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Immigration Key in Norway Election

OSLO, Sep 6 2013 (IPS) - On a sunny day at the end of August, the popular Karl Johans pedestrian street in Oslo pulsed with folk music as three young women and a man played stringed instruments and belted out English and Norwegian lyrics.

A few steps away, in front of brightly coloured pavilions, other young people handed out red roses, helium-filled balloons, cups of freshly-made popcorn, and even bottles of water.

“Here’s a drink for you. It’s from the best party – the Labour Party,” said a blonde-haired activist handing a plastic bottle to a passer-by.

Anyone not familiar with Norwegian election campaigns might have been forgiven for thinking a fun-fair was being held. But behind the bantering and smiles, political tension is high as Norway gears up for parliamentary elections Sep. 9.

Immigration is a key issue in the vote. Surveys suggest that the Conservative Party will win the elections while “populist” groups such as the anti-immigration Progress Party might gain enough votes to be part of a coalition government.

Despite its relative success in keeping the economy of oil-rich Norway healthy during the global financial crisis, the current Labour-Socialist government is expected to be voted out of office. This is mainly because the population wants a change after eight years of the same rule, but also because many say the party is seen as being too fond of spending public funds.

The Progress Party, Norway’s third-biggest political group, has campaigned for tougher immigration and asylum policies and has pledged to implement stricter regulations for family reunification. It wants to reduce the number of immigrants from outside the European Union, although Norway itself is not a member of the 28-member bloc.

“Those seeking asylum who are being persecuted in their home country - of course we are going to take care of them. But we want closer cooperation with the United Nations system and try to have them organise more of the refugee and asylum work." -- Ketil Solvik-Olsen, the Progress Party spokesman

“We are stricter on immigration than the other parties,” says Ketil Solvik-Olsen, the Progress Party spokesman for finance issues and an up-and-coming politician likely to become a minister if his party does well in the election.

“We should still be open and welcome people that can contribute to the workforce, that have special skills,” he told foreign journalists at a press briefing in Oslo. “At the same time we want a stricter policy for people seeking asylum.”

To be seen as government material, the party has tried to soften its radical image and distance itself from past member Anders Behring Breivik, who carried out bomb and gun attacks in 2011, killing 77 people, including teenagers. Breivik had been taken off the party’s membership list in 2006, according to reports from his trial.

Solvik-Olsen said that Breivik’s association with the party hurt it two years ago, but that things have changed in 2013. “Today … people see that his ideas have nothing to do with our party. He said that himself during his trial that he was very disappointed that we did not follow up on his ideas. He found no soil for his ideas to grow in the party,” Solvik-Olsen told reporters.

Still, the party’s popularity has declined from a high of almost 23 percent of the polls in 2009 to between 15 and 20 percent at present, depending on which survey one believes. Party officials insist that the figures are favourable for them.

“The opinion polls look really good,” Solvik-Olsen said. “The Conservative Party and the Liberal Party are gaining; the Socialists and Labour Party are losing.”

The Progress Party says it wants a stable government, even if a ruling coalition will eventually comprise four parties. “We have to stop quarrelling,” Solvik-Olsen said.

But given the party’s background and position on immigration, the more “mainstream” conservative parties might find it hard to co-habit with them.

The conservatives recognise that Norway needs foreign workers, even if they support limiting immigration. The country’s smaller parties, including the radical-left Red Party and the ecology Green Party say they want a fair asylum policy, with special focus on the rights of children.

Norway’s statistics bureau states that immigrants currently account for 12 percent of the country’s population of 5.07 million. In the capital Oslo, immigrants form 30.4 percent of the city’s population, the bureau says.

But official figures also reveal that the number of asylum seekers dropped to 9,800 last year from 17,200 in 2011, mainly because of stricter policies since 2008.

Nationalists say asylum seekers are attracted by Norway’s generous welfare system. According to Solvik-Olsen, “many of those who come to seek asylum are not going to be part of the labour force” because they come from countries where they “don’t have the skills.”

“Those seeking asylum who are being persecuted in their home country – of course we are going to take care of them. But we want closer cooperation with the United Nations system and try to have them organise more of the refugee and asylum work. Maybe they could help them closer to home, or better organise who gets sent to which country,” he added.

He said that the reason the Progress Party was strict is that “there is an over-representation in the statistics of people coming here, seeking asylum, but who then end up in the bad environment in downtown Oslo. This means to us that maybe they are not asylum seekers after all but looking for a different place to make money.”

The election results will determine whether such attitudes prevail, but a “lot of change has already taken place” over the last 30 years regarding asylum seekers in Norway, says the Norwegian Organisation for Asylum Seekers.

“The authorities have more expertise and knowledge about the conditions of asylum seekers today than previously. However, asylum seekers are still a vulnerable group. Norway and other European countries continue to pursue a restrictive asylum policy which consequently increases the tendency of refugees being sent back to the home countries persecuting them,” the group says.

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