What Right-Wing Populists Look Like in Norway

Can they avoid the nativism of their European peers?

Siv Jensen walks out surrounded by reporters with microphones.
Leader of the Progress Party, Siv Jensen walks to the parliament building in Oslo, Norway, after the election on September 11, 2017.  (Cornelius Poppe / NTB Scanpix / Norsk Telegrambyra AS via Reuters)

Yesterday was a good day for Norway’s populist Progress Party. Results in the country’s parliamentary elections on Monday show it nearly maintained its support from four years ago and, along with the Conservative Party, its coalition partner, appears headed for another four years of governing in this traditionally left-wing country, as support for the center-left Labor Party drops to historic lows. Buoyed by its anti-immigration, anti-Islam rhetoric, the Progress Party received 15.3 percent of the vote here, barely a percentage point lower than in 2013.

Taking the stage late Monday to supporters’ chants of “Four new years!” Progress Party leader Siv Jensen thanked the party's voters and said she was “proud” of their performance and its supporters.

By any objective standard, the Progress Party is among the most successful right-wing populist parties in Europe: it’s the third-largest party in Norway and, unlike many of its counterparts elsewhere in Europe, is actively serving in a governing coalition in Oslo’s parliament. This is a not-insignificant feat for a populist party—and its expected four more years in government are a seeming endorsement of the coalition’s right-wing tack on immigration. It would be easy to look at Progress and arrive at a broad conclusion that, after a string of less-than-successful elections for similar parties across Europe, this anti-immigration, anti-Islam party is a bright spot for the movement heading into another round of key European elections this fall.

But the Progress Party, while similar to its populist counterparts further south in Europe, isn’t quite the same. At its core a neoliberal economic party, it has never been nearly as far-right as the Front National in France or Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, and has further worked to moderate its message and its rhetoric during its four years in government. In fact, experts who study these parties in Europe wouldn’t classify the Progress Party as a radical right-wing populist party, at least in the same sense that Le Pen’s Front National is—though it’s certainly true that the Progress Party has capitalized on nativist sentiment to help improve their vote share in recent years.

“It’s fair to say that the Progress Party in Norway is more of a moderate right-wing populist party than the Front National in France, for example, or even the Sweden Democrats [in Sweden],” Johannes Bergh, who runs the Norwegian National Election Studies at the Institute of Social Research in Oslo, told me. “They try to have more of a certain acceptable rhetoric when it comes to immigration—that has been sort of a conscious strategy for them. To get into government, they had to tone down the most extreme elements of their party.”

A big part of that comparatively moderate tone, Norwegian political experts told me, is the fact that the Progress Party was founded decades ago as a libertarian, anti-bureaucracy and anti-establishment party. For a long time, its primary message had more to do with economic issues than it did with immigration—though stricter immigration has been a part of the party’s platform since the 1980s, it is less of a one-issue party than other populist parties seeking electoral success further south.

“It has to do, essentially, with priorities,” Cas Mudde, an expert on European right-wing populist parties at the University of Georgia, told me. “Nativism isn’t really the core of their agenda, and they’re also still very neoliberal, which parties like the Front National of course are not.” Right-wing populism in Scandinavia is “very diverse,” Mudde added, referring not just to Norway’s Progress Party but to the Finns Party in Finland, the Sweden Democrats in Sweden, and the Danish People’s Party in Denmark. “Almost none of the parties is a really good, perfect fit for what we see as the prototype, such as Front National.”

Another part of the Progress Party’s relative success in 2017 has been, interestingly enough, the fact that it’s served four years in a governing coalition with Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg. Many populist parties struggle when they make the transition from opposition to governing—but experts here say the Progress Party has been more successful than most at toning down rhetoric and actually taking part in legislating. In the current government, it heads Norway’s Ministry for Migration and Integration, among other key ministerial positions; if the preliminary results hold, it’s likely to continue leading key ministries in Norway’s government. This has given the party an opportunity to take credit for recent government accomplishments.

“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.