September 14, 2015 / 2:33 PM / 4 years ago

Norway's local elections test welcome for Syrian refugees

OSLO (Reuters) - Norway’s anti-immigration Progress Party may be facing its worst election result in 20 years in municipal voting on Monday as its hostility to Syrian refugees leaves it out of step with a more welcoming mood in the Nordic nation in the last month or so.

Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg casts a ballot for the local elections for municipal and county councils at a polling station in Bergen, Norway, September 14, 2015. REUTERS/Marit Hommedal/NTB Scanpix

Progress has sought to turn the municipal election into a vote on a plan it opposes to take in 8,000 Syrian refugees by the end of 2017, arguing that locally elected politicians could simply refuse to accept refugees.

The two parties in the right-wing minority government, the Conservatives and Progress, have also lost ground since 2013 parliamentary elections after tax cuts that have mainly benefited the rich.

Opinion polls show support for Progress was likely to fall far short of the 16.3 percent in a parliamentary vote two years ago and may drop below the 11.4 percent it got in the local elections in 2011, its lowest showing since 1995.

The Conservatives may see their support slip a few percentage points. Centrist and left-wing parties are expected to make gains, including Labor and the Socialist Left Party, while the small Greens party appear poised to gain the most.

Projections of the results are due shortly after polls close at 1900 GMT (03:00 p.m.).

Prime Minister Erna Solberg’s Conservatives in June teamed up with opposition parties to agree on the Syrian refugee plan, over-ruling Progress leader Siv Jensen, who serves as finance minister in the coalition.

Frank Aarebrot, a professor of political science at the University of Bergen, said Jensen’s bid to torpedo the deal came before a swing towards a more welcoming mood towards refugees in Norway, especially after the body of drowned Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi washed up on a beach in Turkey this month.

“Some of her voters are die-hard xenophobes and they will appreciate what she said. But now empathy is in the air all over the country,” he said.

Worries about a flood of refugees, and Germany’s surprise weekend imposition of temporary border controls, did not seem to have affected public opinion.

“The mood seems unchanged in Norway,” Aarebrot said, noting that a Syrian food fair in Oslo on Sunday attracted thousands of people, far more than expected.

Many other parties have argued that Norway, one of the richest nations in the world thanks to its vast income from offshore oil and gas, should help refugees.

Surveys have shown that up to a third of voters make up their minds in the last week of the campaign, making it hard to predict the exact outcomes for individual parties.

Progress is however far from its peak of support of 22.9 percent in national elections in 2009.

Polls show that Solberg’s Conservatives could get 23-25 percent of the vote, down from 26.8 percent in the election two years ago. The Greens were likely to climb to more than 4 percent of the vote from less than 1 percent in 2011.

Reporting by Stine Jacobsen, Terje Solsvik and Alister Doyle; Editing by Hugh Lawson

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