With a chant of “four more years”, Erna Solberg’s Conservative (Høyre) party and the nationalist Progress Party (Fremskrittspartiet) coalition saw off the Labour challenge in Norway’s legislative elections on August 11th.
Solberg will continue in the role of prime minister with a new four-year term of office, albeit with a weaker mandate.
The electoral campaign was largely based on a referendum on taxes, energy and immigration policy.
On the contentious issue of immigration and integration, the Conservatives ran a straightforward campaign but they did come under fire for some of the attention-seeking, anti-immigrant antics of Sylvi Listhaug, the Progress Party Minister for Integration and Immigration.
Listhaug was widely criticized for pulling an emotive pre-election publicity stunt by visiting the Stockholm suburb of Rinkeby in Sweden, ostensibly to highlight problems of criminality in what she has claimed is one of “60 no-go zones” in Sweden.
While she denied this was her intention, rightly or wrongly it was clearly designed as a warning to Norwegian voters on the dangers posed by uncontrolled immigration. Pre-election opinion polls had shown that 20 percent of voters felt that immigration and asylum issues were an important electoral issue.
Immigration minister Sylvi Listhaug in Stockholm during the run-up to the Norwegian election. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT/NTB scanpix
However, while the Progress Party proclaims itself as an anti-immigration party, it is a party that is less authoritarian and nationalistic than some of its more extreme European populist counterparts. According to the late Frank Aarebrot, professor of comparative politics, “The Progress Party cannot be compared to the Front National in France or the Danish People’s Party or German neo-Nazi groups”.
In 2015, Norway’s parliament rushed through legislation in to allow deportations of people, mainly Syrians, trying to enter the country. The plight of migrants, mainly from Syria, attempting to get into Norway by cycling across the artic border crossing shared by Russia sparked intense debate on the issue.
The refugee crisis, which saw over 31,000 people apply for asylum in Norway, led to several changes on family reunification regulation in Norway. Stricter reform proposals were steered to some degree by the Progress Party with new rules in terms of economic self-sufficiency, and an increase in waiting periods was debated.
The Progress Party may have toned down some of its more extreme utterances, but external factors such as the fall in oil prices and the migrant crisis in 2015 provided an unexpected boost for the party.
The migrant crisis mobilized thinking on the dangers of uncontrolled immigration. Family reunification reforms were steered to some degree by the Progress Party, with policies tightened through demands on economic self-sufficiency and an increase in waiting periods.
Some of the more restrictive new family reunification rules have been criticized by the Pakistani-Norwegian community, one of the largest immigrant groups in Norway. The community argues that a 15-month processing time is too long and has an adverse effect. The minimum age of spouses trying to get into Norway, 24 years of age, is also a bone of contention.
The Eurosceptic, populist Progress Party has sought renegotiation on a directive that entitles EU and EEA citizens living in Norway to so-called “benefit exports”: child welfare payments, at Norwegian payment rates, to EU citizens living in Norway, even if their families live abroad.
Legislative changes have thus far had a limited impact on the living situations of EU residents in Norway, however.
Catherine Townsley, from Belfast, says the benefits of living and working in Norway far outweigh the minor inconveniences she encountered.
“I’ve had no real problem as an EU citizen apart from the paperwork involved, and it’s worth noting that the rules for residency changed three times this year when I was applying,” Townsley told The Local.
“It does make the process so much easier if you have a job before moving to Norway,” adds Townsley, currently on maternity leave from her job at an Oslo-based biotech company where she has been impressed by Norwegian gender equality in the workplace.
Neither is the new term given to the Conservative-Progress alliance likely to result in a hardening of policy on the EU, says Lise Rye, associate professor, at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology’s Department of Historical Studies.
“A change in Norway’s association with the EU in the upcoming period is not likely. The Progress party did come out as EU membership opponents last year, and has called for an update of the EEA Agreement for years. The Conservative party remains, however, a staunch defender of the EEA Agreement and will not yield,” Rye told The Local.
“Having said that, the new Norwegian parliament is more Eurosceptic than ever. The traditional dividing-line between pro-European politicians and a Eurosceptic population is crumbling, and pro-EEA parties no longer hold the three-quarter majority that new surrenders of sovereignty take. The composition of the new parliament also suggests that Norway is more likely to refuse controversial pieces of EU legislation in the upcoming period than what has been the case in the past,” she added.
Border control is another hot topic. Norway is part of the Schengen zone, but has asked for border controls to be extended. Schengen is often criticized by nationalists and Eurosceptics as being an open door to criminals. Societal problems related to the cultures and religion of immigrants rather is an oft-cited factor – as opposed to economic and work factors – as parties have debated the topic.
A man and child cross the border between Russia and Norway using a bicycle in October 2015. File photo: Tore Meek / NTB scanpix
The view that Norwegian values and culture such as gender equality and freedom of expression are under threat appears to be gaining momentum.
The Conservative-Progress Party coalition has been open in criticizing the left for not recognizing this view and being out of touch with the electorate. Solberg was vocal in the media on the need for acceptance of the cultural practices of ethnic Norwegians, such as not using religious justification for not serving alcohol in a work-related context. The same goes for the wearing of hijab in public service. Listhaug called for a ban on the practice of children wearing hijabs in kindergarten.
The migrant crisis has now subsided, with only 2,600 applications for asylum this year.
In some ways, it might seem as if the Roma people became the scapegoats for an anti-foreign backlash reaction. Early in the year, state television broadcaster NRK sparked debate by portraying the Roma beggars as engaging in organized crime and exploitation under cover of begging. The screening of the documentary film, “Lykkeland”, led the government to seek the reintroduction of a ban on begging.
The new government is still in its infancy and Erna Solberg will need the support of the two smaller centre-right parties. One of these, the Christian Democrats, has already said that it will not support a government that includes the Progress Party.
Progress leader Siv Jensen, meanwhile, has already made a pre-election vow “to continue the fight for a strict immigration policy”.
“Generally, it will be business as usual in Norway because both of the major political alternatives, the left and the right, accept our crucial arrangements: Universal welfare policies and a strong cooperation in the labour market – government,” Svein Tuastad, political scientist at University of Stavanger, told The Local.
“Actually, there are two sorts of veto against the progress party. Firstly, the government ally Høyre has to agree and secondly, the proposals have to be accepted in parliament, and the Labour party and others will stop any dramatic proposals,” he added.
In the end, there is one thing all the parties agree upon across the political spectrum: the preservation of Norway’s treasured welfare state.