Norwegians went to the polls on Sunday and re-elected the Centre-Left coalition government of Jens Stoltenberg. It was the country’s second successive close election: Stoltenberg was elected in 2005 with a majority of just five seats, at a time when there were close elections all round the world, and he seems to have run it even closer this time, dropping one seat (although Stoltenberg’s own Labour Party made gains at the expense of its coalition partner, the Socialist Left).
Norway is hardly a world player, so the fate of its government is probably not a matter of great importance unless you happen to be Norwegian. But what the election revealed about the state of Norway’s Opposition is of much more general interest.
The election consolidated the far-right Progress Party as the largest Opposition party, with 22.9% of the vote. Before the election there had been considerable speculation as to what would happen if the government lost its majority. Last time the Centre-Right was in government, from 2001 to 2005, the Conservatives were the largest party and were able to form a minority government that had the tacit support of the Progress Party without taking it into coalition.
Now, however, the Progress Party is much larger and more confident; if it’s providing the numbers, it wants to be in government. The more centrist opposition parties, however, the Liberals and the Christian Democrats, will not support any coalition that includes it, and the Liberals have apparently made it clear they would rather bolt to the Centre-Left. The Conservatives’ task of trying to bridge the gap between Centre and far Right looks increasingly difficult. (Wikipedia’s diagram of seats is very useful here.)
But Norway reminds us to take care about what we mean by “far Right”. In much of Europe, far Right parties fit a particular mould: nationalistic, militaristic, socially conservative, ranging from France’s National Front and Germany’s NDP to somewhat more mainstream parties in Poland and Hungary (Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was a distant cousin). Without labouring the point, their lineage clearly points to the fascist parties of the mid-20th century.
But the Progress Party and similar parties in north-western Europe have a different complexion. Their origins are anti-statist; they support low taxes, privatisation and free trade, have no particular ties to social conservatism, and are generally hostile to the military. Denmark’s Progress Party once famously proposed to replace the entire defence department with a recorded phone message saying “we surrender” in Russian. In this they share obvious similarities with the Ron Paul wing of the US Republican Party.
Their common link with the more traditional far Right is their xenophobia. The Progress Party rails against the “Islamification” of Norway, and calls for tighter immigration control, just as Paul’s critics detect undercurrents of racism and anti-Semitism beneath his libertarian exterior. (Note the “anti-tax” protests that conveniently reserve all their anger for a black president.)
All of which raises a difficult problem: how can apparently intelligent people support the free movement of goods and capital, but be so passionately hostile to the free movement of people? Is there really a viable platform there, or will their pandering to racist populism ultimately drag them back to protectionism and militant nationalism as well? That’s a question for the Norwegians — and for the rest of us.