen.
The party’s association with Donald Trump has also been damaging for them, particularly in the aftermath of the violent assault on the US Capitol on 6 January. Party MP Christian Tybring-Gjedde also attracted international attention for nominating Trump for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, only to later retract the nomination.
A new force on the rise
With the FrP’s popularity declining, one party in particular has been filling the gap in the run-up to September’s national elections: the centrist, populist, anti-EU, nationalist Senterpartiet (Centre Party).
The Senterpartiet (SP) is led by the charismatic and talkative Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, who travels the country joking and talking with ‘ordinary’ people and promising to help them tostand up to the ‘elites’.
The SP is not new. It grew from the Nordic Agrarian Farmers´ Party, which was established in the 1920s and has benefited from supporting grievances raised by farmers, public sector workers, and small businesses especially in the rural regions, but increasingly in Oslo and other urban areas.
The pandemic has laid bare the increase in inequality and a massive gap in property value between the south and the north of Norway. For years, rural areas have been stripped of wealth and opportunities to the benefit of the wealthier urban areas.
This has become particularly obvious in the north where communities are suffering from urban flight and centralisation. Fishing rights have been privatised and small boats and businesses have lost their quotas to larger companies in the south.
The SP has managed to tap into ordinary people´s grievances and has replaced the FrP in addressing them. It promises a redistribution of resources from big businesses in the south to small enterprises in the north and a new rural development strategy to boost the regions in order to regain lost opportunities, power and wealth.
A new home for the far Right?
The SP speaks to those who suffered from centralisation, privatisation and a neo-liberal political economy. The result is that more and more people are flocking to it, and it has become the main opposition party against centralised, uneven development, without having to focus on ‘problems with immigration’.
Having attracted large parts of the precariat that the FrP previously appealed to, opinion polls in January 2021 suggest the SP’s support is 22.6% compared to AP’s 17.5%. This suggests that the SP is now Norway’s most popular party.
If these numbers hold, the growing populist party can expect to form a government coalition after the September elections – and AP will have to prepare to be a junior coalition partner.
On the whole, the SP is more concerned about social justice and welfare than most populist-nationalist parties on the Right, though it has also shown nationalist tendencies.
In a live debate between party leaders last year, only the SP leader, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, refused to agree that distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine should be shared equally in solidarity with poor countries.
The SP in its current shape and form cannot be considered to be on the far Right, but it has become a new home for far-Right voters leaving the FrP in search of another ‘protest party’.
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).
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