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In Scandinavia, Populists Face The Harsh Reality Of Governing

In Finland and Norway, right-wing, anti-elite and anti-immigration parties have had to adapt to the problems of power, but they still can fire up the base by playing to their gut.

Siv Jensen at a FrP rally
Siv Jensen at a FrP rally
Antoine Jacob

His blue eyes gazing out of black-framed glasses, the silver-haired Hans Andreas Limi readily admits: "It's much easier to be in the opposition, no doubt about it." A bell rings and he's gone. It's voting time in the chamber. On the wall of his office hangs a small Norwegian flag under a layer of Plexiglass along with a smiling portrait of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Limi is one of 29 deputies and the former secretary of Norway's Progress Party (FrP), one of the northern European parties that came to power through "anti-elite" speeches and thrilling promises. In recent years, right-wing populist parties have entered the government for the first time in Norway and the second time in Finland. Speaking out forcefully and carrying bags full of promises: With them, the demands of the people would be better taken into account; the real problems, treaties and national interests, defended. Since then, the parties have had different fortunes, both discovering that exercising power is not simple. It can also harm popularity.

Governmental coalitions

In northern Europe, the electoral system and the nature of the political landscape favor the creation of governmental coalitions, sometimes with up to four or even five parties. But apart from a six-year period in Finland in the 1980s, none of the protest parties that had appeared in the region after World War II had wanted — or had been invited — to join these coalitions. That is, until the FrP in Norway was offered a place in the coalition after having one won 16.3% of the vote in the September 2013 legislative elections, making it a partner that the Conservative Party (26, 8%) could not circumvent if it wanted to regain power.

The Progress Party cannot be compared to the Marine Le Pen's National Front, from which it has distanced itself. The two parties have divergent histories. Established in 1977, shortly after the Norwegians refused to join the European Economic Community, FrP was the direct heir of another party founded by a critic of the very heavy taxes imposed at the time to finance the welfare state. His successor, Carl Hagen, who physically resembles Roger Moore, distinguished himself quickly by his speaking talent and his digs at the "system."

Openly xenophobic militants were expelled.

The party took a xenophobic turn with manipulation worthy of today's "fake news' epidemic. In 1987, while campaigning for municipal elections, Hagen claimed he had received a letter from a Pakistani man in Oslo saying that "Islam will conquer in Norway," a country where "mosques will one day become as common as churches." At the time, there were very few Muslims in the kingdom. A newspaper investigation later discovered that the letter was a forgery.

"Hagen admitted to having made a mistake and apologized flatly, a mea culpa that won him the sympathy of quite a few voters. His party got good results in municipal elections. From then on, he realized that he could use immigration and Islamophobia to gain popularity," said Tor Bjørklund, professor of political science at the University of Oslo.

But these themes have not been a permanent feature of the party, far from it. Openly xenophobic militants were expelled. Still, even Limi says "it's true" that Norwegians who vote for the party know that they are giving their voice to a tougher policy on these issues. In 2011, the party experienced a decline in popularity. Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing extremist who had just killed 77 people, had briefly joined the FrP before leaving, disappointed. Two years later the party bounced back again, enough to be invited to join the government coalition.

Ending criticism

"Deciding to go there has not been easy," says Limi. To do so meant to stop criticizing the government's actions and to stop making promises at every turn. Since the 1990s, the Party of Progress has been changing course. While still advocating tax cuts, it now wants to be the champion of the less favored, the retired, the lower classes. "It doesn't make sense to close retirement homes while oil money flows into the state coffers," Hagen used to say, before handing over the party leadership to an equally combative woman, Siv Jensen.

In fact, revenues from the oil extracted off the kingdom's shores has accumulated into what has become the largest sovereign wealth fund in the world, a sum currently exceeding 855 billion euros, or about $766 billion, stored overseas to finance the post-oil era. Meanwhile, a consensus prevails in the political class: No more than 4% of the fund (its expected annual return) is to be withdrawn per year to cover the budget deficit. The FrP is one of the few parties wanting to draw more as unemployment has risen to nearly 5% since 2014.

The party has managed to limit the break with its electorate.

Erna Solberg, the new conservative prime minister, entrusted the finance portfolio to the leader of the populist party. "It's a great way to make her responsible," said Lars Nehru Sand, a political commentator on the public radio and TV company NRK. Since her appointment, Jensen has had to assume the role of guardian of the very budgetary orthodoxy that she used to criticize. But since the fund has steadily increased, the Progress Party can now claim, in real terms, an increase in the amounts withdrawn. "We ensure that this money is not thrown out the window," said Limi, who is also the FrP spokesman for financial matters.

With a portion of this manna directed toward sectors it supports, such as health, roads and other infrastructure, the party has managed to limit the break with its electorate. But perhaps not enough for it do as well in the legislative elections scheduled for Sept. 11 as it did four years ago, according to recent surveys. There are no longer as many asylum-seekers as there were in 2015, due to much tighter limitations pushed by the FrP. Since then, the issue has partially vanished from the media's radars and the party's popularity has oscillated at around 13%. The opposition, led by Labor, seems to be well placed to regain power.

The True Finns

The True Finns party also contributed to the hardening of Finland's refugee policies in the wake of the migrant crisis, which erupted a few months after its accession to power in Helsinki in the spring of 2015, in a coalition led by the Center Party (center right) and the Conservative Party.

The True Finns appeared 20 years earlier among the ruins of another protest party, the Finnish Rural Party, which had first made gains in the countryside. "By choosing the name ‘True Finns," the party's leader wanted both to widen its electoral base to the cities and to show that it represented the ‘true" patriots, the ‘real" nationalists, as opposed to parties willing to ‘sell" Finland to the E.U. or to international capitalism," said Göran Djupsund, a political scientist at the University of Turku.

The party leader is one of the most prominent politicians in the country. With the allure of a semi-gruff, semi-debonair bear, Timo Soini hides an eloquence that is a hit in rallies and on TV. The man knows the resilience of populism: As a student, he wrote a thesis on the subject. It is largely thanks to his charisma that he managed to raise the party to center stage. This got the party 19.1% of the vote in the 2011 legislative elections, a record that has not been matched.

He wanted to "eject Greece from the Eurozone" in a period of serious financial crisis and doubts about the future of the single currency. Unlike other leaders who considered joining a coalition government, Soini refused, saying he would not endorse a European aid plan for Athens.

A more social tone

In 2015, the True Finns campaign took on a more social tone, as they promised to protect the working classes. The message resonated again, and they won about 18% of the vote and 38 seats in parliament (only the centrists won more). This time, along with three other party leaders, Soini agreed to enter the government.

Against expectations, the head of the True Finns did not choose the portfolio of finance, but that of foreign affairs. The eurosceptic, who only recently declared that "a Grexit is necessary," has had to adjust his discourse since his first months in office, and swallow some bitter pills: The government approved a third aid plan for Athens.

True Finns voters "had high expectations," said Jan Sundberg, a professor of political science at the University of Helsinki. "But if the party has promised a lot, not much has happened." Unlike Norway, Finland does not have oil fields to help make ends meet. Nokia, the national champion, fell from grace, though it might be recovering. The country, emerging from three years of recession (2012-2014), still has one of the weakest economies in the Eurozone and an unemployment rate of nearly 9%.

To regain productivity, the government, which includes the populist party, trimmed budgets and froze wages in 2017. As a result, the popularity of the ruling parties has declined, especially the party of Timo Soini, which won only 8.8% of votes in the April 9 municipal elections.

"But those who supported the party because of immigration are still there," says Sundberg. This hard line is likely to be strengthened by Soini's departure. The two candidates to succeed him this summer are more extremist and ideological. Both of them, like real True Finns, are already promising to get the country out of the Eurozone and even the E.U.

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