“A lot of people expected the Progress Party to sort of fail as a governing party because they’re an opposition, anti-establishment type of party,” Bergh told me. “But they’ve managed to have a double type of communication, where they do take responsibility for policy they implement but at the same time they have this anti-establishment, anti-immigration rhetoric. They’ve been criticized for not being consistent, but it seems to work nonetheless.”
That difference in rhetoric was apparent on the Friday before election day in Oslo, as Progress Party volunteers and party members campaigned at their booth on popular Karl Johans Gate. The big local pre-election event of the day was a debate over energy issues between Progress Party politician Terje Søviknes, the current Minister of Petroleum and Energy, and a counterpart from the Green Party. The pair debated back and forth spiritedly but politely from chairs in the party’s booth; a few dozen onlookers meandered up and listened in.
The party advocates for a “strict and responsible” immigration policy, saying the number of immigrants and refugees admitted to Norway should be drastically decreased and calling for tightened rules on claiming asylum and on refugees or immigrants bringing family members to Norway. It also calls for a ban on burqas in public spaces, and argues that elements of Islam are incompatible with Norwegian society.
Johan Hertzberg, a 23-year-old law student from Oslo manning the volunteer table, said he doesn’t view his party as a populist party—and that he believes Norway is capable of having a “civilized” debate about immigration issues. He first got involved when he had a sick grandparent looking at options for nursing homes, and suggested that many supporters who get involved with the Progress Party do so for reasons besides just immigration.
“We’re not anything like the AfD or anything like the Sweden Democrats or anything like the Front National in France,” he said. “Especially when you look at how the AfD is talking about it, [saying] they want to shoot migrants on the border—that is quite extreme.”
It’s true that the Progress Party’s anti-Islam rhetoric is restrained compared with the election-season rhetoric in nearby Germany. For example: There, AfD posters designed solely to stoke anti-Islam sentiment abound. (“Burqas? We prefer bikinis,” one poster says, featuring the posteriors of two bikini-clad women.) Still, an electronic billboard in Oslo’s Central train station in the lead-up to Election Day displayed a Progress Party ad calling for a burqa ban in public spaces, a key tenet of the party’s platform on immigration. And in its active social media presence, similar messages often appear.
“Within Norway they function as the radical right party, as being the party that is most anti-immigrant, most anti-immigration, that kind of has this populist discourse,” Mudde explained. “But in the European context, they’re much more moderate than the Front National or AfD.”
As political observers across the West look to take meaning from each European election on the calendar this year, Norway is a bit of a tough data point to place: it’s true that its populist party, the one most similar to other European far-right parties, held its own in what was expected to be a tough year for it. Whether that party continues its more moderate tone in government remains to be seen—but the implications for right-wing populism in Europe and beyond are murky at best.