No salvation for Christian Democrats

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UPDATED: Knut Arild Hareide is suddenly having huge problems leading his flock in the small but powerful Christian Democrats party. A lesbian wedding involving two party officials was the last straw for scores of conservative members who’ve been leaving the party, while Hareide is hanging on after a call for his resignation.

Christian Democrats leader Knut Arild Hareide, shown here during last week’s party leader debate in Arendal, was facing calls for his resignation on Thursday. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Hareide himself admitted on Thursday that he’d “underestimated” what the reaction would be after Geir Jørgen Bekkevold, the party’s spokesman on family policy who’s also a pastor, performed the summer wedding ceremony for a lesbian couple, one of whom is Hareide’s communications director, Mona Høvset. The Christian Democrats’ stated policy calls for marriage to be between a man and a woman, and that children should grow up with a mother and a father.

Hareide initially wouldn’t comment on the wedding, saying he didn’t want to meddle in Bekkevold’s personal decision as a pastor within the Norwegian Church. The marriage is also entirely legal in Norway, and now accepted within the church itself, but remains unacceptable among the Christian Democrats’ most conservative members.

On Thursday evening, after a meeting of the party’s central board, the board expressed support for both Bekkevold and Hareide’s leadership, but offered no further details. Nor did Hareide have any further comment after a tumultuous day that began with a morning appearance on national radio that upset several key party members.

‘Fantastic position’
The lesbian wedding issue seems to be the proverbial straw that can break the camel’s back for Hareide, following months of disappointment and rising unrest within the party since the last national election. The Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti, KrF) only won 4.2 percent of the vote, barely maintaining representation in Parliament and losing two seats. Public opinion polls suggest the party has continued to lose voters ever since.

Hareide, as party leader, also has continued to refuse a standing invitation from Prime Minister Erna Solberg to join her Conservatives-led government coalition, citing the party’s differences with another coalition member, the Progress Party, not least on immigration policy. Being part of the opposition also held the promise of more power in Parliament, since the Christian Democrats suddenly found themselves with the swing vote on almost all contested issues.

Hareide claims he and his parliamentary delegation have used their position to the party’s advantage. “We have a fantastic position in Norwegian politics,” Hareide said on state broadcaster NRK’s morning political talk show Politisk kvarter on Thursday, in an attempt to put a positive spin on the party’s situation. He has admitted, though, that “there is unrest” within the party. He also declared that he still had “full confidence” in Bekkevold, saying the pastor was otherwise “loyal” to the Christian Democrats’ political agenda.

Left turn contested
The unrest is also pegged to the party’s political direction after last year’s election, with critics contending that Hareide is taking the party too much to the left side of Norwegian politics. Hareide was courted by Labour Party leader Jonas Gahr Støre before the election and other opposition parties also want the Christian Democrats on their side.

That has further upset the party’s conservative faction, with veteran Anne Ma Timenes from Kristiansand declaring on Thursday afternoon that Hareide should resign. Timenes, who remembers when the Christian Democrats held 13 percent of the vote more than a decade ago, points to the uproar over the lesbian wedding, the party’s reluctance to join the government and the party’s ongoing loss of voters. Recent public opinion polls have shown the party with only a little over 3 percent of the vote.

“I’m very fond of Knut Arild, but when he goes on the radio and says he has full confidence in Bekkevold (who conducted the lesbian wedding ceremony) before the central board even meets, he has put the board out of play,” Timenes told state broadcaster NRK. She thinks that’s ground for a lack of confidence in the party leader, and believes Hareide has been on thin ice since last year’s disastrous election results. “We can’t afford to lose any members, or MPs,” she told NRK, adding that “things had become worse” for the party, not better.

Hareide’s fate can tip the balance
Even though the Christian Democrats party is small, what’s going on now is of huge importance to all the other parties in the Norwegian Parliament, especially ahead of the upcoming autumn session when any number of issues could result in a majority against Solberg’s minority coalition and topple the government. Solberg and Hareide get along well but without the Christian Democrats’ formal support of her last term in office, she can’t rely on him at present. A more conservative leadership of the Christian Democrats, with Timenes supporting Hans Olav Syversen as a potential Hareide successor, could tip the balance and even bring the Christian Democrats into the fold of Solberg’s government. That would finally give Solberg the majority she’s sought since first gaining power in 2013, and likely ensure her survival at least through to the next national election in 2021.

Hareide is keenly aware that a vast majority of his party’s members support Solberg as prime minister, and that only 22 percent support Labour’s prime minister candidate Støre. Hareide continued to state on Thursday that it was a “strategic decision” not to join Solberg’s government or formally support it, though, claiming that his party achieves more of its goals by being in opposition.

He also noted on NRK’s program Thursday morning that Bekkevold’s decision to perform a lesbian wedding, along with the fact that one of his own top aides is lesbian, proves that the Christian Democrats party is diverse. He said Bekkevold had been loyal to the party on all matters of policy, and he saw no conflict of interests.

It all hinges on whether the party’s central board, huddling for the meeting that was bound to be difficult Thursday afternoon, agrees, and so far it has. Political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim wrote even before the summer holidays began that the Christian Democrats had a leadership problem and had failed at raising its “core value” issues like tighter rules for biotechnology. Now Hareide must struggle with what sides to take in the upcoming session, if he survives until Parliament’s opening day.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund