NEWS ANALYSIS: The conviction and jail term handed to one of its Members of Parliament on Friday is just the lastest in a long string of serious problems plaguing Norway’s Progress Party. Miserable election results have been followed by even worse poll results this autumn, as more critics blame offensive rhetoric and the poor judgment of some of Progress’ top politicians.
Progress MP Mazyar Keshvari was sentenced on Friday to seven months in prison, after he confessed to submitting NOK 450,000 worth of fraudulent travel expense reports. He and his defense attorney declared he will not appeal and he’ll serve his time. It’s the lengthiest jail term ever imposed on a Norwegian Member of Parliament and has been an embarrassment to both the party and Keshvari himself.
Nor is Keshvari the only Progress politician who’s landed in serious trouble just in the past few years, and left the party under a cloud. Progress MP Ulf Leirstein also left the party earlier this year after various sex scandals, while MP André Njåstad stepped down from leadership posts after also claiming compensation for questionable travel expenses and wrongly sharing information about sexual harassment complaints against other Progress politicians.
Several Progress ministers have also had to leave their posts because of various infractions. Tor Mikkel Wara had to resign last spring as justice minister after his live-in partner was charged in a criminal case. It later emerged that she also had a criminal record that not even he knew about.
Wara’s resignation came just a year after one of his predecessors, Sylvi Listhaug, had to resign for suggesting the Labour Party was soft on terrorists, while Per Sandberg resigned as fishieries minister and left the party after being careless with a government mobile phone in both China and Iran, and for failing to inform the prime minister of private trips to Iran with a new Iranian girlfriend who had once fled Iran as a refugee. Former Oil & Energy Minister Terje Søviknes, dogged by his own record of having had sex with a minor at a party meeting nearly 20 years ago, also resigned to return to his home district as mayor, only to lose out in last month’s election. The municipal merger urged by his own government formed a new, bigger entity (Bjørnafjorden south of Bergen) that ended up in the hands of a left-center local council.
It’s all been rough on Progress Party leader Siv Jensen, who in turn has been Norway’s longest-serving finance minister ever, gets generally good marks and helped guide Norway through one of its biggest economic shocks in years when oil prices collapsed five years ago. She admitted that last month’s election results, in which Progress only won 8.2 percent of the vote nationwide, were “disappointing.”
The party has been “evaluating” the election results since, while also seeing poll results slide farther into the single digits. Words like “crisis” and “catastrophe” have been bandied about in Norwegian media to describe Progress’ situation, six years after it won government power for the first time ever.
“We’re drafting a strategy for how we can raise the party back up to higher levels in 2021 and 2023,” Jensen told news bureau NTB just after the election. Some commentators and unhappy party members say Progress has simply had to make too many compromises as a member of Norway’s often unwieldy four-party conservative coalition.
‘Losing our political soul’
“The compromises mean we’re losing too much of our political soul,” Eivind Norman Borge told newspaper Aftenposten after losing his post as mayor of the island community of Hvaler. The party also lost lots of other posts around the country and it was especially painful in Kristiansand, where a relatively new right-wing party led by former Progress politician Vidar Kleppe (suspended in 2001 after calling then-party leader Carl I Hagen a populist) won more than 13 percent of the vote. That plunged the southern city into chaos and shocked politicians into seeing just how fickle voters can be.
Progress politicians blame much of their recent woes on the rise of protest parties backed by voters angry over road tolls (bompenger). Progress has always opposed road tolls, too, but suddenly lost political ownership of them even though Progress has had political control of the state transport ministry since 2013. Progress, meanwhile, is no longer denying climate change, but it didn’t have much of a climate agenda in an election where the Greens Party emerged as the big winner.
Others blame pure “government fatigue” and an unruly electorate seeking change. Six years in government for a party that had thrived in opposition takes a toll. Progress used to be a protest party itself, but has had to show more discipline and take more responsibility in government.
And that’s where Progress leaders, Jensen included, have failed in reining in their “loose canons” from a time when Progress was best known as an anti-immigration, refugee skeptical party accused of having racist overtones. Just before the election, some apparently desperate Progress politicians including the far-right Listhaug, Christian Tybring-Gjedde and Per-Willy Amundsen resorted to what opponents call “playing the anti-immigration and Islam cards” again. Even Jensen herself talked about how Islam was allegedly sneaking into Norwegian society, and that did not go unnoticed. Not only did government colleague Abid Raja, whose Muslim family emigrated to Norway, fire off a salvo of criticism, so did many others.
Spreading ‘prejuduce, intolerance … and scare tactics’
“I have voted for the Progress Party because I believed in its ideology of freedom for the individual,” wrote Bahareh Letnes, the Iranian partner of former Progress minister Sandberg, in newspaper VG recently. “But not this time. I’m surely among the thousands who did not vote for Progress because of (Hagen, Tybring-Gjedde, Amundsen and Listhaug) who are spokespersons for prejudice, intolerance, nationalism, dissatisfaction and scare tactics.” Letnes contended in her commentary that while that may have attracted Progress voters in the past, “it scares away tomorrow’s voters, especially young voters. It’s no wonder Progress is losing support.”
Others support restrictive immigration rules, but don’t feel Norway is currently taking in nearly enough refugees who desperately need a new home. Norway’s own King Harald pointed out several years ago how Norway has already become a culturally diverse society. Many are now simply offended by rhetoric that questions whether even second-generation immigrants born in Norway can be considered “Norwegians.” It’s a problem when white-supremacist and racist websites hail Sylvi Listhaug.
Jarl Wåge, a newly retired teacher who’s quickly become a commentator critical of right-wing extremism, pointed out in newspaper Dagsavisen earlier this month that if Progress politicians don’t realize just how offensive their rhetoric can be, or how they can appeal to right-wing radical groups, “they have very poor insight into themselves.” Since Progress officials also took offense at Raja’s criticism, Wåge also accuses Progress of having double standards.
Progress has had several strong government ministers and MPs who are moderate and arguably have done a good job, including Ketil Solvik-Olsen and Jon Georg Dale in the transport ministry, Hans Andreas Limi and Solveig Horne in Parliament, even Jensen herself. The party now seems torn over whether to cater to those who miss the lily-white Norway of the 1960s and 1970s, or those who live in the present and want to get along.