NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s scandal-ridden Progress Party needed something to rev up dejected troops at its annual national meeting this weekend, and got it: Prime Minister Erna Solberg reappointed the party’s highly controversial Sylvi Listhaug to her cabinet, just a year after Listhaug was forced to resign as justice minister.
“This appointment must either mean that Listhaug has understood all the criticism against her (and will behave better), or that Solberg has been pressured into taking her back into the government,” declared the leader of the opposition in Parliament, Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre.
Like many others both in and outside the government, Støre was shaking his head over Listhaug’s surprise appointment as minister in charge of elder care and public health during the weekly Council of State at the Royal Palace. It came just hours before Progress Party leader Siv Jensen opened the party’s annual meeting following what’s been branded as the worst year in the party’s history.
It has included not only Listhaug’s offensive behaviour last year that led to her losing a vote of confidence in Parliament and nearly bringing down the government, but also the forced resignations of no less than five other top Progress Party politicians. Member of Parliament Ulf Lierstein was toppled after it emerged that he’d sent pornographic photos to underage boys and suggested, using the Parliament’s own mail system, that he, another Progress politician and a boy engage in three-part sex. Then another of Progress’ ministers, Per Sandberg, traveled to Iran with a new Iranian girlfriend and violated national security regulations, also during an official trip to China. He had to resign as fisheries minister.
Some even face police charges
The Parliament’s administration later had to report another Progress MP, Mazyar Keshvari, to the police for fraud, after he’d turned in fictitious travel expense reports and received unwarranted compensation. A similar case of questionable expense accounts and violation of confidentiality rules led to the resignation of Progress MP Helge Andre Njåstad from party posts just a month later, and the justice minister appointed to replace Listhaug last spring, Tor Mikkel Wara, also had to resign after his live-in partner was charged with setting a family car on fire to make it look like Wara was under attack. He confirmed this week that he’ll return to the public relations business.
Recent public opinion polls have shown that the Progress Party, which commanded more than 20 percent of the vote when it was in opposition itself, now only holds around 10 percent. Every third voter has dumped the party since the last election in 2017, when Solberg’s and Jensen’s conservative coalition narrowly won re-election.
It was thus a shattered party that gathered at a hotel near Oslo’s main airport at Gardermoen on Friday, and Jensen knew they needed a jump-start. What better way than to jolt the crowd to attention by bringing Listhaug back into government to stir things up again before municipal elections this fall.
Jensen and Listhaug, who became deputy party leader last fall, had already been trying to mount offensives all week, predictably by what some observers call “playing the immigration card.” Listhaug wants to double punishments for crimes committed by members of gangs or if they come from areas with high crime rates. On the May 1st Labour Day holiday, she called for halting immigration in all Norwegian communities where immigrants already make up more than 15 percent of the local population. She and the party’s immigration spokesman, Jon Helgheim, also demanded another study of the costs of immigration in Norway.
She futher made it clear that the Progress Party will not support any initiative to bring home Norwegian women who supported the terrorist organization IS and are now stuck in squalid refugee camps with their children. “We have no sympathy for them,” said Listhaug, who’s made a point of wearing a cross around her neck and portraying herself as a conservative Christian. “When you latch on to such ideas, you don’t deserve forgiveness.”
Most audacious was Listhaug’s and the party’s new demand that asylum seekers granted refugee status in Norway must sign a contract that they’ll adhere to “Norwegian values” and raise their children under a “Norwegian standard.” Given all the scandals caused by top Progress Party politicians, it’s questionable what kinds of “values” and “standards” Progress is in a position to preach.
‘Hope she’s learned’
The Progress Party also faces several clarification and credibility challenges, not least over issues like road tolls. Progress has opposed them for years, but they’re now higher than ever before, six years after the party seized control of the transport ministry. Listhaug and Jensen blame the ever-rising road tolls (it will soon cost more than NOK 100, or USD 11.50, in tolls alone to drive in and out of Oslo) on local governments, but the state has been a major player in making tolls part of the overall financing of highway improvements and climate measures.
Progress politicians Jensen and Listhaug are skilled at talking their way out when boxed into a corner. Listhaug’s appointment as elder minister, however, set off strong negative reaction in Parliament, and even among government partners on Friday. “I hope (Listhaug) has learned from the situation that led to her resignation a year ago,” Hans Fredrik Grøvan, who leads the parliamentary delegation for the Christian Democrats party, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Grøvan’s party cast the swing vote that brought down Listhaug last year and has since joined Solberg’s conservative coalition,
Grøvan also said he hopes Listhaug “will from now on behave in a more unifying manner and not pit groups against one another. The Christian Democrats expect that she will boost elder care issues in a way that the elderly will be seen, and important measures can be adopted.”
‘Not qualified’ to lead elder care
Listhaug’s record as the top politician in charge of elder care when she was part of the City of Oslo’s government, however, was being widely assailed by opposition politicians. Reds leader Bjørnar Moxnes claimed she’s not qualified to hold the post: “The last time Sylvi Lishaug managed elder policies, it also ended with a lack of confidence vote. The Progress Party’s policies in favour of private operators, and expensive prestige projects, are not what the country’s senior citizens need.”
Moxnes said that Listhaug’s sudden return as a government minister “is first and foremost Erna Solberg’s problem. It was correct and necessary that she resigned (as justice minister) last year.”
Støre of the Labour Party also questioned Listhaug’s competence in the field of elder care: “When Listhaug had responsibility for elder policy in Oslo, she eliminated more than 300 nursing home beds, neglected mainenance and did away with kitchens at individual nursing homes, replacing them with one huge city kitchen that mass-produced food for the elderly. The country’s elderly deserve better policies than that.”
Audun Lysbakken, leader of the Socialist Left party (SV) called Listhaug’s tenure as elder care boss in Oslo “a flop and a management fiasco.” He added that as an earlier government minister (in charge of agriculture, immigration and, finally, justice) “she has shown that she talks a lot but does little.” He noted that retirees also have lost purchasing power every year since the Conservatives and Progress won government power in 2013.
Support from party faithful
Progress Party members themselves, however, widely supported Listhaug’s return. They think she’ll do a good job as minister in charge of elder care. “Sylvi is a very clever politican,” said colleague Bård Hoksrud, who made a comeback himself after being caught buying the services of a prostitute while on party trip to the Baltic countries. “Folks shall get good and safe elder care, and we’ll boost these policies even more.”
Elder care in Norway, however, is the responsibility of local governments, not the state, which only helps fund it. That can provide perfect opportunities for Listhaug and other party members to blame municipalities, not themselves, when things go wrong.
Several political observers suggested that the Progress Party mostly needs to draw attention to itself, and Listhaug is known for that with her provocative style. “For a party that’s languishing in the polls, Sylvi Listhaug is a clear choice as new minister,” wrote political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim on social media Friday. Lars Nehru Sand at NRK seemed to agree.
“Before she even set foot in her new ministry (where she’ll share power with Health Minister Bent Høie of the Conservatives) she’ll drum up controversy and attention,” Sand said. “I think Progress needs that now. They’re getting one of the politicians who’s most happy when stirring up conflicts.” Since she’s also deputy party leader and an heir-apparent to take over for Jensen, it was arguably only “natural,” Sand added, that she be given a ministerial post.
‘Couldn’t say no’
Jensen claimed that Listhaug “is one of the country’s most popular and brave politicians, and she’ll work hard to ensure that the Progress Party prevails in the government. Sylvi will fight so that the elderly get good food, freedom of choice in services and that we set a new record in the creation of more nursing home capacity.”
Listhaug, who had said she was happy to leave the government last year, now claims that she “couldn’t say no” when offered the elder care post, replacing another much-lower profile Progress Party politician, Åse Michaelsen. She told NRK that she’s had a “fantastic year” out of government, “traveling around Norway and meeting so many people. Now I have an opportunity to make a difference in folks’ lives.” Creating more nursing home rooms and providing good food will be her most important goals.
Prime Minister Solberg said at a press conference following Listhaug’s reappointment that “a familar face is back in the government. That’s nice.” She added that she was “absolutely certain” that Listhaug “will boost elder care” with her engagement and “ability to draw attention,” but stressed Listhaug will also be in charge of public health projects.
“We know each other well,” Solberg concluded. “We’ll get a minister who’s really engaged with these issues. Welcome to the team.”