Sp’s deputy leader suspends himself

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A sexual harassment scandal that has badly tarnished the reputation and credibility of Norway’s Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp) has prompted one of the men directly involved to suspend himself as the party’s deputy leader. Ola Borten Moe, who’s also a former Norwegian Oil Minister, says it’s become “impossible” for him to carry out his duties in a climate of suspicion.

Ola Borten Moe has suspended himself as deputy leader of the Center Party (Senterpartiet, Sp) in the midst of a sexual harassment case that also involves nine other men, seven of whom are party colleagues. He still denies sending a sexually explicit and highly offensive message to the party’s former female leader, but claims he simply can’t function as deputy leader in a climate of suspicion. PHOTO: Senterpartiet

“In this period where everything revolves around finding out what happened on a weekend cabin holiday in which I took part, it’s demanding for me to function in a centrally elected position of trust,” Moe told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) Monday evening.

Moe was referring to a now infamous weekend party at a cabin in Sweden in 2016 attended by 10 men, eight of whom including Moe hold or have held powerful positons in Sp. One or more of the men sent a sexually explicit late-night message to Liv Signe Navarsete, the former leader of the party who earlier was directly challenged by Moe, who wanted to take over her top post.

The message, sent via the mobile phone of one of the men, former state secretary Morten Søberg, was so offensive that Navarsete reported it to the party’s leadership including Trygve Slagsvold Vedum as a case of sexual harassment. Søberg flatly denied having sent the messsage, claiming one of the other men must have used his phone when he went to the toilet. All nine others, including Moe, have also denied sending the message, meaning that one of more of the men are lying.

Complaint wasn’t followed up
The harassment scandal expanded when Vedum and the party’s administrative leadership failed to follow up on Navarsete’s complaint, in violation of the party’s own guidelines for dealing with such matters. Party leaders also claimed as late as last fall, during the height of the international “MeToo” campaign against sexual harassment, that the Center Party was free of harassment complaints itself, which was not true.

Now Vedum is under severe pressure to find out who sent the message, dole out an appropriate punishment, resolve the matter and get back to the business of politics. The timing of the scandal and all the damage it’s doing to the party is especially bad, coming just as the party’s most important constituents, Norwegian farmers, make their demands for another year of state subsidy and tariff protection. The Center Party needs majority support in Parliament to fight what surely will be, in the party’s view, an insufficient subsidy package from the conservative government coalition,

Now it’s unclear what if any kind of political support the party can summon given all the charges of lying and sexual harassment tied to some of its most powerful male members. It’s also potentially damaging for the entire opposition in Parliament, coming right after the Center Party’s former government coalition partner, the Labour Party, also has been rocked by sexual harassment complaints against one of its own deputy leaders, Trond Giske.

Vedum announced during the weekend that the 10 men have until Wednesday to admit who sent the message. If Vedum’s deadline isn’t met, he’ll ask the police to launch an investigation.

‘Doubt, uncertainty, accusations and rumours’
Moe has not admitted he’s behind the message, rather that he simply can’t do his job in the current environment of “doubt, uncertainty, accusations and rumours.” Moe has in fact denied he sent the message. Despite his earlier power struggle with Navarsete, who ultimately resigned as leader in 2014, he now claims it was “deeply unfortunate” that such an offensive message was sent and that “it never should have been.”

He had no further comment, telling NRK that “I have told everything I know to the secretary general (of the party) and really don’t have anything to add. I have confidence the secretary general will get to the bottom of this case.”

‘Best to step aside’
NRK confronted Moe with the fact that he has at least known about the sexual harassment of the party’s former leader for the past two years, without it having any consequences for either himself or the other men. Asked whether he was suspending himself now only because the harassment had become public knowledge, Moe replied merely that “the case should have been resolved in another manner much earlier.”

He then added, though, that it was “a huge defeat for me and all the others” that the harassment had developed into such a crisis for the party and everyone involved. “I now believe it’s best for the party and best for myself to step aside,” he said.

Newspaper VG reported last last week that another former party leader, Åslaug Haga, had asked the party itself to suspend Ola Borten Moe and all the others (two of whom hold mayor’s posts in Trøndelag) from their various positions. Current party leader Vedum had refused to do so, claiming the party would not resort to “collective punishment.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund