After a long and controversial political process, the Norwegian government in Oslo has now made the decision that non-Norwegian inhabitants of Longyearbyen will lose the voting right (active and passive) on a community level. Only those “foreigners” (people without Norwegian passports) who have lived at least 3 years in a mainland community will be able to vote or to be elected into the community council (Longyearbyen Lokalstyre).
This applies to approximately 700 inhabitants of Longyearbyen. There is currently one member of Lokalstyre who has a passport other than Norwegian (Olivia Ericson from Sweden), according to NRK.
This had been a very controversial and, for some, emotional debate which was already subject of several earlier contributions on this page; read the previous article (click here) for more background, e.g. on the history of local democracy in Longyearbyen.
It is safe to assume that most non-Norwegian citizens have not spent 3 years as a registered inhabitant of a Norwegian mainland community. Many locals who have spent a major part of their lives in Longyearbyen will not be allowed to vote during the next local elections (in 2023) and they may not be elected into Lokalstyre.
The recent governmental decision frustrates many who are concerned; many feel like second-class citizens now, as Svalbardposten reports.
Minister of justice Emilie Enger Mehl gives the following explanatory statement (quoted from the press release of the Norwegian government, link above, my own translation): “The connection to the mainland makes sure that those who manage the community at any time have good knowledge and a good understanding of Svalbard politics and the (political) framework that is applied to Svalbard … considerable resources are transferred every year from the mainland to support public services and infrastructure. Inhabitants with mainland connection will often have contributed to these finances. The requirement for a mainland connection is also to be seen in this light.”
Longyearbyen is becoming more Norwegian. Exclusion of non-Norwegian inhabitants from local democracy is a price that the Norwegian government is appearently willing to pay.
So far so clear: those who (potentially) have paid are to decide; those who have paid potentially less (local taxes are low) and to not have the right passport are excluded from political participation where it really matters.
Longyearbyen Lokalstyre is a community council and no more than that. Lokalstyre’s decisions concern local traffic, kindergarten, school, other local infrastructure – just what a community council generally does, and no more than that. Lokalstyre does not have any influence in national legislation – beyond trying to be heard, which too often does not happen, otherwise the decision in question would not have happened as it did. Lokalstyre does not make decisions concerning Svalbard outside the community of Longyearbyen.
So one may ask what kind of problem the Norwegian government assumes to solve. Or, same question in other words: what are they afraid of? So far, Longyearbyen Lokalstyre is firmly in Norwegian hands. There is currently exactly one local council member who is not Norwegian, and that is Olivia Ericson from Sweden. Who is afraid of Olivia? And even if, one future day, Danes and Swedes, Germans and Thai would make up a visible proportion of Longyearbyen Lokalstyre and thus have a say in matters concerning local road building of kindergarten – so what?
Last year, a local council member of Høyre (“Right”) said something like “This is about security. Thus, we can not make any compromise.”
It would be interesting to know more about where politicians from the quoted local council member up to Minister of justice Emilie Enger Mehl see Norwegian security threatened.
Let’s just assume they would be able to give a convincing answert to this question (noting that nothing points to this actually being the case): the current decision is, at best, preventive. As mentioned, there is currently exactly one local council member who is not Norwegian, and nothing points towards an increasing trend of international diversity in Lokalstyre.
For this preventive measure, the Norwegian government is willing to pay a high price – or rather, to let others pay the price: the exclusion of a large group from local democracy. Many of those feel like second class citizens now.
Norwegian politicians usually not let an opportunity pass unused to point out that Svalbard and Longyearbyen are Norwegian (and I haven’t heard anyone questioning this, with some exceptions of bizarre claims made by Sovjet/Russian politicians, but that’s a totally different issue and by no means relevent in a local democracy context). But suddenly, Longyearbyen is not Norwegian enough to give those who have been living there for years good knowledge of the Norwegian political framework for Svalbard policy? That is, in my opinion, bizarre.
Justizministerin Mehl said (author’s translation): “Nobody is excluded from the democratic process, but you must have lived on the mainland for 3 years to be elected into Lokalstyre.” (Svalbardposten).
It is hard to say what is more worrying. That the government plainly ignores most of the opinions being raised during the public hearing – the voices from Longyearbyen where by far singing the same song of democracy and political participation.
Or that Mehl pretends that nobody is excluded from the democratic process while this is exactly what happens, which is either a concerning lack of knowledge or plainly false. There are very few non-Norwegian inhabitants of Longyearbyen who have spent at least 3 years as registered inhabitants of a mainland community. And the desire to do this has probably not grown for many whom the Norwegian government has now given the finger. This may be perceived as a strong description of the recent decision, but this is exactly how those who are directly concerned may well feel about it (so does this author, in any case).
Which other modern, democratic, European country has retreived lcoal voting rights from foreign inhabitants who used to have these rights before, some for many years? This decision apperas politically disgusting, right-wing nationalist and xenophobic. With this decision, the Norwegian government has joined a circle of European governemnts where, I am sure, they do not wish to see themselves.