Some top politicians in the conservative Progress Party may have gone too far in their apparent attempts to blame immigrants for everything from rising Corona infection levels to terrorism. They’ve been digitally dumped during party nomination processes to Parliament, and replaced by more moderate forces.
Jon Helgheim is among the most high-profile Members of Parliament who lost his secure top spot on his party chapter’s nomination list for re-election to Parliament next year. Former party leader Carl I Hagen was also dumped in Progress’ Oslo chapter, the ultra-conservative head of which is now in danger of being excluded entirely.
It was Helgheim, however, who raised the most controversy recently when commenting on why immigrants were overrepresented among those in Norway who’ve been infected with the Corona virus and even died. Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) accused him of being a “master of double-communication” when he first acknowledged that high infection rates last month in neighbourhoods with large numbers of immigrants was a complex problem.
Then Helgheim, who has long championed highly restrictive immigration policy on behalf of the Progress Party, went on to suggest that immigrants have not shared the same amount of responsibility for Corona containment measures as other Norwegians: “It’s begun to cost a lot for those who have followed the rules, and then we have to go through this (rising infection levels) again because a portion of the population doesn’t feel the same responsibility,” Helgheim said while taking part in state broadcaster NRK’s popular morning talk show Politisk kvarter last month. He went on to suggest that some immigrants “just don’t care,” or even understand the Norwegian language.
‘Us versus them’
“This is a case study of ‘us versus them’ rhetoric that is damaging in more than one way,” editorialized DN. “Shaming individual groups can lead to fewer being open about infection, fewer being tested and more becoming infected.” Several other major newspapers also shamed Helgheim in return, while experts later pointed out that immigrants tend to have the lower-paid service jobs that put them more at risk to the virus, from driving a bus or taxi to working as cleaning staff or behind check-out counters.
Others accused Helgheim of once again trying to create divisions among people, while newspaper Aftenposten editorialized that “fortunately, the Progress Party is not responsible for handling Corona outbreaks.” At the same time, police began cracking down on young Norwegians’ excessive partying that’s been among the biggest causes of infection in Norway.
A few weeks later, Helgheim lost his nomination Parliament to the more moderate Morten Wold in their party chapter in Buskerud. Party faithful pointed to county demographics more than immigrant issues, seizing a chance to replace the Drammen-based Helgheim with a new candidate from a more rural district of Buskerud. His famously anti-immigration party colleague Carl I Hagen was also dumped in Oslo but is hoping for an MP seat representing rural Oppland instead.
Meanwhile Progress’ leader in Oslo, Geir Ugland Jacobsen, is battling an effort to exclude him from the party altogether. Jacobsen is a high-profile nationalist who fiercely opposes immigration and asylum, has no concerns about the climate and compared the party’s own nomination of incumbent leader Siv Jensen to “North Korean politics,” since she has no opponent.
Now he’s accused of violating the party’s policies, undermining its leadership and harming its reputation. Jensen has the party’s board behind her when also accusing Jacobsen of putting forward his own political agenda instead of the party’s.
Some political commentators in Norway have likened the recent rumblings in the Progress Party to a purge of its “lunatic fringe” members with right-wing extremist leanings. Other parties, meanwhile, have been dumping some of their high-profile, veteran members, too, at both ends of the political spectrum. The Christian Democrats’ Hans Fredrik Grøvan lost his candidacy to keep his seat in Parliament. Labour dumped veteran Jan Bøhler in Oslo, who ended up defecting to the Center Party. There were several upsets for the Conservatives in Finnmark, and newcomer Marius Nilsen beat out Progress’ health policy spokesperson Åshild Bruun-Gundersen, a former government minister, in Aust-Agder.
Election researcher Bernt Årdal suggests that nomination processes conducted digitally during the Corona crisis have more easily allowed the grass-roots to fend off peer pressure and vote against established candidates.
“When meetings have gone digital and you vote from a seat at your own kitchen table, it can make it easier to vote against the establishment,” Årdal told newspaper Aftenposten this week. Party members aren’t simply accepting the nominations committee’s choices, and are going their own way instead.