Right-wing populists in power: the case of Norway

Today, Thursday October 16 2014, marks the one year ‘celebration’ of the coming to power of the populist right-wing Progress Party (PP, or Fremskrittspartiet in Norwegian) as a junior partner in a coalition government with the Conservative Party Høyre) after the parliamentary elections of September 2013.  Now, for those of you unfamiliar with modern Norwegian political history, the Progress Party was founded in 1973 by the political maverick and right-wing libertarian Anders Lange as the Anders Lange’s Parti (ALP), on an anti-taxation, anti-state and anti-bureaucratic platform. The Progress Party, which marked the 40 year’s celebration of the party’s foundation at the very same cinema in Oslo – Saga Kino – where it was founded by Anders Lange and a small group of sympathizers in 1973 the very year it would come to power for the first time in 2013, do not like anyone asserting this fact publicly these days, but Anders Lange was a prominent Norwegian support of the racist apartheid regime, who as an editor of his own Dog Paper (Hundeavisen) in 1963 reacted to the first demonstration against apartheid in Norway at the Madserud Tennis Courts in Oslo earlier that year by declaring that any white person opposed to the apartheid regime was a ‘traitor to the white race’.

His co-founder, the highly decorated veteran from the small-scale guerilla warfare against the Nazi occupiers of Norway from 1940 to 1945 and lawyer at the Supreme Court of Norway, Erik Gjems-Onstad, was another apartheid supporter, who in an interview with the Norwegian liberal tabloid Verdens Gang (VG) in 1978 confessed to being an informer for the apartheid regime in South Africa and the racist regime of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia (since 1980, Zimbabwe). Gjems-Onstad, who was excluded from the Progress Party after the coming into power of its longtime chairman Carl I. Hagen (1944 -) in 1978, went on to be a founder member of the violently racist Folkebevegelsen mot innvandring (The Popular Movement Against Immigration, FMI) in Norway in 1987.

It was under the chairmanship of Carl I. Hagen (1978-2006) that the Progress Party, which in 1977 was renamed after Mogens Glistrup’s then quite successful Progress Party in Denmark (a precursor of the populist right-wing Danish People’s Party), that the Progress Party became a significant political formation in Norway. Hagen and the Progress Party’s electoral breakthrough came on the back of a significant influx of refugees in the mid-1980s, and the key to the Progress Party’s electoral success was its mobilization of anti-immigrant sentiment in general, and anti-Muslim sentiment in particular. That process started for real in 1987, when Carl I. Hagen in the course of the parliamentary election campaign read out a forged letter at an election rally which he alleged had been written by a certain ‘Mohamed Mustafa’ from an inner-city area in Oslo named Tøyen, which asserted that Muslims were plotting to take over Norway by means of higher fertility rates and to replace the ‘heathen cross’ of the Norwegian flag with ‘the Islamic crescent.’ That made little difference to voters, who provided the Progress Party with its breakthrough election result of 12.1%.

The Progress Party was for a long time considered a party of and for political oddballs, and it was hardly ever a unified church: As part of Hagen’s attempt to assert his uncontested authority in the party, and to make it more appealing to broader sections of voters in a country in which the welfare state dating back to social-liberal reforms in the 1920s and expanded on the back of enormous petroleum revenues since the late 1960s enjoys widespread support and legitimacy, Hagen managed to have a cohort of libertarians within his party, some of whom even advocated a policy of open borders towards immigrants in the party, ousted from the party at the so-called Bolkesjø Conference in 1994. In the aftermath of Bolkesjø – which was soon dubbed ‘Dolkesjø’ (after the Norwegian word for ‘dagger’), the Progress Party moved towards a centrist and mainstream welfarist position on the economy. That made sense then, as it does now, in that the Progress Party has long had an electorate consisting of a higher percentage of citizens less educated, older and more prone to living on various forms of social welfare than any other party with a significant parliamentary representation in Norway.

The party also benefited from popular perceptions to the effect that mainstream political parties had become increasingly technocratic, aloof from and indifferent to the political and economic concerns of ordinary Norwegians. That sentiment, as analyzed by Magnus Marsdal in his widely read book The Progress Party Code (FrP-koden) from 2008  was widespread among working-class turned service-class Norwegian voters who would in the past traditionally and loyally support the social democratic Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet). So much so that by the parliamentary elections of September 2009, when the Progress Party won a record 22.9 % of the votes and became Norway’s second largest party in parliament – the Storting – after Labour, the party had actually overtaken the Labour Party in terms of electoral support among this particular group of voters.   Through what the political scientist Wendy Brown has referred to as a ‘culturalization of politics’ the Progress Party successfully managed to present the everyday economic challenges, fears and anxieties thrown up by neo-liberal liberalization of Norway’s economy and of globalization since the 1980s as a matter of culture. If immigrants could not get work on the Norwegian labour market, it was always and inevitably due to their failure to ‘integrate’ and down to their ‘culture’, rather than labour market discrimination and/or racism.  The Progress Party also appealed to an anti-elitist anti-intellectualism which has always been a strong undercurrent in Norwegian politics: It attracted little support and sympathy from the liberal elites in the media, academia and state bureaucracies in the country, which it any case construed as being relentlessly hostile to the interests of ‘ordinary people’ (‘folk flest’) in the country, for whom the party of course claimed to speak. The state broadcaster NRK was dubbed by the long-serving party chairman Carl I. Hagen as the ‘ARK’ – with reference to its alleged social-democratic leanings.

By the 2000s, the Progress Party had become part of the political mainstream in Norway, and the cordon sanitaire which other political parties had maintained against it throughout the 1970s and 1980s had all but disappeared. In a societal and political climate which throughout Western countries would become increasingly hostile to Muslims and Islam after al-Qaida’s terror attacks against the USA on 9/11 2001 and the ensuing ‘war on terror’, the Progress Party stood to gain. By the time of the Danish-Norwegian ‘cartoon crisis’ of 2005-06, opinion polls in Norway suggested that it had the expressed support of close to 30% of the Norwegian population. As I have outlined in my book Anders Breivik and The Rise of Islamophobia from 2001 onwards, Progress Party MPs and central leaders referring to then imaginary terror plots, comparing Muslims to Nazis, declaring ‘all terrorists to be Muslims’, warning about the ‘islamization by stealth’ of Norway and suchlike would be part of everyday political rhetoric in Norway. Progress Party politicians read so-called ‘Eurabia’-literature, and openly called for caps on specifically ‘Muslim immigration’ to Norway.

It was always something of a paradox that Norway, a rich and prosperous country with extraordinary low levels of unemployment and a relatively small Muslim population which on current estimates represents 3.6% of the population, should among the first Western European countries to see a populist right-wing party in government. In an article in the New Left Review in 2013, Massimo d’Eramo hypothesized that the category ‘populist’ becomes a term of opprobrium in the lexicon of mainstream political parties at the very same time that the category ‘the people’ loses its discursive centrality in political struggles in the Western world through the rise of a neo-liberal political hegemony and the collapse of class-based politics http://newleftreview.org/II/82/marco-d-eramo-populism-and-the-new-oligarchy . In the Norwegian case, that is not necessarily true: for until very recently, Progress Party discourse made frequent reference to both ‘ordinary people’ and to its being a proudly ‘populist party’. By 2009, the Norwegian Conservative Party (Høyre), a significant number of whose voters had in that year’s election defected to the Progress Party, had realized that in order to break the hegemony of the centre-left and social democratic Labour Party-led government of Jens Stoltenberg, elected for two consecutive periods in 2005 and 2009, it would have to join forces with the Progress Party. The September 2013 election actually gave the Progress Party a significant political setback (it only got 16.3% of the votes nationally, down 6.6% from 2009), but the Conservative Party’s increase of 9.6% of the votes to 26.8% gave the parties a mandate and a platform to form a minority coalition government with the parliamentary support of the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti) and the Social Liberals (Venstre). In a brilliant recent essay about the rise of the populist right-wing UKIP in Britain in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, James Meek notes that “the closer UKIP gets to anything resembling power, the more it will be forced to channel rebelliousness into policy.”

And the Progress Party experience after one year in power in Norway does indeed suggest that being a party in power is different from being a party in opposition. The anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric from the party’s central leadership has been toned down, though central MPs without cabinet portfolios such as PP vice chairman Per Sandberg and vice chairman of the party’s parliamentary caucus Ulf Lerstein in a clever game of doublespeak which there is every reason they have the party’s central leadership’s tacit approval for continues with sporadic rhetorical forays into Islamophobia whilst the fact that the Progress Party has been allowed to have the hands on the wheel on immigration and asylum policy means that Norway has for almost a year now refused to resettle some 123 Syrian refugees already approved by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) as quota refugees on the grounds that these refugees would be ‘too costly for Norway’ due to their having suffered mental and/or physical trauma as a result of living through the horrors of the Syrian Civil War since 2011. One searches in vain, of course, for any reference to such grounds as being legal and legitimate grounds for a state to refuse resettlement in the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees.

Meanwhile, the Progress Party has promised to run a more efficient deportation machine for people who have been or are refused asylum or leave to stay in Norway on humanitarian grounds. In September 2014, some 763 people – among them 107 children – many of whom have been born in Norway and know no other homeland – an unprecedentedly high number of deportations which have led both the police authorities in charge of enforcing these deportations, as well as the Norwegian Lutheran Bishop’s Conference to warn that the quotas set by the government in this field may in fact in cases infringe on due legal process. 

In any event, the party’s doublespeak on issues relating to Islam and Muslim is also meant to satisfy the significant electoral constituency of the Progress Party who professes extreme-right wing sympathies: In a representative survey in 2009, a full 16% of those expressing voter sympathies for the Progress Party declared themselves to have ‘extreme right-wing sympathies’. It has been noted here that the Progress Party started out as a party against taxation. Whilst the Progress Party in government has served up massive budget increases for far-right Islamophobes long allied with the party, such as Hege Storhaug and her NGO Human Rights Service (HRS, as in ‘human rights for most people, except Muslims, which first got its post on the Norwegian state budget through a Progress Party initiative in 2001), circumstantial evidence relating to the fact that Storhaug’s regular attacks in mainstream media in Norway are now increasingly directed at Norwegian Muslims who are in fact working with government on its ‘counter-radicalisation’ initiatives, and at ever more ferocious rhetorical pitches, suggests that Storhaug and the HRS have in fact been sidelined by Conservative Party technocrats from having any real influence on governmental decision-making on integration and counter-radicalisation. Throughout the Progress Party’s existence, and in spite of the ouster of the most vocal libertarians in the party in 1994, the libertarian strand has never quite left the party: MPs representing the party are in newspaper interviews more likely than not to cite Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as their all-time favourite book,  a reflection of the fact that the party’s organs at various levels have long recommended it to new members as required reading. And in a twist that is more than a bit paradoxical for a party claiming to represent the interest of ‘ordinary people’ (‘folk flest’), being in coalition government with the Conservative Party, which has extensive funding from Norway’s relatively small group of corporate billionaires, has meant that Progress Party chairman and Finance Minister Siv Jensen in her first state budget presented last week served up a plate consisting of lavish tax breaks for the richest and mightiest of the population in the form of cuts to taxes on capital and inheritance, and extensive cuts in social welfare provisions for the weakest and most vulnerable of Norwegian citizens. Statistics Norway (SSB) has estimated that in the budget, the richest 1% of the population gets 35% of the tax rebates and the richest 5% get 49% of the tax rebates.

Meanwhile, cuts in social welfare provisions for parents with disabilities means that a significant number of Norwegian children will be thrown into poverty. It is, in other words, a Finance Ministry headed by a Progress Party supposedly committed to the interests of ‘ordinary people’, who takes Norway the farthest step to date towards the kind of society that Prof Thomas Piketty has cautioned us all against in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. And this, in spite of the documented fact that the overwhelming majority of Norwegians actually think increasing socio-economic inequalities is a bad idea.

History, as they say, has its ironies.


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