The international “MeToo” campaign, which has emboldened women to speak out against the sexual harassment they’ve experienced and prompted the media to write about it, has claimed its first high-ranking political victim in Norway. There may be more, given reports of harassment claims filed within most of the country’s political parties.
Newspaper Dagsavisen reported that nearly all Norwegian parties have dealt with cases tied to sexual harassment or other forms of abuse during the past five years. More of the cases have ticked in during the past few months, also since the Labour Party’s Deputy Leader Trond Giske became the highly public target of several complaints extending over many years.
His announcement Sunday night that he was resigning as deputy leader and willing to give up his post as Labour’s finance policy leader and spokesman came after conflict and drama within a party already in crisis over its parliamentary election loss in September. Norway’s other eight parties with representation in Parliament have mostly refrained from commenting on Labour’s crisis, perhaps knowing full well they could land in the spotlight as well.
Christian Democrats forced to apologize
One already did, with the Christian Democrats’ secretary general Hilde Frafjord Johnson issuing an unconditional apology just before Christmas to a young member of its youth group KrFU (Kristelig Folkeparti Ungdom). Julia Sandstø, age 20, had gone public in newspaper Aftenposten, complaining not only about what she believed was harassment but also that party leaders had all but dismissed her complaint without pursuing it.
When Sandstø was then finally called into Johnson’s office to discuss her complaint, she was verbally attacked by a member of the party’s central board while waiting for the meeting. “Everyone has fallen in love and done stupid things,” she claims he told her. “You know that.” He went on to criticize her for talking to Aftenposten, because her tale had concerned parents who suddenly weren’t sure they wanted their children to be members of the party’s youth group. The unidentified party official went on to blame her disclosure of harassment for “making the past few weeks very difficult for very many at the office.”
Sandstø also said that KrFU leader Martine Tønnessen and secretary general Otto Galtung had tried to get her to withdraw her complaint. “Martine said it wasn’t any ‘case,’” Sandstø told Aftenposten, apparently because Tønnessen didn’t think the incident Sandstø had described (details of which have not been revealed) amounted to harassment. Tønnessen said “all” other political parties’ youth groups had experienced similar “incidents” but they were advised not to reveal them because it could damage the party itself.
“I had no confidence that my complaints would be taken seriously,” Sandstø told Aftenposten. “It was very uncomfortable.” Both Tønnessen and Galtung have objected to Sandstø’s version of events and claimed to Aftenposten that they do seek openness on harassment cases, on the grounds it occurs within the party and not in the media.
Johnson, a former government minister and the party’s top administrator, ended up publicly apologizing to Sandstø two days later. “It was always our intention to support her, thank her for her feedback, invite her to a dialogue, be clear that we want to listen to her and that it’s the victims’ own evaluation and position that we take seriously,” Johnson told Aftenposten.
The newspaper’s political commentator, Trine Eilertsen, noted how the parties’ youth organizations are “a perfect arena for grown men hunting for young women.” She described how most young members are “driven by political commitment, not by glitter and prestige” but look up to senior politicians. The young members can be “a bit starstruck and fascinated” when meeting well-known politicians, especially government ministers, and that can be exploited.
Hedvig Halgunset, an 18-year-old member of KrFU, confirmed “lots” of maneuvering and “inappropriate comments” in the party youth groups. “I have also had several uncomfortable and ugly experiences,” she said, adding that she was “disappointed” that the parties haven’t talked much about it.
Now they are. Not only have the Christian Democrats woken up to the problem, so have several other parties. The Progress Party reports three harassment cases in recent years, and the Liberals, the Greens and the the Reds four each. As Labour deals with multiple complaints against Giske alone, others have arisen as well.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg, leader of the Conservatives, said on NRK’s national radio news on Sunday afternoon that her party has had five new cases filed against “high-ranking” party officials in the wake of the Giske case, but they were anonymous and “difficult” to immediately comment upon. The Socialist Left party (SV) has also reported complaints, but didn’t have any numbers. The Center Party claimed it had “no known cases” of harassment, despite reports over the years of questionable behaviour by at least one party minister who even once sported a blackeye.
The parties have also had their shares of sex scandals, with the Progress Party’s Terje Søviknes surviving his, to return as oil minister in the current conservative government coalition. The party’s communications director Ida Krag told Dagsavisen that the party has had “three cases with varying degrees of seriousness during the past five years,” all of which had “been handled” by a party commission.
Both Lars Gaupset of the Greens Party and Trond Enger of the Liberals said most of their cases involved women who experienced “unwanted attention” from men. John-Ragnar Aarset of the Conservatives said the party had “unfortunately” had several cases but couldn’t put a number on them. That was before NRK reported five cases filed just since Christmas, after Giske publicly apologized and went on sick leave before resigning as deputy leader on Sunday.
The president of the Norwegian Parliament, Olemic Thommessen, told news bureau NTB last month that “all parties have a major responsibility” to address sexual harassment and handle complaints. “I meet regularly with the (parties’) parliamentary leaders and it’s natural that I take up such issues,” Thommessen told NTB. “At the same time, it’s the parties themselves that need to raise consciousness about this problem in their own parties and their own parliamentary delegations.”
Progress Party leader and Finance Minister Siv Jensen has disclosed that she’s been subject to sexual harassment herself over the years, also, she claimed, from journalists. She recently agreed on NRK’s morning debate program Politisk kvarter that sexual harassment “is not acceptable, regardless of where it takes place,” and that “it’s legitimate that those who harass are exposed.” The new outrage and sensitivity over harassment, however, “must not mean we can’t hug one another any longer,” Jensen said. “This can’t become a public pillory, we do have legal protection (for both sides) in Norway, but the most important is that we don’t get so afraid of this focus on harassment that we stop hugging.”