Progress Party toasts progress

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Norway’s most conservative party was literally celebrating its progress as it marked its 40th anniversary this week. Siv Jensen and the Progress Party she leads are closer to government power than ever before, after years of shaking up Norwegian politics.

Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, arriving at her party's 40th anniversary celebrations earlier this week. PHOTO: Fremskrittspartiet

Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, arriving at her party’s 40th anniversary celebrations earlier this week. PHOTO: Fremskrittspartiet

Jensen’s predecessor, Carl I Hagen, was also grinning from ear to ear during a round of live TV interviews and newspaper headlines tied to the party’s 40th anniversary celebrations. As Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) noted, Hagen has had more effect on Norwegian politics than most care to admit.

What once were considered the party’s radical ideas back in the 1970s (tax cuts and less government interference in daily life) are now the mantra of many other parties. Even the current left-center, Labour-led coalition government has kept a promise of no tax increases during its past eight years in office, and also has offered some tax relief.

Now Norwegian voters seem ready for another shift to the right, with public opinion polls showing a clear majority for a government led by the Conservatives (Høyre) and the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp), possibly with cooperation from the Liberal Party (Venstre, which lands on the non-socialist side of Norwegian politics despite its name) and the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkepartiet, KrF).

Party leader Siv Jensen and her predecessor Carl I Hagen, who may make a political comeback after the election as a government minister in charge of elder care issues. PHOTO: Fremskrittspartiet

Party leader Siv Jensen and her predecessor Carl I Hagen, who may make a political comeback after the election as a government minister in charge of elder care issues. PHOTO: Fremskrittspartiet

Frp-leader Jensen seems most likely to emerge as finance minister if the right-wing coalition wins the September 9 election, and she vows that she won’t let Frp “fall into the trap” that has plagued the Socialist Left party (SV) during its past eight years in the current left-center coalition. After growing strong as a party in opposition, SV has lost significant voter support because of the compromises it’s made in position.

“We won’t be part of a government to administer other parties’ politics,” Jensen told Frp members when the party gathered Monday night at the site of its founding in 1973, Sago Kino (Cinema) in downtown Oslo. “We won’t fall into any SV trap! We will be part of a government for one single reason: Easier days for most folks.”

Tired of retirement, back in action
The 68-year-old Hagen, who remains a significant force in the party despite initial plans to retire a few years ago, has said the party will insist on gaining control of the ministries in charge of health care and elder care. The party sees privatization as a key means of eliminating waiting lists at hospitals and nursing homes, and has long criticized the quality of care and options offered for senior citizens who’ve spent a lifetime paying taxes.

The party is also strongly in favour of market liberalization, wants to lower Norway’s high import tariffs, break up monopolies like those found in the agricultural sector and generally ease regulations in a wide range of sectors. The party remains a staunch supporter of the social welfare state, though: It just wants taxpayers to get what they pay for.

Hagen, never known for being modest, told newspaper Aftenposten that “if I hadn’t met up at Saga Kino 40 years ago, there wouldn’t be a Progress Party today.” He joined the group that had rented an auditorium at the cinema to listen to Anders Lange, known as an “idealistic capitalist” at the time, who was championing tax cuts as a reaction against the new VAT (MVA, moms) tax levied by the Center Party-led government at the time. Hagen claimed this week, though, that Lange hadn’t created an actual party, it was more like he was leading a movement. Hagen takes credit for turning the taxpayer revolt movement into a party, and when Lange died just a year later, in 1974, Hagen won a power struggle to emerge as party leader, a post he held for the next three decades.

From protest movement to parliament
In short, the party started as a protest movement but has ranked as one of the largest parties in the country for the past several years. It wasn’t too long ago that polls indicated more voter support for the Progress Party than for the Conservatives, and also more than Labour. That’s since changed, but the Conservatives seem to have realized that they can’t ignore the Progress Party and in fact they agree on many issues. Jensen, for her part, has worked hard to moderate some of the Progress Party’s rhetoric to be taken more seriously.

Immigration issues remain controversial, with Jensen’s party still skeptical towards the arrival of many and putting more of the burden of integration on the newcomers instead of Norwegians. There are signs, though, that the party can also cooperate in such inflammatory areas, and it has several Members of Parliament who have won respect on both the left and right.

Meanwhile, Progress Party members were partying indeed over the progress they’ve made and are keen to campaign as elections loom. It was perhaps ironic that Margaret Thatcher, the Conservative icon who shook up British politics, died on the very day Jensen was gathering her troops. “I had great respect for her, and we share her belief in a market economy and busting up monopolies,” Jensen told NRK. She’s eager to carry on Thatcher’s traditions, Norwegian-style.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund

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