Liberals’ leader won’t bow out

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Commentators were all but writing her political obituary before Trine Skei Grande rallied her troops in the Liberal Party over the weekend. Her party faces dismal standings in the polls and she’s been under fire herself, but she denied she was exhausted, rejected speculation that her days as leader of the troubled Liberal Party were over, and vowed to stir up voter support for her environmentally minded agenda ahead of the September election.

Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande took a bow after speaking at her party’s national annual meeting over the weekend, but she’s not bowing out. The embattled leader of a party that now commands only around 3 percent of the vote survived the meeting and hopes voter interest will pick up in advance of the September election, to maintain a Conservatives-led coalition government.
PHOTO: Venstre

“It feels very supportive,” Grande told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), referring to the standing ovations she received during the weekend, “and I think that’s a good start for this election campaign.”

It otherwise seemed to be getting off to a very bad start last week. The party, which is one of two small non-socialist parties that has had a support agreement with the current conservative minority government coalition since 2013, has dipped in some polls to below even 3 percent of the vote, much less than the 4 percent required for representation in Parliament. She stirred massive criticism when she reportedly declared to newspaper VG last week that her Liberals would bring down the current government coalition between the Conservatives and the Progress Party and force their own way in, to form a “greener” right-center coalition. She later retracted that, after facing a leadership protest within her party as well.

Commentator Frank Rossavik in newspaper Aftenposten claimed as her party’s national meeting opened on Friday that the Liberal Party (Venstre) was “ripe for shut-down,” while newspaper Bergens Tidende wrote that it had the “longest political program and the worst odds,” and had nurtured its losses instead of its gains from supporting the government coalition. Others claimed Grande had grown surly, cranky, and was worn out, with commentator Vidar Kvalshaug actually speculating in newspaper Dagsavisen over who could take over for Grande.

To top it off, Grande got into a public quarrel with one of Venstre’s own high-profile Members of Pariament, Abid Raja, who flatly stated that the Liberals will never get rid of their reputation as a vingleparti, one that changes course all the time, because of all its inconsistencies. Grande herself has changed her mind on such issues as agricultural reform, and last week the party seemed on the verge of imploding over family policies and issues like the monthly cash welfare payments all families receive for each child they have. While the party’s program committee wanted to get rid of them, the leadership balked. The party ended up voting to continue the payments but reallocate them to finance free day care and after-school programs for low-income families.

Grande admitted she’d become too negative last fall, and now would concentrate on what the party has achieved through its support agreement with the current conservative government coalition. PHOTO: Venstre

As the party was advised to worry less over how they’re viewed and more about how they behave, they gathered in Ålesund in surprisingly good humour and seemed determined to re-unite and drum up voter support. Even though they’re small, even 4 percent of support from Norwegian voters can land the party in a powerful position to swing votes in Parliament. They have five months to promote their agenda, which Grande summed up as being in favour of more liberalization than regulation, international cooperation instead of nationalism, and featuring “responsible politicians who don’t create conflicts, like pitting cities against rural areas, but rather try to solve them.” It was all a not-so-veiled jab at the Center Party, which hopes to team up with Labour and form a new left-center government in September.

Grande accepted some of the criticism hurled at her lately, admitting that “we are not at our best” when the Liberals are riddled by internal conflict. They’re rather at their best “when we stand up against populism … and in favour of tolerance.” She admitted she’d been too negative last autumn, during the heat of the budget crisis when the Liberals’ support saved the government from falling, and already by Friday evening, all members of her leadership team including Raja seemed to be smiling and applauding her.

The party did, in the end, decide to set a main goal of trying to be part of a new non-socialist Conservatives-led government coalition with themselves and the Christian Democrats, and without the Progress Party. The Liberals still view Progress as populist, along with the Center Party. The chances of such a coalition being able to form, however, seem dim at best.

The Liberals intend to push their “green agenda” and voted to cancel the 24th licensing round for new oil fields in the North Sea. That came in direct defiance of the Progress Party’s oil minister, Terje Søviknes, who offered 102 new fields to the oil industry in March. While Søviknes and the oil industry claimed the Liberals were setting both jobs and Norway’s welfare state in danger, the environmental movement was celebrating.

The Liberals also voted in favour of allocating parental leave in connection with the birth of a child so that the mother and father each get 15 weeks at full pay, and share the remaining 19 weeks, or more at less than full pay. The Liberals also became the first political party in Norway to clear the way for allowing surrogacy in Norway, as long as a surrogate parent is a friend or family member who doesn’t accept payment for bearing a child.

Tax-free sales at airports won ongoing support, despite the party’s leadership calling to eliminate them, while the party continues to want local municipalities to decide whether stores can stay open on Sundays and how late into the evening stores can sell beer and other low-alcohol beverages. The Liberals also voted against promoting membership in the EU, at least for now. Berglund