Progress Party leader Siv Jensen left no doubt as she opened her party’s annual meeting on Friday that she’s determined to hang on to government power despite polls suggesting that voters are defecting. She offered up a long list of classic party policy in her lengthy opening address, with some new twists that directly challenged her opponents in the Labour- and Center parties.
For the first time ever, for example, the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) has taken a stand against joining the European Union (EU). Jensen also criticized the trade deal Norway has with the EU, since it’s not a member. Newspaper Aftenposten noted how the new anti-EU stand is a paradox, since both Jensen and her party otherwise are strong advocates of the free trade that the EU promotes.
The Progress Party has earlier been reluctant to take a firm position during EU debates, and it hasn’t been necessary because EU membership has been a non-issue for years. With a large majority of Norwegians still opposed to it, Jensen and her party colleagues may finally have realized that folk flest (“most folks,” the constituency they claim to represent) don’t want to join the EU, so it’s OK to come out against it. The rival Center Party is also firmly anti-EU, so it may be another tactic for the Progress Party to lure back voters who may have defected to Center.
Firing away at property tax
Jensen also seized the opportunity on Friday, before her party huddles at a hotel at Gardermoen for the rest of the weekend to hammer out its platform, to come out strongly against property tax, which has been very much a hot issue in recent months. “Property tax is wrong,” she stated, zeroing in on homeowners’ anger over rising property tax bills from downtown Oslo to villages in remote districts. “Folks shouldn’t have to pay tax to own their own homes. Therefore the Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet, FrP) will win the election so that we can do with property tax what we did with inheritance tax: get rid of it!”
Most all of the municipalities that have imposed property tax in Norway are run by local Labour- and Center Party politicians. Jensen pointed directly to Bodø, on Norway’s northern coast, “where the left side has sent its residents bills that are in the 10,000-kroner class.” In Oslo, property tax bills have tripled since the capital’s new Labour-led city government took over in 2015 and imposed property tax last year. “We have seen recently how unreasonably property tax can affect ordinary folks,” said Jensen, who also currently serves as Norway’s finance minister. Her new effort to make it illegal for municipalities to resort to property tax comes in addition to her party’s longtime campaign to lower or eliminate various other taxes and user fees, and may win some votes.
That’s critical over the next several months, because the Progress Party has been sinking in public opinion polls. The latest poll published in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Friday shows the Progress Party with just 12.7 percent of the vote, almost the same as the Center Party’s 12.3 percent on average in April. Progress won government power with the Conservatives in 2013 on an election result of 16.3 percent, and had claimed more than 20 percent before that. The Center Party’s rise, from just 5.5 percent of the vote in 2013, is clearly cause for concern among Jensen and her colleagues.
‘Populist party attacked by a Center populist’
DN’s award-winning political columnist Kjetil B Alstadheim wrote on Friday that Jensen, whose party has long been accused of being populistic, now has a populist breathing down her neck herself, in the form of Center Party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum. He’s adopted rhetoric that inserts “ordinary folks” into most of his sentences. He’s fond of pointing out how Jensen’s party was all but forced to go along with a slight increase in fuel taxes last year, which hit rural residents hardest since they drive the most with few public transport options, and he bashes the current government’s “centralization” efforts and a so-called “urban elite” at every opportunity. Vedum has been cozying up to Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre for more than a year, and the two look likely to form a new left-center government if the Conservatives and Progress fail to win enough votes in September.
Jensen made it clear to her party faithful that they now have just 128 days until the polls close on September 11, to make a resurgence. It won’t be easy, but she seems intent on stressing how Progress will continue to fight for lower taxes, to eliminate property tax, to maintain strict immigration and asylum policies, build more roads, pump up more oil, improve elder care and have a strong police and military. One of her biggest problems, and Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s, is that both Labour and Center are promising much of the same, including strict immigration rules (an area where Progress once was alone), except they admit they’ll raise taxes, and not just on property.