NEWS ANALYSIS: Norway’s small but feisty Liberal Party (Venstre) is delivering punches in all directions after losing even more voters in last week’s local elections. Leading the assault is Liberal MP Abid Raja, who’s lashed out at a government coalition partner and now even Prime Minister Erna Solberg, while some of his colleagues are challenging the party’s own leadership and playing both sides of the political spectrum to win power at the local level.
The Liberals’ name can be misleading. Venstre means “Left,” but the party has traditionally been a non-socialist centrist party that has most often cooperated with conservative parties on the right. It opted to join Solberg’s conservative government coalition with the right-wing Progress Party last year. The centrist Christian Democrats following into the fold earlier this year. That gave the four-party coalition a majority in Parliament.
It hasn’t been a happy or harmonious quartet. They managed to hammer out a government platform and the Liberals and Christian Democrats won ministerial posts, but both parties have continued to sag in public opinion polls. Their quarreling over bompenger (road tolls) all but ruined the election campaign for themselves and everyone else, even though Solberg managed to force them into a compromise just before last week’s local elections.
All the government parties ended up performing poorly, posting some of their worst election results in years. The Liberals’ and Christian Democrats’ losses fueled their frustration that they’re not enjoying many if any advantages of being part of the state government. Their power seems limited, and neither their policies nor their profiles have received much credit or attracted voters.
When the Liberals claimed just 3.9 percent of the votes in last week’s elections on a nationwide basis, speculation immediately rose over whether party leader Trine Skei Grande (who also serves as Norway’s Minister of Culture) could ride out the storm once again. Her leadership and even her character have been called into question several times before. Several county leaders are calling for her resignation and want to see her replaced with either Liberal MP Guri Melby or Sveinung Rotevatn, currently a state secretary in the ministry in charge of climate and the environment. Grande, however, has made it clear she wants to hang on to her jobs as both party leader and government minister and won’t resign voluntarily.
Grande and Raja, one of the Liberals’ most charismatic politicians, were also in conflict themselves last winter but now claim to support one another. Faced with another loss of voters, Raja clearly sees a need for the Liberals to attract at least attention now, while also trying to set the party apart from its coalition partners.
Emboldened perhaps by a survey just after the election showing that he’s twice as popular as Grande, and the fourth-most popular politician in the country if not within his own party, Raja opted to lash out first at his party’s own government partner, the Progress Party. He told state broadcaster NRK just before the weekend that Progress was spreading “brown propaganda” with its campaign rhetoric that included allegations that Islam was “sneaking” into Norway and that “Norway won’t take in boat migrants.” Raja was referring to Progress’ long history of wanting to limit immigration and acceptance of asylum seekers.
“It’s absolutely clear that the rhetoric of Sylvi Listhaug and Siv Jensen during the election campaign has been destructive for the fellowship I want Norway to have,” Raja, a Muslim born in Norway to immigrant parents, told NRK. He claimed it was “thanks to Venstre” that Norway has at least taken in 3,000 UN-certified refugees and that the government is now tackling hatred towards Muslims. “That wouldn’t have happened without Venstre in the government,” he said, adding that his party has decided to become much more clear “every time Siv Jensen or Sylvi Listhaug come with more brown propaganda.”
Jensen, Progress’ party leader who also serves as Norway’s finance minister, quickly objected and repeatedly demanded (also on national TV) that the Liberals’ leadership “clean up” Raja’s alleged mess. The party’s immigration spokesman, Jon Helgheim, immediately distanced the party from Raja’s remarks, equating them to accusations that “anyone wanting strict immigration policy and critical of some aspects of Islam are in practice like Nazis. They’re outrageous claims to make.”
Grande, however, claimed there was no need to apologize or modify Raja’s remarks. She stood behind him, prompting more criticism from Jensen and head-shaking by political commentators. Some called Grande “passive” and suspected, along with Jensen, that Raja was jockeying for position within his own party to take over for Grande. A commentary he wrote in newspaper Aftenposten last week outlining the Liberals’ objectives was widely viewed as a party leader’s speech, if not an application for Grande’s job. NRK’s commentator Magnus Takvam said the latest quarrel he launched with Progress “bordered on self-inflicted injury” within the government, while noting, though, that “most people within the Liberals agree with Raja.”
With two parties within Solberg’s coalition stuck in a such a highly public feud, speculation rose that it all may just grease the skids for either Progress or the Liberals to leave government and join the opposition instead. Progress, along with the Liberals, also has seen its voter support dive and its most vocal right-wingers think Progress is better off in the opposition.
Solberg was caught in the middle, eventually telling NRK that Progress and the Liberals needed to sort out their differences and put this latest conflict behind them. Raja was not impressed, leading to his latest salvo on Tuesday when he questioned in a commentary in Aftenposten whether Solberg was taking her “share of responsibility” for the conflict.
“Do you feel, Prime Minister, that you have been brave in this debate?” Raja wrote. He thinks Solberg should have done the same as Grande, and supported his criticism of the Progess Party. He claimed, however, that “I don’t believe in any way that Siv (Jensen) has brown attitudes. I’ve always had genuine respect for her.”
A major quarrel nonetheless remains within the government, while the Liberals on a local level are trying to appeal to parties on both the right and the left in order to gain more power at the local level. In Oslo, the Liberals have approached the triumphant Greens Party, proposing they replace the far-left Rødt (Reds) as a support party in an incumbent left-green coalition. The Greens, armed with nearly as much voter support as the Labour Party, have not rejected the Liberals’ proposal.