Monday, September 14, 2009

OSLO | Siv Jensen has an unusual ambition for a nation famous for its cradle-to-grave welfare system: She wants to go down in history as Norway’s Margaret Thatcher.

And polls leading up to Monday’s national election in this oil-rich Nordic state of 4.8 million people show the leader of the right-wing Progress Party may have a shot at pursuing her dream of applying a free-market overhaul to a society often called a socialist paradise.

The Progress Party is locked in a tight duel with Prime Minster Jens Stoltenberg’s left-leaning Labor Party, Norway’s dominant political force since World War II.

A win for the bleached-blond 40-year-old Ms. Jensen — who takes explicit inspiration from the former British prime minister — would represent a sea-change in Norwegian politics, traditionally a contest between socialists and a cluster of parties on the center-right.

While those parties disagree about the level of taxation needed to sustain Norway’s welfare state, the Progress Party challenges the Scandinavian welfare model altogether. It proposes reforms including increased privatization of health care and education and using Norway’s vast oil wealth to cut the country’s famously high taxes.

In foreign policy, Progress is much more Israel-friendly than the current government, which in 2007 made Norway the first Western nation to recognize the Hamas-led Palestinian leadership.

It also has strong views on immigration, advocating higher demands on newcomers to integrate into Norwegian society.

That has touched a nerve in Norway, whose immigrant population has skyrocketed by a factor of five since the early 1970s. Today, immigrants make up more than 10 percent of Norway’s population and a quarter of Oslo’s half-million residents.

“We can’t just take all the immigrants in,” Anne-Marie Sellvang, a 70-year-old Progress Party supporter, said. “Many of them don’t work; they come here without papers. I can’t understand it.”

In recent years, the biggest groups of asylum-seekers have come from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia and Eritrea.

The Progress Party uses less-bombastic rhetoric than many other anti-immigrant groups in Europe, but party officials have raised eyebrows with suggestions that Norway move its cramped asylum centers to Uganda and Tanzania.

“The Progress Party simply have no sense of how to build a multicultural Norway. They’re against all foreigners, even though we work hard and pay our taxes just like Norwegians do,” said Awadhi Abdi, 47, a Somalian bus driver, who was sitting at a cafe in Groenland, a largely immigrant neighborhood in eastern Oslo.

Ms. Jensen appears to have toned down the immigration issue to keep it from overshadowing the party’s economic platform, much of which rests on the assumption that Norway’s massive oil wealth could be spent more wisely.

To avoid inflation, Norway sets aside much of the revenue from its North Sea oil and gas in a sovereign wealth fund, currently valued at more than 2 trillion kroner ($333 billion).

The Progress Party calls for using more of it at home to lower taxes and to spend more on infrastructure in a country almost entirely covered by mountains.

Analysts say that the Progress Party’s surge in popularity is a result in part of anti-immigrant sentiment, but that discontent with the current administration’s use of oil money has been its main source of new voters in recent years.

“Those who think the oil fund and state surplus is being mishandled, you see that a lot of those people … sympathize with” the Progress Party, said Marcus Buck, a political scientist at the University of Tromsoe.

A telephone poll of 1,734 voters published Thursday by the commercial network TV2 showed the leftist bloc with 44.5 percent of the vote, with 33 percent going to Labor. The Progress Party held 23 percent support, and the three center-right parties - the Conservatives, the Christian Democrats and the Liberals - had a combined 29.5 percent.

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