NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s Progress Party, the most conservative in Parliament and best known for its anti-immigration policies, is in crisis after the leader of its Oslo chapter was excluded and the chapter itself put under administration. It boils down to a power struggle between party leaders and those who want to take the party into an even more conservative nationalist direction.
The Progress Party, which withdrew from Norway’s conservative government coalition in January, had already been sliding in the public opinion polls. Some commentators claim it’s out of touch with today’s more immigrant-friendly voters, while others suggest it’s outplayed its role in an increasingly deregulated Norway. It’s been largely sidelined during the Corona crisis, with its former government partners leading the nation through it instead.
Progress, deeply troubled even before leaving the government, now claims only around 10 percent of the vote according to recent polls, losing support to one of its fiercest rivals, the increasingly populist Center Party. One of Progress’ former Members of Parliament was also sentenced to jail this year after being found guilty of submitting fraudulent travel expenses amounting to more than NOK 400,000. Progress’ chapter in Bergen had been plagued by division before tensions became acute in Oslo.
All that pales after this week’s drama: Party leader Siv Jensen and her deputy Sylvi Listhaug announced at a press conference Tuesday evening that Progress was revoking the membership of its Oslo chapter leader, Geir Ugland Jacobsen, who’d been elected in February. Then they stripped the chapter’s board of its local control and replaced its members with a line-up of both moderate and right-wing politicians, only one of whom is from Oslo. The shake-up also prompted the party to re-start its nomination process for seats in Parliament, and postpone its scheduled January nominations meeting until March.
It amounts to what newspaper Dagsavisen called “complete chaos” in the Progress Party, and raises questions about the party’s definition of “bad behaviour.” They’re flying after Listhaug, who famously had to apologize on the floor Parliament after accusing the Labour Party of supporting terrorism, suddenly is claiming that “there’s a limit” to how people can behave in the Progress Party. Jacobsen clearly stepped over the line, according to Listhaug and Jensen.
They accused him of undermining Progress’ party programs approved at its annual meeting. He continued to campaign for a form of “national conservatism” that was far more right-wing than Progress’ leaders could tolerate. Listhaug claimed he fueled division, wanted nothing less than a “shift in ideology” and “damaged the party’s reputation” with his “disloyalty” to the party program.
“He didn’t understand his role,” Listhaug said on state broadcaster NRK’s popular morning debate program Politisk kvarter on Wednesday. His campaign for a “national conservative” version of turning the party into what he’s called a “patriotic lighthouse” meant that he should “find another party from which to operate such politics, because the Progress Party will move forward as a liberal people’s party,” Listhaug said.
Jacobsen, who insists he has not been disloyal, retorted that Listhaug and Jensen have some clarification problems in trying to justify his exclusion. “No one understands why I’ve been excluded nor why the Oslo chapter has been shut down,” he told Dagsavisen on Thursday. “We have worked with new policies, and folks must tolerate that we say things that aren’t in the party program.”
Håvard Grønli, one of NRK’s sharpest political journalists, noted how several Progress politicians (along with some in other parties) have recently landed in trouble without being excluded. They include the former MP convicted of defrauding Parliament, another Progress MP who sent pornographic material to a 14-year-old and a politician who merely participated in a meeting aimed at creating a new party.
When asked why they weren’t excluded, but Jacobsen was, Listhaug responded that “now we’re putting our foot down and saying that from here on, there will be tighter rules about what will be tolerated.” She added that “many” other party members had sent “clear messages” that Progress Party members “must face consequences” if they consequences if they don’t behave properly.
“If you don’t play on the team and contribute towards lifting the party, but instead damage its reputation, we will be tougher in the future,” Listhaug said on NRK’s national radio program.
Other Progress politicians strangely silent
Jacobsen continued to defend himself on Thursday and even told Dagsavisen that he was considering joining the Center Party, which earlier was called the Farmers’ Party (Bondepartiet) and known for facist leanings in the 1930s. “Maybe the Center Party will be more tolerant?” Jacobsen mused. “Even though the Center Party has policies that are not in line with what I think, I think they also stand for a lot that’s good. I’m not religious about which party I want to represent, but there must be room for idealism.”
Other high-profile Progress Party politicians remained strangely quiet after all the fuss over Jacobsen. Former party leader Carl I Hagen initially claimed he was “shocked” by the exclusion, but then fell silent. Dagsavisen reported that it sought comment from several other Progress politicians but all had the same response: “No comment.”
Jacobsen claims they don’t dare express their opinions if they don’t reflect Jensen’s and Listhaug’s. He nonetheless urged his supporters to remain in the party, suggesting that a mass desertion is not the solution.
“The most important for me is to secure the nation, the people and my own and others’ descendants in Norway,” Jacobsen said, without specifying what he sees as a need to secure them from. “I see it almost as a citizen’s duty to use my own competence to improve the country and the people.”
Jensen asserts that Jacobsen “wants a completely different party. It’s fine to disagree with the leadership, and there’s a lot of room for that in the Progress Party, but there is not room for disloyalty against legally approved party measures. The problem (with Jacobsen) was that forces within the Oslo chapter actively worked towards turning Progress into another party with a different ideology. That’s what’s been firmly voted down.”