Faced with a torrent of criticism for displaying poor leadership, Trygve Slagsvold Vedum is now talking tough as head of the nationally embarrassed Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp). He’s vowing to report eight of the party’s top male politicians to the police, plus two others, if none of them admits by Wednesday to sending an obscene message to his predecessor, Liv Signe Narvarsete, two years ago.
Vedum has been under pressure for failing to follow up on the particularly ugly case of sexual harassment after Narvarsete complained about it in 2016. The party’s written guidelines claim “zero tolerance for any behaviour seen as sexually offensive,” and that party leaders both elected and appointed “have a special responsibility” to maintain “ethical standards.” The party had also claimed it was free of the sexual harassment cases that emerged in other political parties in Norway during the “Me Too” international campaign last fall and winter.
But someone in a group of eight powerful Center Party men and two buddies, all of them from the rural district of Trøndelag and gathered for a weekend party at a mountain cabin in Sweden, sent an obscenely explicit message to Navarsete. Vedum claims he did question the men at the time, but no one would own up to it and he dropped it. He has indicated that he thought Navarsete herself didn’t want to pursue the matter either. The party’s secretary general claimed he’d forgotten about it.
The harassment of Navarsete hit national headlines after newspaper Nationen learned about the case and reported on it nearly two weeks ago. Not only Navarsete is a victim. Now the entire party is suffering after being accused of covering up the case, of being fraught with internal power struggles and with having a bad culture among powerful “bad boy” members. Someone is also clearly lying about his involvement, and maybe more are, too.
Vedum has also been suspected of being unwilling to confront the men from Trøndelag, who include the Center Party’s deputy leader Ola Borten Moe. Moe has been in trouble before, not least when he directly challenged Navarsete’s leadership even when both served as ministers in the former left-center government coalition. She hung on then, but ultimately resigned as leader after the Center Party did badly in the 2013 national election. Moe failed to win enough support to take over as party leader, clearing the way for Vedum in 2014, but Moe has remained potentially troublesome with support for the “Trønder” faction.
“Does Vedum fear the consequences of confronting Ola Borten Moe and his gang of friends?” mused political commentator Frithjof Jacobsen in newspaper VG on Friday, following Vedum’s initially mild response to the sexual harassment. “Does Moe have a grip on the party leader that we don’t know about?”
That, along with ongoing headlines and rising calls for action from top female politicians in the party (with the notable exception of the party’s leader in Parliament Marit Arnstad, who’s also from Trøndelag), may have goaded Vedum into taking a tougher stance. He told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Saturday that he still hopes whoever was behind the message “steps forward so we can resolve this case.” He claimed the party had questioned all 1o men involved, only to be met with denials from all of them.
Vedum was also criticized for turning the questioning over to the party’s secretary general, but now he says he’s been involved in the questioning too, ” and that we have spoken with some of the men several times” without anyone fessing up.
“Therefore I have decided to set a deadline,” Vedum told NRK. The guilty man or men have until Wednesday to come forward, he said. If no one does, “we will report this to the poilice. We can’t let this case go unsolved.” Only the police can get court orders allowing them to trace mobile telephone use and the program used to send the message.
Vedum noted that the case is also a burden on the men who were not involved in sending the message. He flatly rejected a proposal from another former leader of the party, Aslaug Haga, to suspend all of them from party positions they hold, claiming that “we don’t operate with collective punishment in the Center Party.”
Moe, meanwhile, continues to claim he had nothing to do with the message. He also claimed to support Vedum’s deadline and warning of police involvement: “Maybe that’s what it will take to get to the bottom of this,” Moe told NRK, admitting that “the fact the case has come to this is bad for all of us.”