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What do the Norwegian Elections Tell us About Populism?

The results of the Norwegian elections may at first seem like a success for the right-wing populist Progress Party (FrP). Under the leadership of Siv Jensen, the FrP is likely to form a coalition with the centre right Conservative Party and participate in government for the first time in its history. Talks have begun between the FrP and the other potential coalition partners.

But a more thorough understanding of the current position of the FrP requires going beyond the party leadership. We need to look also at wider cultural shifts, at public sentiment, and at the role of shame in political debate. And to do this we must also look at the FrP in comparative context.

Comparison is important because the FrP bears some resemblance to other populist parties in the Nordic region (and in Europe as a whole). Counterpoint’s ‘reluctant radicals’ analysis suggested its electorate conforms to the general populist trend – predominantly (though not overwhelmingly) male, working class, less educated than average and both highly antipathetic towards immigration and lacking trust in the Norwegian parliament.

In other ways, however, the party is notably distinct from its counterparts in Western Europe. Three key points emerge that suggest their approach could be different to other populist parties in the region. These three points take into account the party leadership, but also include other important social and cultural factors.

First, as some analysts have noted, the FrP’s support has slipped in recent years since an electoral high in 2009. Their likely rise to power is in part because of the Conservative Party’s strength and its openness to joining forces with the FrP. It is not down to a groundswell of public sentiment like in the case of the Big Bang election in Finland in 2011, where the Finns Party rose suddenly from electoral stagnation to become a major political player. And so without the extraordinarily high expectations of a party like the True Finns, the FrP may feel more inclined to moderate its programme and work with the Conservatives rather than stick to its guns or quarrel internally.

Second, the FrP is in some ways more mainstream than its cousins. It began as a tax revolt in the 1970s and describes itself as a “classic liberal” party in favour of low taxes and small government. Siv Jensen is an avid admirer of Margaret Thatcher. Although it has shown itself to be particularly adept at exploiting fears over immigration and Islam – particularly in election campaigns – neither immigration nor nationalism are at the centre of the party’s programme. This focus is in stark contrast to other populist parties across Europe. Even the Danish People’s Party – whose roots can be found in another Progress Party, the sister party to the FrP – attaches great importance to its anti-immigration, nationalist and traditionalist agenda. [1]

This has led prominent radical right expert Cas Mudde to classify the FrP as a neoliberal populist party rather than a populist radical right party. In this respect, it shares much with UKIP, another party doing its best to square anti-immigration support with strong neoliberal leanings.

The FrP therefore may well be more consensual in its approach than other like-minded parties. With a separate economic agenda to pursue, they are more likely to compromise on areas of policy – like immigration policy – where they have fundamental disagreements with liberal politicians.

Third, the FrP is operating in a markedly different political climate than other Nordic populist parties. In the background are the tragic events of July 22 – the killer Anders Breivik was a former member of the Progress Party. Jensen has toned down her party’s rhetoric in recent years since accusations that the FrP were inflaming the immigration debate in Norway – having previously used phrases such as “sneak Islamisation” in reference to Muslim immigration. But it is hard to shake off all trace of stigma. (This is particularly true in the international press where exaggerations about the Progress Party are common, often to the bemusement of Norwegians). The role of shame is important here: with these tragic memories in the Norwegian public’s consciousness, voters may be more reluctant to associate themselves with any party that advocates harsh measures on immigration.

These three factors mean that the FrP is more constrained than its counterparts and more likely to take a moderate approach in the future. The headline of Pierre-Henry Deshayes’s article “A populist movement that never came to be” on the travails of the FrP might be too presumptuous. But the results of the elections are hardly a clear win for Nordic populist politics.

 

 


[1] By way of comparison, on its website the first point on the Danish People’s Party programme is “The aim of the Danish People’s Party is to assert Denmark’s independence, to guarantee the freedom of the Danish people in their own country, and to preserve and promote representative government and the monarchy”, whilst the first of the Norwegian Progress Party’s 15 proposals for a Renewal of Norway is “Liberalisation of the economy to promote growth and an increase in welfare.”

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