Progress Party vows comeback

Disappointed members of Norway’s most conservative political party, the Progress Party, retreated into meetings on Tuesday to hash out just what went wrong in local elections that saw their support cut in half in many Norwegian cities. Analysts were offering lots of reasons for the party’s abrupt fall.

Even with only 17 percent of townships reporting, Progress Party leader Siv Jensen could see that her party was going to take a beating in local elections. Here, she went live on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) to acknowledge disappointing results but also try to encourage her supporters. PHOTO: NRK/Views and News

The party faithful didn’t seem inclined to simply lick their wounds, however, and party leader Siv Jensen was already warning her rivals to “watch out!” She vowed the party will rebuild and make a comeback in time for national elections in 2013.

Jensen mostly blamed the poor election results on “an extremely demanding year,” which began with a nursing home scandal in Oslo, where elder care was under the control of the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp). Elder care is also one of the party’s biggest causes, so allegations that the city had lost control over nursing home staffing were embarrassing.

Then came a sex scandal involving the party’s candidate for mayor in Stavanger, who also was one of Jensen’s most trusted advisers. It wasn’t the first time allegations of sexual misconduct were lodged against a top party official, and the case quickly threatened the party and then led to harsh criticism because of the way party leaders were handling it.

Two more cases of sexual harassment followed and soon the party was starting to tumble in public opinion polls. After enjoying voter support that at one point ranked the party as the largest in the land just a few years ago, the party fell seven points in April alone.

A fall of her own
In June, Jensen herself fell, on her boat, and landed in the hospital with a broken back just before the election campaign season was due to begin. She maintained a tough profile, even while lying in her hospital bed, but was forced off work for a few weeks and opinion polls continued to fall.

And then in July came the tragedy that many feel has changed Norway forever: Anders Behring Breivik, an avowed Christian right-wing extremist, confessed to bombing Norway’s government headquarters and gunning down scores of Labour Party summer campers on the island of Utøya. Breivik had once been a member of the Progress Party and its youth organization and claimed to be launching a war against Islam. Jensen was as shocked as all other party leaders in Norway, and quickly denounced Breivik’s acts, but her party has long been critical of the immigration that Breivik wanted to halt and her predecessor Carl I Hagen said he still believes most terrorists are Muslims. The party found itself a victim of its own earlier rhetoric and in the awkward position of having to defend its tough position on thorny issues like immigration and integration while claiming it was horrified by Breivik’s anti-Islam positions.

When Hagen said he also thought the police were using too many resources on their investigation into Breivik’s attacks, criticism rose and he ultimately dropped out of the mayor’s race in Oslo. By that time, the party’s standing in the polls was looking very poor indeed as it headed into elections for city and county government all over Norway. It ended up being trounced by the Conservative Party (Høyre), with support on a nationwide basis falling to as low as 11.5 percent, compared with numbers as high as 28 percent a few years ago.

Not a quitter
Jensen has no intention of resigning, though, and seems to maintain support from her colleagues. “This isn’t Siv’s fault,” Jøran Kallmyr, who may lose his spot in Oslo’s city government, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Tuesday. “It has been a very special election campaign and the others have been really good, especially Høyre.” Ove Vanebo, head of the party’s youth organization FpU, agreed: “I’m sure Siv is the right leader to turn things around.”

While admitting that she was “deeply dissatisfied” with the election results, Jensen went on the offensive quickly. “We are in fact the third-largest party, so we’re on the platform,” she told party members Monday night. “And next time we’ll go for gold!”

Others think Jensen will make some major changes and “clean up” the party’s reputation. She repeatedly called party supporters “Norway’s toughest voters” and pointed to some towns where the party did well. She may be down, but she’s not out, noted several election analysts. As Professor Anders Todal Jensen told newspaper Aftenposten, “For anyone who wants a future within the party, challenging Siv Jensen is a high-risk sport.”

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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