Even Norway Is Riding the Populist Wave of Politics

  • Leader of rural Center Party is critical of EU, free trade
  • Polls suggest party could tip balance of power after fall vote

During its 96-year-old history, the Center Party has courted both conservatives and progressives while remaining steadfastly opposed to centralization, wolves and foreign cheese.

Now, the political party of choice for Norway’s farmers is riding the populist wave.

Trygve Slagsvold Vedum on Feb. 15

Photographer: Fredrik Bjerknes/Bloomberg

In the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and the ascendancy of Donald Trump, the Center Party is surging in the polls and aims to play a pivotal role in ousting the Conservative-led minority government in September’s general election.

At stake is Norway’s decades-old relationship with the European Economic Area. The agreement, which grants non-EU members like Norway access to the bloc’s single market, was often cited as a possible model for Britain in connection with Brexit.

"I hope that Brussels sees the need to decentralize more and have more trust in local and nationally elected officials," party leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, 39, said in an interview at his office in Oslo in which he emphasized his party isn’t seeking “drastic change.”

Poll Surge

Still, the man who became the party’s youngest leader (he was 36 when he was appointed) is helping it achieve new heights by casting himself as the spokesman for voters outside Oslo. Born in Hamar, near Lillehammer in eastern Norway, he works as a farmer back home and has been a member of parliament since 2005. He also served as agriculture minister in the previous government.

Opinion polls suggest his Center Party’s anti-centralization, anti-establishment message is resonating with more and more voters, on both the left and right of the political divide.

The party is now polling at more than 9 percent after winning just 10 seats and 5.5 percent in the 2013 election. And with both the ruling Conservative and Progress parties struggling, the surge may well help yield a new governing majority in the fall.

It’s main gripe with the government revolves around plans to close remote hospitals and abolish small municipalities. It also objects to efforts by Prime Minister Erna Solberg to prop up the economy by spending part of its oil kitty. The government is in turn trying to take some of the wind out of his sails, and this week announced it would be moving hundreds of public sector jobs away from the capital.

By playing the patriotism card, the party is also profiting from the difficulties that social democratic movements across the West have shown in responding to voters’ fatigues with globalization and immigration.

"The Norwegian identity shows pride in our fjords and in the diversity of this country," Slagsvold Vedum said. "It’s about how one looks at Norway, and I think this resonates with the population."

What’s more, a party that hails from rural Norway and which wants to cull Norway’s entire wolf population -- currently estimated at around 68 -- is now also making inroads among urban voters.

Anti-Trade

Slagsvold Vedum put this down to his anti-red tape message, which also applies to the EU’s civil servants.

"The current government has been too subservient to everything that comes out of Brussels," he said.

Like Trump, he favors bilateral deals over multilateral arrangements such as the now moribund Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership.

And while the Center Party has been critical of the EEA since its inception, Slagsvold Vedum believes his group can build on the anti-EU sentiments unleashed by the U.K. referendum and by populists like France’s Marine Le Pen, Italy’s Five Star Movement and Alternative for Germany.

"The problem with centralizing power too much is that it’s very difficult to see the local challenges that exist around various European countries," he said. "Then the wrong solutions often occur, and you build contradictions instead of tearing them down."

To be sure, Norway’s farmers are far from neglected since western Europe’s biggest oil producer can afford to be generous. Subsidies for the agricultural sector are nearly three times the OECD average, while local farmers are protected by about 100 cash mechanisms, including price support and tax breaks.

Five years ago, the Center Party was the main driving force behind the introduction of import duties on beef, lamb and hard cheeses by the then Labor-led government. The tariffs, as high as 429 percent, angered officials in Brussels.

The party would likely rule again with Labor, which is instead solidly pro-EEA. Still, with a growing base behind it, more Norwegian antagonism to free trade can probably be expected, should the Center return to office.

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