Crushing losses suffered by Norway’s conservative Progress Party in this week’s mid-term municipal elections are now being directly linked to what even some party members are calling its party leadership’s “heartless” policies towards refugees. Siv Jensen may be seeing “the beginning of the end” of her term as party leader, predicted one professor, with the party’s disastrous election results also threatening the minority state government coalition in which it sits.
With an average of only 9.5 percent of the vote in local communities nationwide, the Progress Party logged its worst election in 24 years. It lost half of its mayors around the country and one of them has already blamed party leadership for his loss of a job. Another said on national radio Wednesday morning that he thought voters viewed party leaders’ remarks about refugees and refusal to welcome them to Norway as “heartless” and out of touch with the public mood.
Professor Asbjørn Røiseland at the University of Nordland told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, Frp) can largely thank itself for its poor showing at the polls. “What’s quite special (about their unsuccessful election campaign) is how they damaged themselves,” Røiseland told NRK. “They could have drawn attention to their transportation policies (and accomplishments at the state level), which have won them lots of support, but chose instead to play their so-called ‘anti-immigration card,’ with catastrophic results.”
Røiseland believes, in line with the party’s own bitterly disappointed mayor of Hadsel, Kjell-Børge Freiberg, that top party celebrity Carl I Hagen’s repeated derogatory remarks about Syrian refugees badly hurt election results. Hagen had suggested, among other things, that boats full of refugees in the Mediterranean should be turned back, and he has never been known for welcoming immigrants or refugees into Norway.
Jensen, meanwhile, continues to be chastised for launching her party’s election campaign in August by suggesting that local communities could avoid taking in refugees who win asylum in Norway by simply refusing to accommodate them. That angered her government colleagues from the Conservative, Liberal and Christian Democrats’ parties and shocked many voters, not least since Jensen, who also serves as Norway’s finance minister, had gone along with a compromise in Parliament to accept 8,000 UN-registered Syrian refugees over the next few years. Her controversial advice to local government leaders was seen as sabotage of her own government’s policy.
The Progress Party’s terrible election results has also set off internal calls to re-evaluate the party’s participation in its minority government coalition with the Conservatives, which could ultimately cause the government to fall. It doesn’t seem to have set off much top-level soul-searching within the party, though. Neither Jensen nor Carl I Hagen, her long-time predecessor as party leader, have expressed much if any regret for their campaign.
Policies ‘stand firm’
“I’m absolutely certain that the debate (over refugees) will change within a few months, when the challenges (posed by taking in refugees) will become more apparent,” Jensen said on the national TV debate program Aktuelt on NRK Tuesday evening. She claimed she had been “touched” by the plight of refugees streaming into Europe, and Norway, but maintained that the debate should be about Norway’s “ability to integrate those who win asylum here, and how we can stop the refugee wave that’s becoming a challenge for Europe.”
Jensen claimed that her party’s restrictive policies towards asylum and immigration “stand firm” regardless of how the political winds are blowing. Others in her party aren’t so sure, with some complaining that Jensen set the standard for how hard party officials should address the refugee issue, with some, like Hagen, crossing the line. Røiseland said he thinks Norwegians have now heard the last from Hagen on a national basis (he remains an elected member of Oslo’s city council) and that even Jensen’s days may be numbered. “I think many of the Progress Party’s local politicians feel badly treated by their own party leadership,” he told NRK. “That can lead to changes.”
Suffered under leaders’ stands
Dagfinn Olsen, group leader of the party’s Nordland chapter, confirmed that party officials need “to sit down and evaluate the campaign.” He said it’s too early conclude whether the party with pull out of the government coalition, but conceded that the party suffered from leaders’ stands on the refugee issue. He said that standpoints were communicated “that not even party voters could accept,” so they voted for other parties. “Also those of us in the Progress Party have feelings and empathy, and want to help (take in refugees) where we can,” he told NRK.
One of the party’s few surviving mayors, Terje Søviknes of Os outside Bergen, told newspaper Dagsavisen on Wednesday that it was “too simple” to tie the party’s poor election results strictly to the refugee issue and the compromises it needs to make as part of the state government. He conceded, though, that the party needs to be better at communicating its positions, especially those on “softer” issues such as social welfare programs and elder care. Jensen and Søviknes agree that the party also needs to attract more women, as members and voters.
The party’s leadership is due to debate later this autumn whether it should remain part of government, presenting yet another challenge for Prime Minister Erna Solberg as she tries to hold her coalition together.