Norway’s small Center Party, led by the often-grinning farmer Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, is soaring in public opinion polls on what many claim are new populist tactics likened to those of US President Donald Trump. On Friday one of Vedum’s top party colleagues even resorted to claiming that “nationalism” can be healthy, and the party’s rising voter popularity may usher in a new wave of polarization, protectionism, stricter regulation and even higher prices in a country that long has prided itself on solidarity and fellowship.
The sorts of language and tactics being used by the Center Party in recent months would seemingly send chills down the spines of most Norwegians, especially those calling themselves social democrats. Instead, election analysts believe the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and other small centrist parties like the Liberals and Christian Democrats are steadily losing voters to the Center Party, which has been systematically pitting Norway’s rural, outlying districts against its towns and cities and especially a so-called “political elite” within Oslo.
Vedum, for example, has regularly referred to such an elite, while glorifying all those who live “outside Ring 3” (the equivalent of the US’ motorway around Washington). So have some of his party fellows, including Geir Pollestad, a Member of Parliament for the Center Party. After the government announced that it couldn’t kill all the wolves that Center Party constituents want destroyed, because it would violate both Norwegian conservation law and international conventions, Pollestad thundered on the floor of Parliament last month that “all over the country, people are rising up in protest against what they view as judicial quibbling, polished shoes, state arrogance and the government’s lack of respect for a parliamentary compromise on the wolves.”
Even though Norwegian farmers are producing more than ever before, to they point they’ve held lamb meat in freezer storage in order to keep prices high, and many rural economies have performed better than those in urban areas, the Center Party’s constant dissatisfaction and attempts at urban-rural polarization have led to nothing short of hateful comments in social media and major demonstrations in Oslo. (See video below, story continues underneath it).
Vedum’s deputy leader of the party, Ola Borten Moe, meanwhile, has turned more extreme of late. In proposals for the party’s program, Moe has recently promoted bans on anyone wearing a niqab or burka from entering a public health care station, for example, also in day care centers and the NAV offices that provide social welfare services like pensions and unemployment benefits. Moe also wants to remove state financial support based on members of any religious congregation who are not Norwegian citizens. And on Friday he equated the Center Party’s surge in the polls to “healthy nationalism” within some members of the public.
“We have been experiencing an attack on the structures that hold Norway’s districts up,” Moe, a former government minister who, like Vedum, has been part of the political “elite” himself, told newspaper Aftenposten. “The Center Party wants to build a strong national state and a good democracy. Norwegian nationalism is a positive force.”
As political commentators have noted, Moe stopped just short of claiming that his party wants to put “Norway First” and “make farmers and the districts great again.”
The Center Party has clearly benefited from a series of issues that currently are high on the country’s political agenda. While Norway’s conservative government coalition has been keen on more centralization of local governments, agriculture and even the police force to achieve economies of scale, lower costs and boost production and services, the Center Party has fought back hard. The last thing the Center Party wants, ironically enough, is centralization. It wants to keep Norway’s population decentralized by supporting just about everything that will provide incentives to keep rural residents from moving to the cities, whether it be means of protecting farmers to building expensive bridges, tunnels and roads in remote areas that may only serve a handful of residents.
Now the debates over wolves, police reform, agricultural reform and municipal mergers have provided perfect platforms for the Center Party to appeal to far more voters than its traditional constituency of farmers and other residents in outlying areas. The most recent public opinion polls have showed the Center Party with its highest voter support in more than 20 years. It’s been closing in on 10 percent of the vote, still a small percentage of the overall population, but more than enough to give it plenty of clout to win government power in a new coalition, most likely with the Labour Party. They ruled together in the last “left-center” governments led by Labour but then the Center Party only claimed around 6 percent of the vote and the Socialist Left party (SV) had some sway as well.
Some political commentators are now suggesting that if current trends continue, Labour and the Center Party may win enough votes in the upcoming parliamentary election in September to form a government alone. The incumbent conservative coalition is already a minority in parliament and even its most conservative, free-market-oriented Progress Party, which has long been accused of catering to populists, is losing voters to the Center Party. It only claimed 13.4 percent of the vote in newspaper Aftenposten’s poll released Friday, while the Center Party gained again, to 9.1 percent.
The rise of the Center Party, along with a possible new role in government, will almost surely force Labour to concede to at least some of the Center Party’s platform. That in turn can mean reversing any police, agricultural or municipal reform that might be approved in the next few months, and thus authorize more wolf hunts or allow the farmers and their cooperatives to enjoy more protection from competition and keep food prices high. Labour, in its new party platform unveiled this week, has already backed away in supporting membership in the EU and strongly supporting the EØS/EEA trade agreement that currently gives Norway access to the EU’s inner market.
The Center Party has been fending off criticism that it’s heading in a more populistic direction and nurturing nationalism. “That word is consciously misunderstood all the time,” Vedum told Aftenposten on Friday. “I’m against nationalism that excludes people or claims ‘Norway is best’ or ‘the USA is best.’ But we think the national state is good.”
Moe was more harsh and defensive: “When the conservatives play the ‘nationalism’ card to try to place us with the forces we found in Germany in the 1930s, it’s really just a nasty suppression technique that they should stay away from.” The Center Party was, however, the most anti-socialist of all of Norway’s parties in the early 1930s, when it was known as Bondepartiet (literally, The Farmers’ Party). According to Aschehoug & Gyldendals Norwegian Encyclopedia, it was not unwilling to cooperate with right-wing radical movements like Nasjonal Samling (NS), which later evolved into the Nazi party in Norway during the German occupation. Norway’s famed traitor during the war, Vidkun Quisling, also served as a government minister for Bondepartiet.
Marit Arnstad, a former Center Party leader who still serves as a Member of Parliament, still can’t understand the “populist” and “nationalist” criticism. “We, like 70 percent of the Norwegian people, oppose EU membership,” she argues, suggesting that doesn’t equate with populism. Arnstad said her party merely wants “a strong national state that enforces our democracy.” It’s just a coincidence, perhaps, that the Center Party is also one of the only parties in Norway supporting Brexit (Britain’s looming exit from the EU), in line with Trump administration, and wants to renegotiate the EØS agreement.
Other parties have also been accused of resorting to some populism and Trump tactics. The Progress Party has long been criticized as populist through its tough stands on immigration, for example, and its desire to cut taxes and government regulation instead of raising them. Lately some Progress Party members have also blasted the media over various issues as well, just like Trump does all the time. The Christian Democrats were recently accused of catering to right-wing factions by naming one of their most conservative young MPs as deputy leader. Even Prime Minister Erna Solberg was criticized for making what’s been called a “charm offensive” this week by touring outlying areas, visiting farms and riding in horse-driven sleighs. As the election campaign picks up, all the parties are reaching out to the voters they fear they’ve lost.
It’s the Center Party, though, that commentators like Arne Strand in newspaper Dagsavisen believe is exploiting a new political climate the most, and steering the most direct course towards an election victory (at least in terms of becoming part of a government coalition). Since it ruled with Labour from 2005 to 2013, it’s unlikely to rule with the Conservatives or team up with the Progress Party, which favours much too much market liberalization and competition in Center Party members eyes.
“Trygve Slavsvold Vedum has reason to grin extra wide these days,” Strand wrote earlier this week. If it really wants to win, though, Strand claims the party must not go too far in its zeal to kill more wolves, offend those living in cities and even preach nationalism. A recent, bloody video condemning wolves fell flat not only among urbanites but environmentalists, nature lovers and even many rural residents as well.
“It’s easy for parties with the wind at their backs to get so carried away by their progress that they get trip, and end up with the wind blasting them in the face,” Strand wrote.