UPDATED: Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has personally joined the rising calls for a Labour Party mayor who’s battling sexual assault charges to step down. Stoltenberg’s appeal on Monday morning came after Vågå Mayor Rune Øygard himself made it clear he wasn’t giving up his mayor’s post voluntarily, at least not now.
The case against Øygard has become an ever-larger political liability for Labour, which already is struggling in the polls and has major problems on many other fronts. Labour Party leaders had already claimed, just before the weekend, that Øygard cannot continue as a Labour Party mayor even if he’s acquitted of the charges filed against him.
After Øygard’s latest round of testimony in his trial now underway in Lillehammer, officials at the highest levels of the party had heard enough. The so-called griseprat (talking dirty) that Øygard admitted to in several conversations with the now-16-year-old girl who’s accused him of assault was entirely inappropriate, party officials believe, and showed an appalling lack of judgment.
“I’m not taking any position on whether Rune Øygard is guilty as charged,” Labour Party secretary Raymond Johansen told news bureau NTB. “But what’s come forward in the court means that my advice to the Vågå Labour Party is that Øygard can’t continue as mayor, regardless of the trial’s outcome.”
That’s as clear a signal as Johansen could send that Øygard is finished in the Labour Party, after years of membership and positions of power. Stoltenberg added to the pressure against Øygard Monday morning, when he told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that the man he once described as a “mentor” had lost the confidence of both him and the party itself, and should relinquish his elected post.
The 53-year-old Øygard, though, has consistently denied the charges that he had a sexual relationship with the underage girl over a period of two years, and is fighting to clear his name. On Sunday night, his defense attorney told NRK that Øygard was “not ready” to give up his mayor’s post yet and planned to hang on. His chances of a return to politics, though, appear nil.
He’s been a highly popular politician, with trusted access to the highest levels of national power extending far beyond the small mountain community of Vågå where he’s been mayor since 1995. Evidence of the messages Øygard and the girl sent to each other and court testimony from both of them, however, has irreparably damaged the confidence party fellows had in him.
Live Langøygard, head of the party in the picturesque mountain town of Vågå, confirmed party secretary Johansen had “been in contact” with her and expressed that “the party leadership has problems with their confidence in Øygard after what’s come out in court.” On Sunday night she told newspaper Aftenposten that Øygard had also told her that he wasn’t giving up his battle to clear his name and wanted to retain his mayor’s seat.
“More information will be revealed in court during the next few weeks that he thinks will give another impression (of his relationship with the girl),” Langøygard told Aftenposten. “And because of that, he doesn’t want to withdraw as mayor.”
Can’t be fired
As Aftenposten reported on Sunday, the party can’t simply fire him as mayor. He’s been on fully paid leave since the charges against him were filed last year, with his duties assumed by a substitute party member, but under Norwegian law, no elected official can be fired against their will during their elected term of office.
Party secretary Johansen claims the conflict is more about confidence than the law. “What’s critical here is whether there’s any confidence (in him) … and the contact Øygard admitted (in court) to having with the underaged girl is unacceptable,” Johansen told Aftenposten. “It shows bad judgment and was of such a character that it broke our confidence.”
Some commentators also continue to raise questions over whether Øygard’s longtime associates in the party, from Stoltenberg to colleagues at home in Vågå, have also shown poor judgment by not raising questions themselves over his relationship with the girl. She was at his side on a multitude of occasions, even allowed to take part in luncheons with top state officials, visiting Stoltenberg at his home and attending various official events. The girl has said in court that she worried Øygard’s wife would become jealous because the girl was invited along to prestigious events instead of her. None of Øygard’s Labour colleagues seemed to react that she so often accompanied Øygard, also on overnight trips.
The political editor of local newspaper Gudbrandsdølen Dagningen, Hallvard Grotli, wrote over the weekend that Øygard’s political career is over. “He’s a catastrophe in terms of his judgment – for himself, for Vågå township, for his party and for his once-so-high-profile network,” Grotli wrote.
His trial was resuming on Monday, with testimony from Øygard’s wife and close family members of the girl who filed charges against him.
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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