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Europe: A Preview Of Norway's Parliamentary Elections

Copenhagen, 12 September 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Norway may find itself in a political stalemate after the general elections to be held on 15 September.

According to recent public opinion polls, a far-right group, the Progress Party, may win as much as 20 percent of the vote and thus become the second largest in Parliament.

The ruling Social Democratic Labor Party headed by Prime Minister Thorbjorn Jagland is expected to lose heavily. Polls suggest its support will diminish from 37 percent at the last elections in 1993 to under 30 percent: its worst performance since the 1920s.

In this way Norway may buck the trend of many other western European countries who have in the past years elected left or left-of-center parties.

The Progress Party emerged in the 1970s, with a program advocating tax-cutting and other liberal economic changes. It has expanded with, what many commentators see as a classic populist line. The party now wants a major decrease in taxes coupled with an increase in welfare and health services spending as well as stricter immigration control.

In a language reminiscent of France's Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Progress Party's leader Carl I. Hagen talks of the threat immigrants pose to traditional Norwegian values, especially if they fail to integrate themselves into Norwegian culture.

While Hagen stops short of demanding a total ban on new arrivals and an expulsion of the old ones, he proposes immigration and naturalization rules -- already among the strictest in Europe -- to be tightened and all foreigners who commit a crime to be thrown out. Hagen also opposes giving aid to the Third World. He says that the funds should be redirected to domestic use.

The xenophobic overtones of Carl I. Hagen's message have made all other Norwegian parties wince, but no so the electorate. While the Social Democratic Labor Party still has support in the cities, elderly and professional voters particularly in the small towns and the rural areas appear to have switched to Hagen.

Analysts note that this part of the electorate is probably the one that twice blocked Norway's entry into the European Union.

The issue of an entry into the European Union, perhaps the single most contentious one in recent Norwegian politics, is absent from the election campaign.

Norway is a member of the European Economic Area (EEA) and has all the trade privileges of a full EU member without the political commitment that such a membership requires.

The outcome of the electoral contest may still leave Labor's Thorbjorn Jagland in office -- as leader of an even weaker minority government -- but Carl I. Hagen looks set to exert strong influence in a future parliament.