Ola Borten Moe, Norway’s former Oil & Energy Minister, was sporting a black eye this week but claims it has nothing to do with the latest nasty leadership debate raging within his small but feisty Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp). Moe also claims there’s no power struggle within the party leadership, and that he has no plan to unseat embattled party leader Liv Signe Navarsete, who’s fending off yet another onslaught of criticism.
Both Navarsete and Moe, who said he suffered his visible facial injury during the severe storm that hit his home district of Trøndelag last week, were facing another storm of discontent this week. He and other party leaders have just received a report on how an internal party commission has evaluated the Center Party’s election campaign and its disastrous election results. Not only did the rural-oriented party lose government power, it logged its worst election results ever, winning support from only 5.5 percent of Norwegian voters. That’s since slipped to 4.6 percent, according to a recent public opinion poll.
Some may wonder why such a small party gets so much media attention in Norway, but it’s because it can play a powerful role in the country because of its ability to swing from the right to the left side of Norwegian politics, to suit its own interests. So even though as many as 95.6 percent of Norwegian voters don’t support the Center Party, it can make or break government policy.
Navarsete immediately tried to downplay the election results on election night itself, claiming she was still proud of the party that served in the former left-center government coalition for eight years. The election results weren’t greeted by others with anywhere near the positive spin Navarsete put on them, though, and they led, among other things, to internal debate and the resignation in protest of the head of the Center Party’s youth group, Sandra Borch.
Borch made it clear she had no faith in the party’s leadership and now the commission evaluating its work during the election campaign is highly critical as well. Norwegian media outlets, leaked conclusions of the evaluation, reported that the commission criticized Navarsete’s handling of the media itself and, not least, what’s long believed to be a conflict between Navarsete and Moe. He has often been described as a “loose canon” within the party, urging aggressive oil and gas exploration and production during his tenure as oil minister, for example, when the party otherwise tries to portray an environmentally friendly and “green” image.
On Wednesday, the party itself disclosed that the report cited a lack of unity within the party leadership, and that the leaders must “create more room” for working better together in the future. While the party’s election strategy was considered “good,” it wasn’t carried out well at the operational level. The party’s dealings with the media “could have been better,” and while the party seemed united on the choice of its main campaign issues, they didn’t receive the “expected” voter interest or enthusiasm.
A party divided
The party seems split into various factions, with some urging its traditional protectionism and anti-EU policies, others urging a more moderate and modern stance. The commission’s report is based on input from more than 500 local party chapters and party members around the country. Several key persons within the party have been interviewed at length. Several, reported newspaper VG, have claimed that the perceived conflict between Navarsete and Moe has been “destructive” for the party.
Navarsete, who arrived smiling as always for a party board meeting to go over the report on Wednesday, said the report provided “marching orders for all of us who love the Center Party,” calling it both “comprehensive and important.” Another anonymous party member told VG, though, that it was full of drepende (deadly) criticism of both she and Moe and of deputy leader Trygve Slagsvold Vedum, the former agriculture minister who also lost his post after the party fared so badly at the polls.
“I do agree that the report points out a good deal of weaknesses that the party must address,” Moe told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “It’s the responsibility of the leadership and board to get a grip n this, together with the county and local chapters and Members of Parliament.” He stressed that the whole point of conducting an evaluation is to identify areas where improvement is needed.
‘Will follow the commission’s advice’
Some Center Party members fear the report itself will set off more speculation and ill will within the party. Navarsete once again tried to put on a brave face.
“The commission points out both strengths and weaknesses in the leadership,” she stated on the party’s own website. “It says something about how three experienced politicians (herself, Moe and Vedum) fill each other out. The leadership will take this seriously, and we will follow the advice the commission and board gives us.”
Navarsete has survived earlier waves of criticism over her temper and leadership style, along with the controversial protectionist policies and high degrees of state regulation that her party advocates. Commentators were wondering whether she’ll survive this latest round. At a time when her main constituents, Norway’s highly subsidized and protected farmers and other rural interests, need her most, the direction of their party seemed highly uncertain.