This is a remarkable procedure within a frame of politics that may on occasions well be described as nationalistic: The Norwegian ministry of justice has proposed to remove the right to vote or to be elected from non-Norwegian citizens in Longyearbyen unless they have lived at least three years in mainland Norway.
The background: Local democracy in Longyearbyen
A few words about the background: Spitsbergen is, in accordance with the Spitsbergen Treaty, not organised in a democratic way. The Sysselmannen is not elected but appointed by the government. On a community level, all of Spitsbergen’s settlements were founded by mining companies and run by these companies as company towns for most or all of their history. The introduction of democratic elements has been discussed on a number of occasions in the 20th century, but took shape not before the 1990s and a town council (Longyearbyen Lokalstyre, LL) was established in 2002. Only Longyearbyen has a council, the other settlements in Spitsbergen are still organised as company towns without a democratic structure.
Longyearbyen Lokalystre, led by a mayor (here: lokalstyreleder), is so far elected locally by all inhabitants who have been registered for a certain minimum period regardless of their nationality. This is what the government in Oslo wants to change.
Near 3000 people are registered inhabitants of Spitsbergen’s settlements, with a majority near 2500 in Longyearbyen. Of the total number, more than 900 have a nationality other than Norwegian. A large proportion of Longyearbyen’s population is thus of other than Norwegian nationality. Nationalities in Longyearbyen include Thai people, Swedes and Danes, Russian, Germans, UK and US citizens and many others.
Right to vote and to be elected to be removed from non-Norwegians
A recent proposal from the Norwegian ministry of justice suggests to remove the right to vote and to be elected to be removed from non-Norwegians unless they have been registered in a Norwegian mainland community for at least three years, a condition met by very few of the many hundred “foreigners” living in Longyearbyen.
Longyearbyen is a community with a very international population, but soon possibly with a much reduced level of democracy.
The background lies within general Norwegian Svalbard politics, which aim at developing Longyearbyen as a Norwegian community. This does not necessarily mean an entirely Norwegian population, as is also highlighted by undersecretary of state Lars Jacob Hiim of the ministry of justice in this context. According to Hiim, the proposal in question does not aim at changing Longyearbyen’s population structure, but is to ensure amongst others that voters and their elected representatives have knowledge about “aims and frame conditions of (Norwegian) Svalbard politics”.
Mayor Arild Olsen declared himself fully taken by surprise by this proposal, as Olsen told Svalbardposten. Neither he nor the local council had been involved or informed before the recent publication of the proposal, which Olsen strongly rejects.
Locally, the proposal is recected not only by Olsen, but also by many others. Some of those who are concerned are appalled: denuding people who have lived in their community for years, sometimes for many years, of the right to vote or to be elected feels completely out of place and politically-democratically rather unappetising especially in the context of a democratic country in the 21st century, let alone in a country like Norway which is usually considered to be a very modern and open society, often leading the democratic path for many other countries in the world. The current proposal has a very nationalistic flavour and is something one would rather expect, for example, from certain east European countries who have chosen a rather downward-leading path in their democratic development.