NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s outspoken immigration minister, Sylvi Listhaug of the Progress Party, has long been accused of stirring up controversy at home. Now she’s succeeded in setting off a storm of complaints in neighbouring Sweden as well. The question is why she seems to relish stirring up trouble that can jeopardize the future of her own party’s chances to retain government power.
Some political commentators claim that four years in government have changed Progress, Norway’s most right-wing party in Parliament. From its roots as a protest party keen on a tax revolt in Norway, it evolved into what many still consider to be a right-wing populist party that’s tough on immigration, integration and Islam.
Under the leadership of Siv Jensen, however, the party defied predictions it would never survive four years in a coalition with Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservatives. It did, even winning praise from unexpected quarters, most recently from the CEO of Norway’s biggest bank. DNB’s boss Rune Bjerke is a former Labour Party politician and old friend of former Labour Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, but he’s full of admiration for how Jensen, who serves as Norway’s Finance Minister, and Solberg’s government tackled the oil price collapse to helped restore optimism and lower unemployment. “In my meetings with foreign investors, there’s considerable recognition that Norway has managed to get through the downturn in the oil price and oil investments,” Bjerke told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) earlier this month. “Norway has managed well in a tough period.”
The Solberg-Jensen government survived that storm, allowing Jensen’s Progress Party to even succeed in investing much more oil fund money at home in Norway in badly needed transport improvements and other infrastructure projects. The Conservative-Progress government has even settled more refugees in Norway than ever before and emphasizes integration.
Appealing to the far-right
The party clearly feels a need to still appeal to its more far-right fringe. While Jensen appeals to more mainstream voters, Listhaug and party fellows like Fisheries Minister Per Sandberg and MP Christian Tybring-Gjedde are used to appeal to the more extreme voters. As NRK commentator Magnus Takvam noted recently, it’s a delicate balance.
The party’s election campaign has seemed to include enough missteps lately to knock it off balance. Listhaug has played a key role, offending and even infuriating opponents and government partners alike at regular intervals. The most recent example was the immigration-skeptical Listhaug’s attention-grabbing trip to Stockholm on Tuesday, which drew a rebuke from Solberg and loud protests from many others.
Listhaug repleatedly claimed that her trip was merely an effort to learn how Swedish officials have dealt with the arrival of tens of thousands of asylum seekers over the past few years. “I think it’s relevant to examine conditions (in Stockholm) and talk to the police and people who work with integration measures here,” Listhaug told Norwegian reporters who tagged along on her trip. “I want to find out what went wrong.”
That statement alone revealed Listhaug’s pre-conceived notions for her trip that included a visit to Rinkeby, an area north of downtown Stockholm with a high concentration of immigrants and a highly publicized crime rate. “We’ve had lots of journalists and politicians here, everyone has an agenda,” Abdi Sirat, who works with youth groups in Rinkeby, told Oslo newspaper Aftenposten. “They come to paint a depressing picture of Rinkeby, they put their colour on it, but when something good happens here, no one comes.”
Listhaug’s entourage of aides and security guards expanded as local journalists joined in, and grabbed the attention she was clearly seeking. The day in Stockholm even began with controversy, after Sweden’s government minister in charge of immigration abruptly cancelled a scheduled meeting with Listhaug because she didn’t want to be part of Listhaug’s election campaign. A report in Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet that the Norwegian government had warned the Swedes about the possible intentions of Listhaug’s visit was later denied by both the Norwegian and Swedish foreign ministries, but illustrates what a stir Listhaug created.
Even her ultimate boss back in Oslo, Prime Minister Erna Solberg, described Listhaug’s visit as part of the election campaign by her government coaliton partner: “There’s no doubt that when a government minister travels just before an election, it’s to illustrate parts of the political program they stand for,” Solberg told VG. Then Solberg felt compelled to deliver her latest rebuke of Listhaug, saying she must be careful that what she says in Stockholm is in line with what local officials say about the situation.
‘Distasteful exploitation of Stockholm’s hospitality’
Listhaug was not careful, and proceeded to offend not only her Swedish ministerial counterpart, but Sweden’s former conservative foreign- and prime minister Carl Bildt and the head of Stockholm’s city government, Karin Wanngård. Bildt rejected Listhaug’s negative descriptions of so-called “Swedish conditions,” and called Sweden a “well-functioning society” that’s making progress on integration of immigrants. He also criticized Listhaug’s decision to bring her conservative party’s election campaign to Sweden.
Wanngård, meanwhile, was even tougher, writing in Aftenposten on Wednesday that she was “disappointed and angry” about Listhaug’s visit, because it amounted to “distasteful exploitation of Stockholm’s hospitality.” Wanngård claimed that Listhaug “clearly wasn’t interested in listening, learning or having a dialogue. Listhaug wasn’t interested in hearing how unemployment among youth in Rinkeby has declined by 30 percent as a result of active integration policies.” Wanngård, from Sweden’s Labour Party, admitted that she and Listhaug don’t share many political opinions but that she’d been open to Listhaug’s visit to a city “that wishes everyone welcome.” Wanngård ended up accusing Listhaug of “spreading lies created by right-wing populists about so-called ‘no-go zones’ in Sweden” that Sweden’s immigration minister also called “nonsense.” Wanngård went on to state that she thinks Listhaug owes an apology to the citizens of both the city and Rinkeby.
It’s unlikely any is forthcoming. “I have only communicated information we have received from police (in Sweden) about troubled and especially troubled areas,” Listhaug told Aftenposten. “The latter has developed parallel societies, and they (her Swedish hosts) must tolerate that.” She said on Wednesday that she “could understand” the strong Swedish reaction but she had no regrets. Listhaug claimed the debate over immigration in Sweden is “much less open” than it is in Norway. “If you hope to solve a problem, the first thing you have to do is acknowledge it,” she said.
Yet Listhaug doesn’t seem to acknowledge the problems she creates for the conservative government coalition that Solberg is trying to keep intact. Listhaug’s earlier rhetoric against immigration, refugees and Islam, for example, has already offended and alienated the government’s two support parties to the point that they claim they won’t even cooperate with Progress after the election, much less join a government that includes them. While Listhaug’s rhetoric may win some far-right voters, she risks offending just as many if not more moderate right-wingers, leaving neither the Conservatives nor her Progress Party with enough voter support to govern alone. Other small parties that may wind up swinging the majority in Parliament like the Greens are willing to cooperate with Solberg’s Conservatives but not with the Progress Party.
Through it all, Listhaug keeps smiling and appears undaunted by all the conflicts she creates. Some political commentators claimed Listhaug had “gone too far” when she accused the Christian Democrats’ leader, who has been a government ally, of “licking the backs” of Imams. Now the irritation she creates within the government coalition is acute.
Labour leader Jonas Gahr Støre has aggressively accused Solberg of showing poor leadership by being too passive and failing to corral Listhaug. Progress Party leader Siv Jensen has been accused of the same, but she so far has defended Listhaug’s exploits. “It’s become a sport to put all the blame on Sylvi,” Listhaug said during a radio talk show on NRK last week. “It’s the political programs that will rule, not the individual, and all our individuals follow the programs that have received majority support in Parliament.” Jensen insisted that her party wants to continue the cooperation it has had with not only Solberg’s Conservatives in government but with the non-socialist Christian Democrats and Liberal parties as well.
Jensen also said she’s proud of what her party’s first term in government has achieved, adding that the party was now campaigning hard to prevent Labour from forming a new left-center coalition after the election. “We have modernized and improved our programs,” Jensen said, but it hasn’t forgotten its roots.
She remained mostly quiet during Listhaug’s Stockholm odyssey on Tuesday, and didn’t admit to the damage it can cause for the incumbent government. Perhaps she believes, like Listhaug, that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Voters will let them know if that’s true on September 11.