NEWS ANALYSIS: Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide of the Labour Party is almost as worried as the rival Progress Party over the angles, often misleading, that have been taken by many foreign media outlets in their coverage of Norway’s parliamentary election on Monday. Both Eide and the Progress Party are faced with trying to correct what they feel are inaccurate and unfair portrayals of election results and the conservative Progress Party’s politics.
Eide would presumably be the last person to defend the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp), given its far more conservative views on a host of issues, not least immigration, than Eide’s own Labour Party (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap). But Eide and his colleagues at Norwegian embassies abroad who have been following foreign media coverage are alarmed over what they see as extremely and unfairly negative reports of Norway’s election.
“We’re following the situation carefully, because this is a question of Norway’s reputation out in the world,” Eide said.
The alarm stems from reports in foreign media (including the BBC and newspapers like The Independent in the UK and Corriere della Sera in Italy) that have focused on a long-dissolved tie between the Progress Party and convicted ultra-right-wing mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. They don’t focus on the fact that Breivik gave up his earlier membership in the party long before he went on the attack, because his views were far more extreme than the party’s. Party leaders were also as shocked over his murderous rampage as all the other parties were, and firmly distanced themselves from his views and his actions.
Instead, some foreign media outlets have reported on what they see as a “shocking” election in Norway, the results of which are likely to sweep the Progress Party into government for the first time (through a coalition led by the winning Conservative Party and two other non-socialist parties) at the expense of Labour, which Breivik attacked.
Both winners and losers
The foreign media outlets seem surprised that Labour didn’t benefit from a sympathy vote or the strong support and international praise that Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg enjoyed just after Breivik’s attacks. Stoltenberg, though, later was subjected to massive criticism over his government’s failure to pay more attention to anti-terrorism and security issues, and not least the lack of police preparedness for a national emergency. That, in addition to a large dose of voter fatigue after eight years in office and things like disappointment over Stoltenberg’s environmental policies or those that could ease protectionism and high prices, is what election analysts in Norway mostly point to in explaining how and why Labour lost government power. Labour did win enough support, though, for it to remain as Norway’s largest party and become a force to be reckoned with in opposition.
The Progress Party, in turn, actually lost voter support in Monday’s election. It won fully 22.9 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary election in 2009, much more than the 16.3 percent it claimed on Monday. The only reason it now has a stab at government power is because it’s been getting along better with the Conservatives (Høyre), who were the real winners in Monday’s election, jumping from just 17.2 percent of the vote in 2009 to 26.8 percent this time. Together, the Conservatives and the Progress Party can now mount a formidable non-socialist bloc if they choose to do so during upcoming negotiations on a new coalition. Those negotiations will include two other non-socialist parties which likely will further force the Progress Party to loosen its stricter policies on asylum and immigration and tighten its policies on expenditure of oil revenues.
In the foreign media, though, the party is repeatedly described as being “anti-immigrant” and hostile to foreigners. Coverage in Italy that was seen as unfair and even biased prompted staff at the Norwegian Embassy in Rome to send a message of concern home to the Foreign Ministry in Oslo, wondering how they should respond.
Officials at the Progress Party definitely want Eide’s ministry to respond, and correct reports that imply the party still has ties to Breivik or has a facist ideology. Such reports, contends deputy party leader Ketil Solvik-Olsen, “paint a completely meaningless picture, and I hope the Norwegian embassies will inform the media in the respective countries about the facts.”
Eide told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it’s up to the party itself to respond, but said his ministry will gladly contribute to the process. “We will help them as much as we can,” Eide said.
He also said that his ministry contacted the party even before the election, after noticing reports that already were linking the party to Breivik. He said the government shares the party’s interest in making sure that “correct information comes out.”
Academic support for the party, too
Anders Ravik Jupskås of the University of Oslo, who’s working on a doctoral thesis about the Progress Party, said the misleading foreign media reports suggest a lack of understanding for the difference between right-wing populism and right-wing extremism. He maintains that Norway’s Progress party actually belongs to the moderate branch of right-wing populism in Norway, and has little in common with the much tougher anti-immigration parties in countries like France, Hungary and even Denmark and Sweden.
Jupskås also pointed out that Breivik dropped out of the Progress Party because he didn’t think it was radical enough in its views on immigration. Jupskås told NRK that he finds it disturbing that even established and respected media in Europe and the US, for example, have failed to see the difference between a violent criminal and a legitimate political party, adding that the Progress Party also criticized Switzerland’s decision to ban minarets from mosques and has none of the radical anti-Islamic policies found in other European parties.