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Opinion: Realpolitik behind Norway's shift right

Norway’s Conservative Party is teaming up with the Progress Party - Breivik's old party - in a minority coalition. Lars Bevanger comments on why Norwegians have shifted right only two years after the terror attacks.

For decades, Norway's Conservative Party considered the Progress Party to be too radical to bring into a coalition government. Their anti-immigration and sometimes anti-Islamic rhetoric often alienated them from the rest of Norway's largely moderate and centrist political establishment. So too did their populist promises of spending more of the country's oil wealth on everything from tax cuts to road construction.

Yet, after a Labour-led center-left coalition lost general elections last month, the Progress Party will step into the warm corridors of power later this month, when Labour's Jens Stoltenberg leaves after eight years as prime minister.

This week, the popular Conservative leader and prime minister in waiting, Erna Solberg, announced she had found sufficient common ground to invite the Progress Party to form a minority coalition government. Two smaller center-right parties have promised their support in parliament. Minority governments are not uncommon in Norway, and usually govern without too much trouble.

But, many commentators do expect a certain degree of trouble: Has the Progress Party really matured into a party that can handle power?

Breivik and the Progress Party

Profile picture of Anders Behring Breivik with long hair before he became an extreme-right terrorist KEINE SOCIAL MEDIA RECHTE!

Breivik was a Progress Party member in the late 1990s

At its birth 40 years ago, the Progress Party called for severe tax cuts and a reduction in government. But it was in the 1980s - when the party began warning about the perceived dangers of immigration - that the party really gained popularity.

In the late 1990s Anders Behring Breivik, who is infamous for bombing government buildings and carrying out mass shootings at a youth camp in Oslo in 2011, decided Progress was the party closest to his ideology, but he soon left because he felt they were far from radical enough.

The Progress Party is painfully aware of this association and has gone to great lengths to disassociate itself from extreme right viewpoints. And it is certainly not a far-right party akin to the Sweden Democrats or Greece's Golden Dawn.

Yet some of its MPs still talk about a threat to Norwegian culture from non-western immigrants - arguments which to many will forever have echoes of anti-Islamic extremists like Breivik.

Why Norwegians turned right

So why did Norwegians, only two years after Breivik's politically motivated attacks on the left side of Norwegian society, turn right? Much of it has to do with realpolitik.

After eight years of the same Labour-led government, people wanted change. The Conservatives were the largest opposition party, but too small to govern alone. The Progress Party was the second largest, and the two together had spent the past couple of years in opposition preparing the electorate for the possibility of a coalition.

Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who is the leader of the Labour Party, speaks to party members while waiting for the results of the general elections in Oslo September 9, 2013. REUTERS/Cornelius Poppe/NTB Scanpix (NORWAY - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NORWAY OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN NORWAY. NO COMMERCIAL SALES

Stoltenberg led Norway for the past eight years

People knew what a vote for the opposition meant. They were willing to give it a go.

Sources close to the coalition talks this week said the prime minister in waiting, Erna Solberg, had tamed Progress Party leader, Siv Jensen, in record time. Jensen has given up her promise to spend more oil money on roads and care for the elderly, and she won't be calling for locking asylum seekers inside closed camps either.

So far the Progress Party's popularity has to a large extent hinged on its promises to be different from all the other - let's face it, slightly boring - middle-of-the-road Norwegian political parties.

But the road to power is paved with compromise. Four years in government might end up taking the sting out of the Progress Party's tail.

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