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For Norwegians, Progress Party not far-right

For the first time, the populist Progress Party is part of Norway's coalition government. Foreign observers are wary of the party, seeing connections with the far right - a concern Norwegians don't necessarily share.

Siv Jensen, Progress Party DW/ Lars Bevanger, Oslo

Siv Jensen, who has headed the Progress Party since 2006, is Norway's new finance minister

Winter hovers over Kristiansand. The skies are heavy and grey, it is a cold and windy 6 degrees centigrade, and few people are on the streets in the southern Norwegian port city. Hakon Halvorsen stands on the small marina next to the fish market, staring out to sea at the small islands in Kristiansand Bay. The 70-year-old former sailor comes here every morning, rain or shine.

He doesn't talk much, certainly not about politics, even though Norway's new government - in office for just a few weeks - is a matter of speculation abroad. A minority coalition government under conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg and the populist Progress Party (FrP) replaced Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's Labor Party government after national polls in September.

"So what?" Halvorsen shrugs. "I don't think much will change, maybe just a few minor things." He glances at the sea once more, turns and leaves.

The Progress Party won 16.3 percent of the vote in September - making it Norway's third-strongest party. International media has painted it as being on par with right-wing populist parties in Europe, like Geert Wilders' Freedom Party in the Netherlands, Austria's Freedom Party or even radical nationalists like Hungary's right-wing Jobbik party.

Divided opinion

Glen Sundt sips coffee in a cafe around the corner, a newspaper on his lap. The 43-year-old history and English teacher also is not worried about the FrP's participation in the government. Cooperation between the two coalition partners is based on conservative politics, he says.

"There are platform similarities with two other parties, the Christian Democratic Party and the liberal Venstre Party - so policies are bound to be more middle-of-the-road and not steered by the FrP," he said.

red house on harbor in KristiansandQuelle: CC BY-NC-SA dubidubno http://www.flickr.com/photos/42575154@N00/4516729645

Life as usual in tranquil Kristiansand

Nore does he share the concerns raised by foreign media. "I never felt you can compare the parties," Sundt argued. He said that individual FrP politicians may lean a bit more to the right than the party as such, particularly in its early years. "But I don't see an interrelation," he added.

Sundt is not alone in this assessment: few Norwegians regard the FrP as a far-right party. Walking her dog down the streets of sleepy Kristiansand, Trine Flakstad says she views the FrP as a populist party in that it demands what voters want. "For instance, they demand cheaper gas, but they also demand immigrants should go," the 34-year-old nurse said.

No historic roots

In 1973, Anders Lange founded the right-wing protest party named ALP. Four years later, when the party entered the 1977 national election campaign, it had changed its name to the Progress Party.

Thanks also to long-time party leader Carl Ivar Hagen, the party won its best results in the 2005 and 2009 elections, with 22.1 and 22.9 percent of the vote, respectively. Siv Jensen, the new Finance Minister, has headed the party since 2006.

The FrP is indeed oriented on the right of the political spectrum. But it lacks historic roots in right-wing extremism, such as those of Germany's neo-Nazi NPD party.

Initially, the party was opposed to control and regulation by the state; later on, anti-immigration demands were included in the party program, which expressly urges close ties to Israel. The 2009 election campaign in particular saw a rise in anti-Islamic comments. Ex-party chief Hagen repeatedly compared Islamists with the Nazis, and accused them of planning to conquer the world.

Mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik was a member of the Progress Party from 1999 to 2006, and there have been allegations that membership in the party radicalized Breivik.

'Stupid and short-sighted'

Trine Flakstad rolled her eyes at the mention of Breivik. Like so many Norwegians, she doesn't want to talk about the man who murdered 77 people two years ago in a killing spree in the Oslo government quarter and on the island of Utoya to draw attention to himself and his ideas. Most of his fellow countrymen refuse that attention.

"No, that has nothing to do with the FrP," the nurse said, adding that Breivik left the party because it wasn't radical enough for his tastes.

Congestion charge station at Mosseveien E18, Oslo. Filephoto: 20081211. Photo: Hans O. Torgersen / SCANPIX

Norway uses toll roads to finance construction of bridges, roads and tunnels

The party's slogans are stupid, and people who let themselves be dazzled by them are short-sighted, Flakstad said. Now that FrP politicians are responsible for actual positions in the government, she adds, they have been forced to rethink some of the things they've said in the past: FrP Agriculture Minister Sylvi Listhaug once called her country's agriculture politics "communist."

The debate about road tolls on Norway's streets is another example. "Zero tolerance for road tolls was one of their big election campaign topics," Flakstad says. Meanwhile, an FrP politician has been named transportation minister - and toll roads are not about to be eliminated.

"Soon, the minister will have to inaugurate a toll road somewhere," Flakstad said and nodded good-bye as she and her dog disappear around the corner. "That will be fun," was her parting remark - but she wasn't laughing.

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