NEWS COMMENTARY: This man, the leader of Oslo’s chapter of the Progress Party and a Member of Parliament, seems to be doing his best to sabotage chances of his own party finally winning government power. Christian Tybring-Gjedde, who has been highly critical of immigration for years, remained on a collision course this week not only with other parties that could be government partners, but also with the emerging moderate majority in his own party, and that may cost all of them dearly.
Just when the Progress Party, after 40 years in opposition, has real prospects of actually pushing through its core and, in some circles, highly welcome policies against high taxes, high prices, restrictive alcohol politics, big government and over-regulation, Tybring-Gjedde spouts off again over immigration and risks spoiling it all. He has claimed that he “doesn’t have the conscience” to keep quiet about his alleged fears that Norway is a victim of “sneaking Islamization” or that those of us who weren’t born in Norway but moved here as adults are threatening Norwegian culture. His comments have offended many immigrants and social democrats for years, but now they threaten to derail all the efforts that his party’s relatively new and more moderate leadership has been making to really be taken seriously by fellow Norwegian politicians, academics, the local media and the voters.
The party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) won nearly 23 percent of the vote in the parliamentary election four years ago, making it Norway’s second-largest party during the last parliamentary session. The 16 percent of the vote it won in the most recent election has attracted much more international attention because only now, after major efforts by party leader Siv Jensen to make Frp more representable and willing to cooperate with other parties, does it have a strong chance of joining a Conservatives-led government coalition. The work carried out by moderate party colleagues like Anders Anundsen, who has won good marks for his leadership of the parliament’s disciplinary committee, and deputy party leader Ketil Solvik-Olsen, who stresses a need for less regulation and more personal freedom in Norway, have also won the party new respect – only to be spoiled by Tybring-Gjedde’s attention-grabbing disagreement this week with Solvik-Olsen’s highly public claim that past party usage of the term “sneak Islamization” was a bad idea.
It’s ironic, not only because Tybring-Gjedde’s rhetoric may torpedo his party’s carefully laid government plans, but because the immigrants whom Tybring-Gjedde seems to fear and wants to more severely limit in number, are often those who complain the most about the very same things his own party does – that food prices are far too high, that wine and beer and cars and fuel are ridiculously expensive, that taxes are high, bureaucracy difficult to understand or break through, and that Norway is too lenient with criminals. Immigrants are well-represented among the Norwegians who drive over the border to less-expensive Sweden on weekends to do their shopping, just like party leader Jensen did as part of her election campaign. Many new immigrants gravitate towards the platforms of both the Progress Party and the Conservative Party (which can explain why the Conservatives offer information on their website in Polish) because their policies more closely resemble what they’re used to back home.
While Solvik-Olsen points to all the immigrants who visited the Progress Party’s booths during the recent campaign, Tybring-Gjedde caters more to some Norwegians’ fear of foreigners than to the immigrant vote. He claims to be “hurt” by suggestions he or party colleagues are fiends of foreigners, while at least one politician from another non-socialist party, Venstre, has written that he thinks several Progress Party politicians “hate” immigrants, foreigners and refugees, and that some are even “crazy racists.”
Professor Frank Aarebrot, who firmly opposes the Progress Party’s politics but defended the party this week against what he viewed as unfair and biased international media coverage of its government prospects, raised another interesting irony, about how a nation like Norway that produced so many immigrants of its own during hard economic times can now be so worried about taking in immigrants itself. Back in the 1950s, Aarebrot said, when Hungarian immigrants arrived in Norway following their unsuccessful uprising against the Soviets, Norwegians were so proud that they could offer a land of freedom and potential prosperity to new immigrants that they formed a torchlight parade on their way to the airport to greet them. Refugees from Chile were also welcomed several years later. Now, however, “the issue of immigration has moved from something that Europe (and Norway) was proud of, to something we fear,” Aarebrot said at the party’s press conference this week that was meant to clarify its positions to the international media. “Something changed.”
The fact that Tybring-Gjedde hasn’t changed or toned down his rhetoric, and now risks so badly alienating potential government partners that they’ll decide against ruling with his party, must be frustrating also for many of his own party colleagues, although they weren’t commenting on his latest rants. It’s unclear just how representative Tybring-Gjedde is of his fellow Progress Party members.
We’re left wondering why Jensen doesn’t just shut him up, when there’s so much at stake. Not only has she not muzzled him, she has refused to apologize for her own past references to “sneaking Islamization” and was caught instructing Erna Solberg, who’s leading the government coalition talks, not to comment on the issue. Perhaps it’s because Jensen still feels a need to cater to all voices within her party, however provocative or even irritating, just like US President Ronald Reagan did when he alienated lots of moderates within his Republican Party and outside it by regularly catering to the anti-abortion lobby and so-called “Moral Majority.” Reagan was already in position, though. Jensen still needs to get there.