NEWS ANALYSIS: She’s been called Norway’s equivalent of Donald Trump and been bashed for her tough treatment of both Norwegian farmers and, more recently, refugees. Immigration Minister Sylvi Listhaug also, however, won unexpected praise from refugee advocates on Monday and a standing ovation at her political party’s annual meeting over the weekend. One thing is clear: Listhaug is making her mark at the highest levels of power in Norway, and now ranks as a top candidate to take over as leader of her conservative Progress Party.
That could make her prime minister some day, since the Progress Party finally made its way into government power two years ago and seems keen to hang onto it. Listhaug spent the weekend basking in the glow of her fellow party faithful, posting for selfies, and delivering an address on the refugee crisis that brought her colleagues to their feet.
That only fueled speculation that she’s in line to take over for Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, who celebrated her 10th anniversary in the top spot and was re-elected for another two years. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) wrote just before the party’s annual meeting at an airport hotel in Oslo that the leadership campaign to succeed Jensen was beginning now. With deputy leader and popular Transport Minister Ketil Solvik-Olsen announcing that he still doesn’t want a seat in Parliament, speculation grew that Listhaug is indeed what party partriarch Carl I Hagen has called a “clear candidate” for the post. Solvik-Olsen’s co-deputy leader and current fisheries minister, Per Sandberg, is viewed as a less likely candidate following some controversial outbursts, as is Justice Minister Anders Anundsen.
That leaves Listhaug, age 38, and her successor as agriculture minister Jon Georg Dale, age 31. Dale is a bit young and untested as he heads into his first major challenge of responding to the farmers’ latest demands for state financial support and protection. Listhaug, though, has a personality that Jensen herself indicated would qualify her for both party- and top national leadership: “You have to be able to tolerate a lot of noise and pressure. I do. You don’t only need to tolerate setbacks and lots of pressure, you have to like it.”
Thriving on conflict
Listhaug, with her almost constant, even irritating, smile, seems to thrive on conflict. Last year, and the year before that, she took on the farmers in her still-new role as agriculture minister, refusing to give in to their requests for ever more taxpayer support and protection from competition. The daughter of farmers herself, she had some unique credibility as she campaigned for more market liberalization and greater economies of scale within Norwegian agriculture. While the powerful farmers’ lobbies complained of hard times, Listhaug rolled out statistics showing how their income had grown and how Norwegian consumers deserved lower prices and better selection at the grocery store.
It’s been since Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservative Party named Listhaug as Norway’s new government minister in charge of asylum and immigration issues that the blonde mother of two, who long ago left her family farm and ran elder care as a member of the Oslo city government, really grabbed national attention, and criticism. She pounced immediately on the refugee crisis, setting off a storm of conflict for proposing tough new measures aimed at halting the refugee influx, right in the middle of the Christmas holidays. She claimed she was worried about her own children’s future in Norway, if the country took in tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants. She claimed that Norway was plagued by the “tyranny” of do-gooders, who wanted to welcome “too many” refugees with open arms. Listhaug, who claims to be a Christian herself, called Norwegian church leaders “thoroughly socialist,” while Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre felt a need to remind Listhaug that government ministers need to “behave properly.”
Loud criticism of her proposals to discourage asylum seekers from coming to Norway continued throughout the winter, with professors and humanitarian organizations accusing her of misusing research statistics. Even the rector at the University of Oslo, Ole Petter Ottersen, joined the chorus of critics who claimed she misinterpreted research data to suit her own political agenda.
Won’t be ‘scared into silence’
Listhaug characteristically took it all with an even broader smile, and refused to be ruffled. “I won’t let myself be scared into silence,” she told newspaper Dagsavisen in January. She remains worried that so many people “with different values and views” arrived in Norway last year. “They have another view of women, equality, freedom of expression and the democratic ideals that we have in Norway,” she said. “This is all about balance. If very many come to Norway who have different values and beliefs than we do, and we don’t succees in getting them to be part of our value system, we will be challenged. That’s why it’s important they adapt to the values we have here when they come to Norway. If not, they should not come to Norway.”
In the midst of her turbulent winter, the young woman who likes Elvis and country music best and thinks her scenic native Sunnmøre and the US are the best places on earth, suddenly seemed to gain support among voters. A public opinion poll in late February showed that only 45 percent of Norwegians thought immigration was good for Norway, down from 54 percent a year earlier. In another poll, 31 percent said they thought she was doing a good job as immigration minister. That was better than the rating party leader Siv Jensen won as finance minister (26 percent) and the popular health minister Bent Høie of the Conservatives won (24 percent). “It’s nice to have some support, but we’re heading for very difficult times later this year,” she told newspaper Aftenposten, warning of another potential refugee influx and more harsh measures that may or may not be well-received.
Ridiculed over rescue exercise
As Parliament gets ready to debate her proposals for tighter immigration reform, more criticism and ridicule was pouring in, now from abroad. Listhaug has been bashed for agreeing to put on a survival suit and be thrown into the Mediterranean, so she could experience how a Norwegian rescue ship pulls refugees (who normally only have life jackets on at best) out of the water.
The stunt set off stormy reaction, with the spokesman for Norway’s national organization against racism, Zahir Athari, claiming that Listhaug was ridiculing those who have drowned in the Mediterranean. “She’s making fun of people’s suffering with her performance,” Athari, a refugee from Afghanistan, told Dagsavisen. “She knows what she’s doing and what effect she can have. Listhaug is Norway’s answer to Donald Trump, an elegant elephant in a glass house.”
The Washington Post picked up on the incident and then British comedian John Oliver ridiculed Listhaug on his Last Week Tonight show on HBO. Listhaug herself has claimed she only went along with the rescue crew’s invitation to experience how they worked, when she visited them at sea. “You can’t put youself in the situation of the refugees, but you can see it from their perspective, how it feels to lie in the water in that manner,” she told news bureau NTB. “They don’t have survival suits, so you can’t compare, but I could see how the rescue crews work.”
Financial incentives for voluntary returns
She has also called recently for strengthening the Greek asylum system, giving more state support to the asylum centers in Norway that house young asylum seekers arriving in Norway alone and requiring that all asylum seekers immediately take a course on Norwegian culture and values, rather like the “Norwegian Life and Society” course that has been offered to new immigrants and foreign summer school students at the University of Oslo over the years. It included tips on how to use a Norwegian cheese slicer, and highlightered art and culture, while Listhaug seems most concerned about conveying democratic principles and the importance of gender equality and religious tolerance.
On Monday she announced new financial incentives aimed at getting unqualified asylum seekers to leave Norway voluntarily. Starting this week and for the next six weeks, she’s told immigration UDI to offer an extra NOK 10,000 (around USD 1,200) to the first 500 rejected refugees applying for an “assisted return” home. “We will stimulate more to voluntarily travel back, by giving them a bit more money when they leave,” Listhaug said. “This will save us a lot of money in the long run, because it’s costly to house people at the asylum centers.”
This time her proposal won praise from both UDI officials and the national support organization for asylum seekers, NOAS. It means refugees will leave with a total of around NOK 30,000, around USD 3,600. “It’s a good solution both for those who apply and for Norway,” Christine Wilberg, a divisional director at UDI told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “We want those who have arrived in Norway with unrealistic expectations to return home as soon as possible, and establish a new life there.” The money can help.
Ann Magritt Austenå, secretary general of NOAS, was also surprisingly positive. She thinks it’s a good idea, but also wants those who haven’t left the country by an appointed deadline to be included. The number of those who can benefit from the program is thus limited, Austenå told NRK.
Listhaug was predictably undaunted. “There are many who can’t demand protection (in Norway) and who will be rejected (for asylum status),” she told NRK. “Then it’s better for us that they’re stimulated to travel back.”