Sylvi Listhaug, Norway’s new government minister in charge of asylum and immigration issues, has become so “aggressive” and harsh in her anti-immigration rhetoric that political commentators now claim she threatens to undermine support for the minority government coalition and its immigration reform program. That may also mean that Norway won’t be tightening its asylum and immigration policies after all.
“Sylvi Listhaug wants to scare off asylum seekers,” Kjetil B Alstadheim, politial editor at newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) and Norway’s most widely acclaimed political commentator, wrote over the weekend. “She’s scaring away many others at the same time.”
Not least voters, in addition to other politicians whom she needs on her side. Newspaper Dagsavisen noted how Listhaug’s Progress Party, Norway’s most conservative, has tumbled several percentage points in the latest public opinion polls. The numbers indicate it has lost around 25 percent of its voter support since polls in December showed a marked recovery for the party. Listhaug has since managed to offend not only the opposition parties in Parliament but also the minority government’s two support parties and voters as well.
After weeks of claiming how “frightened” she was about the refugee influx into Norway, and being accused of trying to spread a fear of foreigners among voters as well, Listhaug has now provoked both the Christian Democrats and Liberal parties, on which the government must rely for majority support in Parliament. They’re surprised and seem taken aback at the increasing harshness of her rhetoric since both they and other opposition parties largely went along with Listhaug’s proposals right after Christmas to severely tighten asylum and immigration policy. The full consequences of those proposals are only emerging now, and raising alarm.
‘Muzzling’ the church
During the past week, Listhaug has also offended not only her government’s support parties but also the state church. A self-professed Christian herself, Listhaug claimed on the front page of newspaper VG last week that the church “is not for everyone, but a player for the left.” She has earlier described Norway’s evangelical Lutheran church as “socialist,” but went farther after getting angry that one of its bishop had delivered negative testimony during the hearing process over Listhaug’s proposal to make Norway’s asylum and immigration rules even tougher than they already are.
Veteran commentator Arne Strand wrote in Saturday’s Dagsavisen that Listhaug was thus trying to muzzle the church, despite its “solid tradition” of engaging itself in important issues. “The minister isn’t just attacking the church’s and the bishop’s opinion on asylum policy,” Strand wrote about Listhaug’s crusade against the Norwegian church. “Listhaug is attacking the right to a free, democratic exchange of opinions.”
Listhaug was also rebuked by another bishop, Atle Sommerfeldt, who demanded that she show respect for church officials in the public debate. He’s highly critical of Listhaug’s tougher asylum and immigration proposals, but even more critical of Listhaug’s provocative rhretoric. “We have leaders, pastors and other members who represent the entire political spectrum,” Sommerfeldt said. “Everyone is welcome in the church. Listhaug must accept that the church has a position in social debate.”
Commentator Strand also noted how Listhaug last month branded the efforts of thousands of Norwegians to help refugees arriving in Norway as being victims of a “tyranny of goodness.” He suggested that Listhaug’s hard line on asylum and immigration policy and stream of provocations were “scaring non-socialist voters away from the Progress Party, up on the fence and over to the Conservatives and other parties.” Citing how Listhaug’s party had fallen from around 19 percent of the vote to as low as 14.3 percent last week, Strand wrote that “being yelled at and frightened by a government minister is not something Norwegian voters are accustomed to. Most react with disgust to such behaviour.”
Listhaug risks defeat through alienation
Listhaug, often photographed wearing a gold cross around her neck, now risks the same sorts of defeat she experienced in Parliament as agriculture minister. Instead of seeking common ground with the Liberal Party, her rhetoric that equated Norway’s protectionist agricultural policy with “communism, Norwegian-style” didn’t win the Liberals’ favour. Now her anti-immigrant rhetoric that seems aimed at her own party’s right wing is losing favour with both the Liberals and Christian Democrats again. The opposition Labour Party is also threatening to withdraw support. It had initially gone along with Listhaug’s tighter immigration policy proposals in late December, but now, just before the hearing period ends and the proposals come up for a vote, Labour is raising objections. “The result can be that Labour says ‘no’ to proposals the party otherwise would have gone along with,” commentator Alstadheim wrote, adding that asylum policies can thus become less strict than they would have under a minister “who was more concerned with reform than provocation.”
The combination of potentially exploiting a refugee return agreement with Turkey and much stricter consequences of the proposals Listhaug introduced in late December can stop the tightening process in its tracks. “When we’re now learning of consequences that the government has neither drafted nor told us about, the chances increase that we must say ‘no’ to several of the proposals,” Helga Pedersen, immigration spokesperson for Labour, told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday. Other parties that initially signalled support are also criticizing several of Listhaug’s proposals now, while testimony submitted during the hearing process describes them as “heartbreaking, dramatic” or simply “unheard of.”
Lacking integration proposals
She’s also under fire for failing to have concrete proposals for integrating asylum seekers who are accepted as refugees in Norway. Perhaps that’s not surprising, commented Strand, since Listhaug and her party are more concerned with turning away asylum seekers than helping those who have made it to Norway to start new lives in the country.
Many politicians and commentators alike are calling on Prime Minister Erna Solberg to rein in Listhaug, not least after Listhaug’s own party leader, Finance Minister Siv Jensen, declared over the weekend that she was “very proud” of Listhaug. The controversial minister has her supporters, around 150 of whom demonstrated in her favour on Sunday afternoon, under police protection. Several anti-racism groups turned up for counter demonstrations, with banners urging spectators to “bust facism,” and police needed to keep them apart.
Those opposed to Listhaug don’t want to “effectively close” Norway’s borders to immigrants and asylum seekers. Others claim Listhaug’s proposals violate UN conventions, and the UN itself has voiced concern. The biggest opposition is towards her proposals making it more difficult for refugees to obtain permanent residence permission or bring their families to Norway.
Listhaug herself, known for smiling through storms, seems to enjoy the controversy around her. She was firmly unrepentant in an interview with Aftenposten over the weekend, refusing to answer several questions and stressing that the responses she did make would simply have to be accepted.
“I’m the one who decides how I’ll answer,” she told Aftenposten, after failing to respond to how she thinks Norwegians are receiving her message. She claims she’s merely trying to maintain control over the refugee influx, and that she didn’t think her own constant claims of being frightened by it would increase fears among the public. “I think many have the same approach to this as I do,” she told Aftenposten.