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Siv Jensen
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Siv Jensen

Source: Audun Braastad/Getty

Picking battles, making deals

The Lady With the Bone in Her Nose

Why you should care

Leader of Norway’s influential Progress Party, Siv Jensen blends Tea Party-like anti-tax views with liberal social policies. Oh, and she may be in charge of $800 billion dollars soon. 

This top-read story of 2013 first appeared on October 7, 2013.

“Do you have this saying in English, a lady with a bone in her nose?” Kristian Norheim, an official in Norway’s right-wing Progress Party, is struggling to describe his party’s formidable 44-year-old leader, Siv Jensen.

“It means she’s — well, she’s a tough lady,” he says, explaining the traditional idiom. “She knows what she stands for.”

It means she’s — well, she’s a tough lady. She knows what she stands for.

Such mettle has helped Jensen lead the Progress Party from the margins of cranky opposition to an unprecedented place in Norway’s next governing coalition. She’s expected to be the new finance minister. In this hugely influential post, she’ll oversee Norway’s oil-enriched, $800 billion Government Pension Fund, the world’s largest sovereign-wealth fund and a global trendsetter in shareholder activism and ethical investment.

She’ll push an agenda that she summarized in an election day Facebook post: “It’s about lower taxes for people with regular income. It’s about the legal rights of the elderly. It’s about more police and tougher justice policies. It’s about spending money in a better, more correct way.”

Which all raises an intriguing question: Could Siv Jensen be Scandinavia’s Margaret Thatcher?

Siv Jensen and Margaret Thatcher

Siv Jensen and Margaret Thatcher

Source: Courtesy of Siv Jensen/the Progress Party

Jensen, like Thatcher, comes from a shopkeeping family. Her parents, Tore Jensen and Monica Kjelsberg, had a shoe store. After divorcing when Siv was 11, her father moved to Sweden. Her mother ran a dry-cleaning business while raising three children.

Monica reared ambitious daughters; Siv’s sister, Nina, now runs the World Wildlife Fund’s Norwegian branch. Siv graduated from the Norwegian School of Economics, alma mater of numerous CEOs and politicians. Still, few recognized Jensen’s potential. Onetime party member Jan Arild Snoen, now a commentator for the conservative website Minerva, says Siv was seen “as a future member of parliament — maybe.”

Nobody foresaw Progress’s potential either; it was always the party nobody asks to the government prom. Founded in the 1970s as a tea party-like anti-tax movement, its anti-immigrant rhetoric compelled other parties to shun it, though it emerged from three elections as the parliament’s second-largest party.

Jensen has changed that, thanks to her greatest asset: pragmatism. In her 20s and 30s, she endured bruising periods of party infighting, which ended with purges. “Others who could have been rivals were terminated,” Snoen says. “She’s a survivor.” When Progress founder Carl I. Hagen retired in 2006, she won the party’s top post with his blessing.

While Progress may be considered far right in Norway, in American terms, it would be left-wing Republican: classically liberal and pro-free market. It avoids ascendant fascist European populists like Hungary’s Jobbik and Swedish Democrats*. Even its opponents have criticized the international media’s tendency to link Progress with ex-party member Anders Breivik, who massacred 77 people in 2011. (He left because he considered it too liberal.)

Jensen’s political heroes are Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. She keeps a bust of Reagan in her office, and a photo with Thatcher is a prized possession. But while she praises liberty in tea party-esque tones, she’s socially liberal and pro-gay marriage. She’d trim Norway’s welfare system — telling the National Post that people have become “so dependent on donations through budgets that you end up unable to think for yourself” — but has also pushed to spend more oil wealth. “It’s good to have money saved up,” she told Reuters, “but it’s also good to have a well-functioning infrastructure and a society that works.”

While Jensen also has warned of “sneak Islamization,” she has denied being anti-immigrant.

The party’s most vexing issue remains immigration. A 2005 campaign ad — before Jensen’s leadership — depicted a hooded youth pointing a gun at the viewer. Caption: “The perpetrator is of foreign origin!” While Jensen also has warned of “sneak Islamization,” she has denied being anti-immigrant. A self-declared feminist who keeps a portrait of her great-grandmother, pioneering women’s-rights activist Betzy Kjelsberg, in her office, Jensen has tempered the rhetoric, speaking against practices like forced marriage and female circumcision. “What Siv wants is one society in Norway,” Norheim says, “not parallel societies where some people don’t have the same rights because of religion.”

Her big challenge will be partnering with the center-right Conservatives, as their leader, Erna Solberg, will be prime minister. How do you maintain gadfly cred when you’ve become the establishment? How much compromise can your base accept? “She has made the party more normalized, more moderate,” says ex-MP Kristin Clemet, who heads the think tank Civita. “But they have been outside the system, criticizing the system. When you are inside the system, it is not so easy to criticize it.”

The Progress Party’s evolution holds lessons for political rebels everywhere, and Jensen’s rise is best understood by recalling her inspirations. Reagan and Thatcher have posthumously become ideologues but governed as pragmatists. They picked their battles. They made deals.

Jensen has too. “She knows she has to be pragmatic,” says Snoen. “She might lose some support from her base, but she will gain real power. There’s a trade-off — and Siv Jensen is willing to take it.”

*Update: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified this Swedish political party.

Cover image: Vegard Grott/Corbis

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