Raja’s back, but party still ‘sick’

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The Liberal Party’s arguably most charismatic politician, Abid Raja, has decided he’s well enough again to return to work. Both he and the Liberals’ leader Trine Skei Grande immediately made the media rounds, insisting they’d settled their differences that had made Raja sick, but their alleged reconciliation may not be enough to heal what’s really ailing a clearly divided party that’s sagging in the public opinion polls.

Abid Raja, who made the rounds of the media after returning from sick leave, is a lawyer and former diplomat who’s been a longtime member of the Liberal Party and now serves as its financial policy spokesman in Parliament. He returned to work this week after a highly public conflict with party leader Trine Skei Grande. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The Liberals have recently been showing poll results indicating they hold less than 4 percent of the vote, even after being part of Norway’s conservative government coalition since January and even after winning three ministerial posts. Grande, who serves as Minister of Culture, now stands accused of allowing a culture of woeful cooperation and poor communication to fester within her own party.

Her verbal assault on Raja just as he was about to lead the Liberals’ portion of state budget negotiations, in which she denounced and all but discredited him in a shocking phone conversation with the Conservatives’ lead negotiator, clearly stunned Raja himself. “It was surprising and unexpected,” he told several media outlets on Thursday including newspaper Aftenposten. “It was an emotionally difficult situation to be put in. At the same time, it was important for me to set aside personal feelings and needs, because it was important for the government (which was negotiating with the demanding Christian Democrats’ party in order to win majority support for the budget in Parliament).”

Grande, who reportedly had told the Conservative Party’s Henrik Asheim that Raja “was out to get me, he’s running a campaign against me and is dragging the party down into the mud,” has since apologized and claims she didn’t mean it. “It was stupid of me,” Grande said repeatedly on state broadcaster NRK’s evening debate program Debatten Thursday evening, in which she appeared with Raja. They both claimed they had reconciled, that they liked each other and that they were eager to put the incident that has gripped Norwegian media all week behind them and move forward together.

Raja and Grande appeared together on state broadcaster NRK’s debate program Debatten Thursday night, hosted by Fredrik Solvang. Both insisted they had reconciled and were ready to move on. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

That won’t be easy, given all the commentaries that the Liberals are a deeply divided party in the midst of a power struggle. Raja claims, though, that he “is not going after her job.” He contends he’s been a loyal member of the Liberal Party (Venstre) who has worked closely with Grande for nearly 20 years and willing to do whatever job she assigns him. He claims he has accepted her apology and is keen to move on.

He had earlier told party fellows, however, that “Trine made me sick,” a condition that’s often used in Norway when things aren’t going well at work. Norwegians often go out on sick leave, which some including Progress Party politician and former justice minister Per-willy Amundsen thinks has become “too easy” to do, “if a verbal correction from a boss qualifies as a diagnosis.”

Raja defended his sick leave, noting that 18 days had passed since Grande had humiliated him, during which he had carried on with budget negotiations and had to testify at a trial in which an Islamic extremist was charged with making threats against Raja. “When you put all that in a big pot and stir it up, it can affect your sleep and other things, and it did.” The Parliament’s own doctor recommended some time off. “She’s a specialist and I followed her advice,” Raja said, noting that it was one of the few if not the only times he’d gone on sick leave during all the years he’s been a Member of Parliament.

Grande has admitted to being an emotional party leader and has apologized for humiliating Raja at the start of state budget negotiations among Norway’s four non-socialist parties. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Now he and Grande need to improve communication between themselves and within the party, he said. Reports have emerged, meanwhile, that Grande had to be pressured into initially apologizing to Raja for her verbal assault, and that she does view him as a threat to her party leadership. Several Liberal Party politicians have described Raja as “one of the only high-profile Liberal politicians who pushes our people in the government.” Many think he’d be a good leader himself.

Political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) noted that Grande often starts crying during important meetings and negotiations, and she’s admitted herself that she’s an emotional person. “Sources in the party have told DN that her tears make it difficult to bring up criticism and negative relations within the party,” Alstadheim wrote on Friday. That means discussions the party really needs don’t take place. “That’s not good leadership,” he wrote.

Now Raja hopes the drama of the past autumn can be set aside as the Liberals and the two other government parties, the Conservatives and the Progress Party, gear up for negotiations in January with the Christian Democrats, who may join the coalition and finally give it a majority in Parliament. It’s important to present a united front, even though the situation within Liberals seems anything but united at present.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund