Few politicians in Norway have been put on the defensive during the recent election campaign more than Sylvi Listhaug, leader of the most conservative party in Parliament, Progress. She has rejected calls to disassociate her party from the most radical right-wing rhetoric in Norway, and lost voters in the process, only to see some return just in the past week.
Listhaug, a 43-year-old native of Sunnmøre, is best known for fiery rhetoric of her own, keen to ridicule and criticize others parties’ programs at every opportunity.
Progress Party ads in the run-up to Monday’s parliamentary action have all urged voters to “Stop the Reds, SV (Socialist Left) and Greens” parties, stoking fears that they will usher in a “strong increase in immigration, lower requirements to become a citizen, destroy the Norwegian oil and gas industry and raise taxes and fees by many billions of kroner.”
Listhaug herself consistently refers to the social democrats on the left side of Norwegian politics as “socialists,” while Progress’ ads claim that “never before have we been in such danger of the socialists in the Reds, SV and Greens gaining influence as now. How far will Labour and the Center Party go to secure power?” That refers to how Labour wants to form a new left-center government coaliton with Center and the Socialist Left (SV).
The Progress Party has in turn has been promoting protection of the oil and gas industry to preserve jobs, a “strong and responsible (read: restrictive)” immigration policy and that the party “will let you keep more of your own money.” At the same time, Listhaug sees no shame in continuing to warn of what she calls “sneaking Islamisation” of Norway, a term rooted in “Eurabia” theories that Muslims are keen to take over Norway and the rest of the western world.
“We’re not talking about Eurabia theories when we talk about snikislamisering,” Listhaug told newspaper Aftenposten when Norway’s short formal election campaign began in late July. “We’re talking about special demands made by Muslims.” Listhaug refuses to acknowledge how the term is often used by the radical right, and claims the term is neither shameful nor racist.
Debate over Progress’ restrictive attitudes and skepticism towards non-western immigrants in Norway reached a new peak when Norway observed the 10th anniversary of a young right-wing extremist Norwegian’s deadly terrorist attacks on the former Labour-led government on July 22, 2011. He had once been a member of the Progress Party and wanted to halt immigration to Norway. Many felt Progress still refuses to acknowledge that harsh rhetoric can lead to harsh action.
Listhaug also complained in a commentary in Nettavisen about insinuations that Progress carried some responsibility for the July 22 attacks, because of its longstanding objections to immigration from Muslim countries. She won’t agree that her references to “sneaking Islamisation” also involve insinuations. She distances her party from the July 22 terrorist, dismissing him as “an insane terrorist” whose actual ties to her party ended long ago.
Eyes on next election in 2025
Progress has fallen dramatically in public opinion polls since leaving the Conservatives-led government coalition in January of last year, losing voters mostly to the Center Party that’s alligned with Labour on the left. Even though Progress has won some voters back, probably because of its passionate protection of the oil industry, many commentators think Listhaug has given up on this year’s election. Kjetil B Alstadheim, political editor of Aftenposten, has written that Listhaug intends to spend the next four years plaguing the left and renewing Progress in time for the 2025 election.
“Nurturing dissatisfaction is an art the Progress Party mastered long ago,” Alstadheim wrote as early as last winter. “Listhaug will refine that again.” She may need to tread a bit more lightly, though, given all the recent fuss over harassment and threats against politicians, and a much harsher debate climate in which Listhaug seems to thrive. It’s unlikely she’ll tone down her rhetoric in opposition, opting instead to portray Progress as the champions of “Norwegian values” and nationalism.