Liberal Party gathers in Hell, in crisis

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Embattled politician and government minister Trine Skei Grande was due to literally lead her Liberal Party’s annual meeting into Hell this weekend. The annual meeting, being held at the Hell Hotel near Trondheim, comes just after release of the Liberals’ worst poll results ever, but Grande won’t admit her party is in crisis.

Liberal Party leader Trine Skei Grande, who also serves as Norway’s culture minister, has been in trouble before, but never faced poll results so bad as those released this past week. Now she needs to try to gather her party together and drum up lots of support before municipal elections this fall. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

“The situation is serious, but it’s no crisis,” Grande insisted to reporters earlier this week. Others claim she’s suffering a serious case of denial, refusing to acknowledge how her party has become a shadow of its former self, especially since it joined Norway’s conservative coalition government early last year.

Poll results have declined ever since, reaching the new low in a poll conducted by research bureau Norstat for newspaper Aftenposten and Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). Only 1.9 percent of voters questioned said they’d vote for the Liberals (Venstre) in the next national election. That means the already-small party would lose seven of its eight seats in Parliament at present.

Many Liberal voters think their party has compromised far too much on its positions since joining the government, while others wonder what the party’s positions really are, since they they have a tendency to change. Grande has waffled in the past, and is still being criticized for going along with a tightening of Norway’s abortion law to appease the government’s newest member, the Christian Democrats. Former party faithful have pointed out that Grande also broke her campaign promise not to sit in a government with Norway’s most conservative party, the Progress Party.

Defectors to Center Party
Other party members and former members have complained in Norwegian media recently that the Liberals aren’t offering enough support to rural areas or the “district politics” that allow them many advantages at taxpayer expense, not least within agriculture. They’ve joined the farmer-friendly Center Party instead, which has been rising in the polls for months and now holds 12.4 percent of the vote. That’s slightly more than the 12.1 percent currently held by the Progress Party, which long ranked as one of Norway’s three largest parties.

The bottom line: opposition parties in Parliament would win 97 seats if an election were held today, while the four government parties including the Liberals would hold just 72. Yet Grande, who also landed in an embarrassing sex scandal last year and has been caught bad-mouthing fellow party politicians, is reluctant to address her party’s dramatic dive in popularity and how it can become a liability for the government and Prime Minister Erna Solberg of the Conservatives.

“I don’t want to use much time analyzing why we are where we are,” Grande told Aftenposten on Wednesday. “But we have had lots of attention around issues we have lost and not on the issues we actually have won.”

There’s also been a lot of internal debate and division over party leadership. She did acknowledge that both she and the party need to do a better job of presenting their government accomplishments better, and that “we haven’t managed to build the organization into a team.”

May win on Oil Fund sell-off of oil shares
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported on Thursday that speculation was swirling over how Finance Minister Siv Jensen of the Progress Party may hand a victory to Grande on Friday: Jensen scheduled a press conference for just after noon (and just before the Liberals gather for Grande’s opening remarks) that may allow Grande to claim credit for her party’s proposal to pull Norway’s huge Oil Fund out of investments in, ironically enough, oil and gas shares. The Liberals have argued that Norway needs to reduce its exposure to the oil and gas industry. If Jensen announces plans to sell off oil and gas shares, Grande could present that as a victory for the Liberal Party. Norway’s krone weakened again, meanwhile, with one US dollar costing NOK 8.80 Friday morning.

While Grande won’t admit that her party is in crisis, commentators are convinced it is. Some even question why the Liberals should exist at this point. “As party leader, she’s so weak that she can’t even try to ward off a steadily rising internal leadership debate,” wrote commentator Hege Ulstein in newspaper Dagsavisen on Thursday.

Grande responded by saying she welcomes a debate over who will take over after her, but she’s not planning to step down anytime soon. By the time the next national election rolls around in 2021, it may be too late.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund