NEWS ANALYSIS: All public opinion polls taken in recent weeks have shown a dramatic decline in support for Norway’s Progress Party, which launched its election campaign this fall by urging towns and cities to refuse to take in refugees. The party’s long tradition of appealing to anti-immigration sentiment in Norway isn’t working this time, with voter support in Oslo down to a record low 6.7 percent.
Political commentators were widely predicting a “disastrous” election for the Progress Party on Monday, mostly because party officials have clung to their anti-immigration rhetoric and skepticism towards asylum seekers. The current and worst refugee crisis since World War II, and the sympathy it has generated in Norway for the refugees’ plight, couldn’t have come at a worse time for the party that often has appealed to a fear of foreigners in Norway.
In the past few weeks, while tens of thousands of Norwegians have spontaneously come to the aid of arriving refugees, Progress Party leaders have advocated the opposite. They don’t want more refugees to come to Norway and instead advocate aid only to places where they may be stuck far from Norway, for example camps in Jordan, Lebanon or Turkey.
One Member of Parliament for the party who’s known for being especially skeptical towards immigration, Christian Tybring-Gjedde, suggested on Thursday that the UN should simply “buy or lease a Greek island and set up an asylum center there.” He futher suggested that all the refugees who have arrived in Europe should also be sent to the island to have their asylum applications handled. Tybring-Gjedde’s proposal, made during a radio debate on state broadcaster NRK, was met by claims that he can’t be serious and even is “completely on the moon,” according to Ann-Magrit Austenå, head of Norway’s national organization for asylum seekers NOAS.
Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, who also serves in the state government as finance minister, stirred political controversy herself early last month on the refugee issue. She formally launched her party’s municipal election campaign by saying that local municipalities could simply refuse to take in refugees who’ve had their asylum applications approved, since settlement is voluntary in Norway. The government won’t force local governments to provide homes for refugees, and they can choose which refugees they will accept. That’s left thousands of refugees who’ve been cleared for resettlement in Norway sitting in refugee centers for years, while they wait for a place to live. If they set off on their own, with no job and no home, they risk winding up on the street. Meanwhile, even though more refugees have been settled in Norway than ever before under Progress Party minister Solveig Horne, NRK reported Thursday that nine out of 10 local politicians for the Progress Party won’t accept more refugees into their communities, claiming they lack funding and housing to help them.
A campaign low point for the Progress Party came when Jensen’s prececessor, Carl I Hagen, criticized the thousands of volunteers and owners of 21 restaurants in Oslo alone who have been offering clothes and meals to hungry new arrivals, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Hagen, now age 71, never managed to retire from politics and is now the Progress Party’s candidate for mayor in Oslo. The party has cooperated in the capital’s Conservatives-led city government, but his firm anti-refugee stand is now so unpopular that the Conservatives’ incumbent city government leader Stian Berger Røsland just as firmly distanced himself from Hagen. “We have to be prepared to take care of more refugees,” Røsland told newspaper Aftenposten, adding that he sees Oslo’s growing population and ethnic diversity as “a major plus.” He labelled another Progress Party candidate’s call for a “full stop” to immigrants settling in Oslo’s Grorud district as “impossible politics.”
Guri Melby, a member of Oslo’s city government running for re-election for the Liberal Party, told Aftenposten she thinks the Progress Party is “out of step” with the public regarding both the refugee and immigration issue and the environment. Progress Party officials have also been climate change skeptics in addition to immigration skeptics, while being part of the state government means they no longer can complain over road tolls (since they control the transport ministry) or taxation (since they control the finance ministry). That’s left them mostly with having to play what Norwegian commentators call their “anti-immigration” card and it’s not helping.
No regrets despite diving polls
Jensen has claimed she has no regrets over her attempt to sabotage her own government’s plan to take in 8,000 UN-registered refugees from Syria, much less all the others arriving on their own. She maintains that the “asylum stream will create problems” for Norway. Hagen, meanwhile, claims he is not “out of step” with the public, just “too early out” with the need to curtail immigration. He told Aftenposten that “emotions are running rampant to help those who set off across the sea,” and that’s spurring “impulsive” actions to save or help them by people who fail to see the long-term consequences.
Kristin Halvorsen, the former head of the Socialist Left party (SV) who hasn’t taken part in the current election campaign for the first time in 36 years, wrote in newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday that she thinks the polls showing the Progress Party’s decline reflect a “mobilization of values” among Norwegian voters. “It’s interesting to observe this from a distance,” Halvorsen wrote. “The refugee catastrophe and climate change have made a huge impression on many. Voters who value the climate and solidarity have more power than they may think.”
Henriette Steenstrup, a Norwegian actress who’s helping organize benefit concerts to raise funds for refugee aid, had a simpler theory behind the Progress Party’s dive in popularity. “I think folks are just sick of angry people like Carl I Hagen,” she told Dagsavisen. “This (the efforts to help refugees) is only about saving children and families who are in a hopeless situation. It’s uplifting to see so many people turning out to help in Norway now.”