New president as more drama swirls

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Drama continues to engulf Norway’s Parliament (Stortinget) even as its 169 members settled on and elected a new president from the also-troubled Labour Party. Masud Gharahkhani, a 39-year-old son of refugees from Iran, said he was “humbled and proud” to win confidence at a time when it’s otherwise in short supply.

Masud Gharahkhani, a 39-year-old MP from the Labour Party, took over on Thursday as President of the Norwegian Parliament. His election came after lots of turmoil within Parliament but with his promise to put his “whole heart” into the job and “clean up” after a string of scandals. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Gharahkhani succeeds Eva Kristin Hansen, who resigned last week over her misuse of the Parliament’s commuter housing benefit. Gharahkhani admitted, though, that he was elected under “sad circumstances,” not least after Hansen suddenly told state broadcaster NRK on Wednesday that she’d felt “forced” to resign when the Parliament’s top administrator Marianne Andreassen “concluded I had broken the rules around commuter apartments between 2014 and 2017 and the state prosecutor followed up by ordering an investigation.”

Andreassen herself is also under fire, after several Members of Parliament, media commentators and legal experts have questioned how she’s handled a string of scandals at the Parliament regarding the housing benefit, severance pay for former MPs and irregularities in expense account claims. Hansen and Andreassen are now at odds with one another, and Hansen has hired the high-profile defense attorney John Christian Elden.

“I’ve had to seek legal assistance to clear myself,” Hansen told NRK. She has also sent a written account of her own defense, about how she’d “misunderstood” the Parliament’s rules, and said she still hasn’t been contacted by police. Elden himself told NRK that “Eva Kristin Hansen resigned as president of the Parliament on the wrong foundation.” He doesn’t think she broke the rules and claims she is not under police investigation after all.

That all made the Labour Party’s nomination of Gharahkhani to replace Hansen, and the Parliament’s formal election of him on Thursday, rather awkward. Since Labour ranks as the largest party in Parliament, it’s customary that it holds the president’s post. It’s non-partisan by nature, though, and the president must unify and represent the entire assembly.

“There are sad circumstances around this election of a new president,” Gharahkhani said when his nomination was put forward. “The Parliament’s work should be about solving people’s everyday challenges, not about rot or chaos within the Members of Parliament’s benefits.”

Gharahkhani said he was “humbled and proud” to take over as President of the Parliament, a position second only to the monarch in Norway. He was born in Iran but came to Norway as a child with his refugee parents. They’re both proud of him too, and have had long careers of their own in public service. PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Labour’s opposition parties in Parliament, especially the Conservatives, have been unusually quiet during all the drama swirling around Parliament during the past few weeks. The  Conservatives’ leader and former prime minister, Erna Solberg, came out in favour of Gharahkhani’s nomination, though, on the condition that “every president has to learn that you stop being a politician for your party and move into a role as representing the entire Parliament.”

MP Sylvi Listhaug, leader of the conservative Progress Party, told newspaper Dagsavisen that Gharahkhani “doesn’t have much seniority in Parliament (just his prior four-year term) but we will give him a chance. I hope he can lead the work to clean things up.” Listhaug added that “we hope he’ll succed in that. We need things to calm down now, to fix the problems that have been revealed (mostly by media) and see whether there are other cases that need to be revealed. We should be uncovering this ourselves, instead of journalists digging things up.”

Listhaug’s Progress Party colleague MP Morten Wold, who’s a member of the president’s cabinet, told Dagsavisen that the cabinet, the administration and leaders of the Parliamentary delegations must work together to improve and clarify rules and “clean up” after the scandals.

More drama within Labour, too
Solberg, meanwhile, stressed that the Labour Party was responsible for finding “the right person” to lead Parliament and renew voters’ confidence in it after months of negative headlines. Ironically enough, though, while the opposition respected Labour’s decision to nominate Gharahkhani, there were embarrassingly loud protests from within Labour itself, adding to the drama this week instead of alleviating it.

The loudest objections came from one of Hansen’s and Gharahkhani’s own Labour colleagues in the parliament’s presidential cabinet, 4th vice-president Sverre Myrli, who has represented Labour in Parliament for 20 years. Not only had Myrli been in line for the presidency after Hansen’s abrupt departure, he ended up getting voted out of the presidential cabinet altogether.

Until this week, Labour was represented in the Parliament’s presidential cabinet by both Eva Kristin Hansen (second from right) and Sverre Myrli (far right). Now they both gone, but still MPs. They’re shown here during a visit to Norway earlier this month by Germany’s president, Walter Steinmeier (center). PHOTO: Stortinget/Peter Mydske

Labour, with two seats in the cabinet, needed both a man and a woman to satisfy its gender policy. Since Gharahkhani is a man (other female candidates for the presidency reportedly didn’t want the job), Myrli wound up being replaced by Labour MP Kari Henriksen as a vice president.

Labour Party Secretary Kjersti Stenseng insists such gender diversity was the reason Myrli ended up being ousted, not because he’d done a poor job. Myrli, however, didn’t buy that, even telling reporters that it was all “a political play, and I’d call it an unworthy, disgraceful play.” He firmly believes he was the victim of behind-the-scenes maneuvering within Labour that dug up an old story about a short romance Myrli had with a younger Labour politician when they were both members of Labour’s youth organization AUF in the 1990s.

“I think it’s unfortunate when someone begins to dig into the past and set out rumours,” Myrli, now age 50, told reporters after Labour’s nomination meeting on Wednesday. “It’s terribly harmful for a party. I though we were over that, but someone clearly isn’t.”

Asked if there was anything else in his past that could come back to haunt him, Myrli said he didn’t think so, “but I’ve been a member of AUF since I was 14, then a member of Labour, I’ve sat in Parliament for more than 20 years. I have surely made some bad decisions and done some dumb things. I don’t think there’s anything serious, but someone clearly wants to use them.”

Party Secretary Stenseng later told news bureau NTB that “rumours and speculation about other things had nothing to do with our evaluation” of Labour’s nomination and candidate for president of the Parliament.

New round of power struggles and positioning
Hege Ulstein, politial commentator for Dagsavisen, wrote on Thursday that Stenseng herself has come under criticism for failing to reveal Eva Kristin Hansen’s commuter apartment problems when interviewing her for the president’s post before Parliament convened early last month. “If it’s true that Myrli’s case from the 1990s was the reason he wasn’t nominated as president, then many must be questioning whether Stenseng has been almost too thorough this time,” wrote Ulstein. “Or it’s all part of a political play, like Myrli claims. Just the uncertainty raised around him is a big problem for Myrli.”

And with that Labour was once again seen as floundering in all kinds of political mud again. Ulstein noted how party’s entire last session in Parliament was soiled by internal power struggles, a widespread lack of confidence, positioning and ugly cases of talented young politicians being overlooked. Poor public opinion polls haunted Labour as well, but when Labour emerged as the largest party in the September election and then managed to form albeit a minority government with the Center Party, many seemed relieved and glad that thought they’d start with a fresh slate.

Two months later, Ulstein writes, Labour politicians have been seen crying again after difficult parliamentary group meetings. The new session may be just as tough as the last, she wrote, with both Labour Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre’s government and the Parliament off to a bad start.

Gharahkhani, meanwhile, thanked the party for its confidence in him. He’ll be the first president of the Norwegian Parliament with minority and refugee background, something of which Støre thinks Labour should be proud.

Gharahkhani’s parents Bijan and Sara, were so proud that they were moved to tears as they watched their son speak about the family’s background during a televised press conference after his nomination. They live in Hokksund in Øvre Eiker, north of Drammen, and came to Norway as refugees from Iran in 1987 “after an unsuccessful revolution and war in the homeland” with one US dollar in their pocket. They started out as strawberry pickers, but Gharahkhani’s mother later became a teacher and his father now works with integration in local municipality.

“She’s the real hero for us,” Bijan Gharahkhani told NRK as he pointed to his wife, who was receiving a gold medal for her service to the community the same week. Their son said much the same: “I’m often asked how I’ve done so well in Norway,” the new president wrote on social media himself last year. “My answer is ‘my parents, Skotselv (the town where he grew up) and social democracy.”

Despite all the turbulence around his election on Thursday, Gharahkhani remains proud. “I go into this job with my whole heart,” he told reporters, “and I want to clean up together with the other political parties and administration. It’s important to restore confidence in the Parliament and the Norwegian democracy.”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund