Liberals’ leader survives scandal

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NEWS ANALYSIS: One of the newest ministers in the Norwegian government, Trine Skei Grande, had the worst possible start to her Liberal Party’s annual national meeting over the weekend, and it got worse underway. Grande seems, however, to have survived a decade-old sex scandal, low standings in the polls and disagreement among party members, at least for now.

Trine Skei Grande, leader of Norway’s Liberal Party (Venstre), had to face her party colleagues head on during the weekend, right in the middle of a sex scandal from 10 years ago. PHOTO: Venstre

The small, formerly centrist Liberal Party has been deeply split over whether it should have joined the country’s conservative government coalition in January. Members have no problem working with Prime Minister Erna Solberg and her Conservative Party. It’s the government coalition’s other partner, the more right-wing Progress Party, that creates problems for the Liberals. They strongly disagree on a long list of issues from the environment to immigration.

That’s already forced Grande, who was consoled with the post of Culture Minister, to compromise on issues from oil drilling in the Arctic to going along with and even supporting the government’s strict policies on asylum and immigration. Norway’s new minister in charge of environmental issues from her party, Ola Elvestuen, has had to do the same. The Liberals have since tumbled in public opinion polls, with voter support of just 2.8 percent, while the party has also lost actual members all over the county. Defectors feel the party is sacrificing its principles for the sake of government power.

There are also internal splits on issues ranging from liberalizing narcotics sales (a proposal to allow state-regulated sales of cannabis and LSD, for example, was defeated) while another proposal to allow surrogacy and egg-donation was approved. They also approved tough measures aimed at curbing the oil industry, but they’ll all be ignored by the government in which the Liberals serve.

Outdoor sex at a wedding overshadowed everything
It was the sex scandal involving Grande herself, however, that grabbed nearly all the attention and hung over the meeting all weekend because she flatly refuses to comment on it. It first hit the media in January during the height of the “MeToo” campaign against sexual harassment after years of being hushed up by politicians and media alike. It flared up again last week, when the deputy leader of the opposition Center Party, Ola Borten Moe, lashed out at Grande on social media over how she’d handled the scandal.

Grande still managed to win re-election as party leader. PHOTO: Venstre

It occurred at Moe’s own wedding in their common home district of Trøndelag in 2008. Grande was not yet leader of the Liberal Party but already a Member of Parliament and in the running to take over. Grande, who remains single, was 38 years old at the time and allegedly wound up having outdoor sex with a 17-year-old boy in the corn field of the farm where the wedding party was taking place.

“Many people were present and saw what happened,” Moe wrote on his Facebook page. “I would characterize it as a public secret.” It turns out that the 17-year-old was a relative of Moe’s. Moe, by the way, later became Oil & Energy Minister in the left-center government led by Labour’s Jens Stoltenberg (who now heads NATO) from 2005 to 2013.

Moe claimed that no one in his family “ever wanted publicity” around the incident, but now Moe is objecting to how he thinks Grande has suggested that the teenager initiated their clinch in the cornfield. “I’m no attacker,” is the only comment Grande has made on the incident, to newspaper Aftenposten, when tongues started wagging last winter because of the 21-year age difference between the two.

Different standards
There’s at least a somewhat comparable incident within the very government in which Grande serves. Oil Minister Terje Søviknes from the Progress Party admitted back in 2000 to having had sex with a teenage member of the party’s youth organization, eight years before Grande’s incident. He was forced to resign as deputy party leader at the time and withdraw from national politics. His offense flared up again when he was allowed to make a comeback as oil minister in 2016.

That’s led to questions over why Grande hasn’t faced similar consequences, although it’s generally agreed that the outdoor sex between her and the 17-year-old was consensual, while Søviknes was accused of taking advantage of a drunk teenage girl.

“I have no comment on this,” Grande told media when confronted with Moe’s criticism at what was supposed to be her upbeat press conference before the national meeting began. Nor would Prime Minister Solberg, who has remained equally mum on the nagging issue apart from declaring that she spoke about it with both Grande and the now-28-year-old man, before naming Grande as culture minister in January. Solberg calls the issue “difficult” but told reporters over the weekend that “I’m not about to go into what we talked about, or to philosophize over the questions raised.”

Abid Raja, a Member of Parliament for the LIberals, was the only party member to ask for a clarification of Grande’s sexual escapade. He was quickly criticized and backed down. PHOTO: Venstre

Grande also steadfastly avoided the issue throughout the weekend’s meeting, even after one of the party’s most high-profile politicians and Members of Parliament, Abid Raja, suddenly went on the offensive Saturday evening and claimed that the “completely meaningless incident from 10 years back” had nonetheless become such a “burden” on the party that Grande must open up about it, clarify matters and then move on.

“I ask Trine to please use the permission granted by the boy involved to speak openly about this,” Raja told state broadcaster NRK Saturday night. He was quickly met with opposition from other party members, though, who wanted to keep ignoring the issue. “It’s utterly inappropriate to force a public clarification from Trine Skei Grande,” Erling Moe, leader of the party’s delegation to city government in Trondheim, told Aftenposten. “This is a private matter between her and the man.” Many other party members agreed that their leader’s outdoor sex at Moe’s wedding party should not have been a theme at their annual meeting.

Others disagree on the grounds it raises judgement and character issues about Grande as a top Norwegian politican, but Raja ended up backing down. He told newspaper VG on Monday that he regretted his outburst and understands his critics who opposed openness about an allegedly private matter. He also admitted that it took further “focus” away from the politics discussed at the Liberals’ annual meeting.

If anyone needed a hug after the LIberal Party’s “difficult” annual meeting, it was the struggling party’s embattled leader Trine Skei Grande. PHOTO: Venstre

Aftenposten, meanwhile, reported during the weekend that Grande had discussed the incident with her party’s board, where she conceded that she was having a tough time but “managed to stand up straight” and deal with it. She reportedly cried at the meeting, but appealed to her board that she be allowed to handle the issue alone, that the best help they could offer would be to also refuse to comment, and that any defensive statements on her behalf would only keep the issue alive in the media. They apparently agreed not to bring it up at the meeting, until Raja sabotaged that effort.

The Center Party’s Ola Borten Moe has also faced a torrent of criticism for dredging up the sex scandal again, not least since he’s been at the center of scandals himself, even appearing publicly once with a blackeye after a brawl. Arne Strand, political commentator in newspaper Dagsavisen, accused Moe of launching “a rotten attack” at a political opponent.

Moe’s motives for embarrassing Grande weren’t entirely clear, but the former Oil Minister is now in the oil business himself and surely doesn’t like her party’s anti-oil policies. Strand and several other commentators claimed Moe was trashing the public political debate, and brought disrepute upon his own Center Party as well.

The Liberals’ slogan during the meeting roughly translated to a claim that they’re “in line with the future.” It was Grande’s past that haunted them all, but she ultimately was re-elected as party leader, and received a standing ovation.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund