NEWS ANALYSIS: Veteran politician Trond Giske’s determination to hang on to power within the Norwegian Labour Party continues to tear the party apart. Party leaders are now being described by some party members as “cowards” for allowing Giske to win a new strategically important party position in his native Trøndelag this week, just a year after he was found guilty of several cases of sexual harassment during the course of his political career.
Victims of Giske’s sexual advances, several of whom were so disillusioned that they’ve left politics, are disappointed and even furious that Giske is able to make even a limited comeback so quickly.
“No one should have confidence in someone who misused the confidence of others for years,” claims Sunniva Andreassen. She’s a former member of the Labour Party’s youth group AUF who’s among those who went public with their complaints of sexual harassment against Giske. Andreassen is now among those accusing influential members of Labour’s chapter in Trøndelag of all but ignoring the charges against Giske, by first trying to elect him as deputy leader of the chapter (that failed) but then nominating him for a seat on a party commission that can lead to his election to the party’s national board later this spring.
Andreassen, in interviews with several newspapers including Dagens Næringsliv (DN) and Dagsavisen, claims Giske is far from deserving any such position of trust, and that he now has shown hmself to be lacking both humility or empathy. “I don’t care about his career and am not interested in what positions he secures,” she told Dagsavisen, “but I don’t think people who strategically abuse their power should be able to hold positions of power.”
‘Too early’ to give Giske positions of trust
While Andreassen has already left the party, her views are shared by many others given recent public debate over Giske’s attempted comeback. “I think it’s too early to give Giske the confidence that (elected positions) involve,” Frode Jacobsen, leader of Labour’s large Oslo chapter, told newspaper Aftenposten earlier this week. “It sends the wrong signals, both towards those he has (sexually) offended and outside the party. These have been serious cases (of harassment). How we handle them shows how seriously we take this type of behaviour.”
Jacobsen had hoped his colleagues in Trøndelag would “think twice” before nominating Giske. Jacobsen declined comment on the resulting compromise that can still propel Giske back onto the party’s national board, with full voting rights. Party Secretary Kjersti Stenseng, deputy party leader Hadia Tajik, the new AUF leader Ina Libak and Giske himself also declined requests for interviews after Giske’s election. Giske preferred to post messages on social media that he valued his Trondelag colleagues’ nomination and that he’ll now have “even greater opportunity” to be active in politics where “it means most to him” (in Trøndelag) and to be part of forming what’s expected to be Labour’s largest county chapter “from the beginning.”
On Thursday, meanwhile, an active member of Labour’s Oslo chapter, Anna-Sabina Soggiu, publicly dumped all her own party posts along with her party membership, after Giske’s new position in Trøndelag became known. Soggiu doesn’t like the signal it sends either. She also, in an open letter to party leader Jonas Gahr Støre published by state broadcaster NRK, accuses party leaders of “cowardice” and blames both Støre and party secretary Stenseng for allowing Giske’s comeback by clearing the way for his “full participation” in the party. Støre and Stenseng had recently sent a letter to Giske rejecting his appeal of his case but noting that nothing otherwise hindered such full participation.
Giske chose to mount it through his local home chapter, which ranks as Labour’s largest outside Oslo and where he still has lots of supporters. They include many whom he has helped usher into national party positions and seats in Parliament, like MP Jorodd Asphjell, who also happened to serve as the leader of Trøndelag’s local election committee.
Giske Labour’s ‘Godfather’ in Trøndelag
Asphjell relied heavily on Støre’s and Stenseng’s letter to Giske in justifying Giske’s addition to the election committee’s list. DN‘s political commentator Kjetil B Alstadheim, who calls Giske the “Godfather” of Labour politics in Trøndelag, also noted that Asphjell arguably owes his seat in Parliament to Giske and is also among those who gave Giske a standing ovation when he took part in a local chapter meeting as early as past spring. Asphjell also told DN at the time that “we need to get Trond (Giske) back as an ideologist, an organizer and to front the party’s policies on many important issues.”
Both Asphjell and local party colleague Roar Aas believe Giske remains “among the most clever and competent politicians we have.” They also believe Giske has suffered enough by losing his position as deputy leader of Labour and as the party’s finance policy spokesman. Aas told Dagsavisen earlier this week that “everyone makes mistakes. At some point, they have to be forgiven.” Both reject arguments it’s coming too soon in Giske’s case.
Support like that all but sickens those who’ve filed complaints, and disturbs party members who’ve been embarrassed or disgusted by Giske’s behaviour. Even Labour Party supporters like political commentator Arne Strand at Dagsavisen note how the Giske case has caused huge problems for Labour, dragged the party into disrepute and diverted attention away from the politics Labour ties to promote. Now Giske continues to split the party, not only in Trøndelag where Aas and Asphjell ended up being unable to simply sweep Giske back in from the cold. Concerns were raised by Labour politicians in Rogaland, Hordaland, Troms and Finnmark, for example, when Giske’s nomination in Trøndelag was first reported by newspaper VG.
“This has been a difficult issue, engaging many (on both sides),” Støre admitted to Aftenposten on Thursday. He thinks the election committee “took responsibility” in the end through the compromise that didn’t immediately place Giske in a powerful position.
Støre insisted that he’s listening to all the criticism that Giske is nonetheless being allowed a comeback too soon. “I understand that folks are engaged,” he told Aftenposten. “There’s nothing today that tones down the seriousness of the issues (against Giske) that were handled last year, and they had serious consequences for Trond Giske.”
Støre stressed that Giske’s attempt to have his behaviour re-evaluated and the party’s conclusions changed were turned down. “It’s important that those (filing complaints) can be reassured, and that there’s a clear message that we take these cases seriously.”
In the end, no sanctions imposed
At the same time, however, Støre also stressed that the party hasn’t placed any sanctions on Giske: “The way back to acquiring new responsibility must be won through new confidence.” He added that Labour has a “long tradition” of deciding such things at the local level, thereby seemingly absolving himself of responsibility. He noted that he doesn’t think it’s realistic, however, for Giske to aspire to a new spot on the party’s most powerful central board.
Asked by Dagasvisen, whether Støre couldn’t have just taken Giske aside and suggested that it “would be wise to keep a low profile a bit longer,” rather than making such a quick power grab, Støre replied: “It’s always wise to speak together, but when it involves principles and there’s been a reaction in a decisive manner, which had great consequences for his political career, the party has to be able to signal that it’s finished with the case. It must also be possible for a person to try to regain confidence.”
Asked whether Giske has won Støre’s confidence, the leader of Norway’s largest party that will try to win back government power just two years from now responded: “I have confidence that he will perform the work he is elected to do, with the full energy and responsibility that follows with that.”
Andreassen remains dubious: “I hope first and foremost that Giske doesn’t become a much-too-visible example for a new generation that can grow up and think that sexual harassment is okay.”