Changes Regulations for Longyearbyen Local Council Elections, Must Have Norwegian Affiliation

Emilie Enger Mehl på Svalbard
Norwegian Svalbard Minister Emilie Enger Mehl during her first meeting with business and politicians in Svalbard in 2021. (Photo: Line Nagell Ylvisåker)

The Norwegian government introduces a requirement about three years of residency in a Norwegian municipality for non-Norwegian citizens in order to have the right to vote and be eligible for Longyearbyen Local Council. Foreigners not having any affiliation to the Norwegian mainland will thus lose their right to vote and the opportunity to stand for local council.

When Longyearbyen Local Council was established in 2002, Longyearbyen was introduced to the same regime as local communities on the mainland. However, since Longyearbyen in many areas is rather different from the mainland municipalities, it was stressed even back then that the local governance regime would have to be evaluated on an ongoing basis.

At the time of the introduction of local governance, the majority of the population in Longyearbyen had some form of affiliation with the mainland. In recent years, there has been significant in-migration to Longyearbyen directly from abroad, as Norwegian immigration laws do not apply in Svalbard.

Minister of Justice and Preparedness Emilie Enger Mehl (Center Party) says in a press statement that the affiliation with the mainland contributes to local Svalbard elected representatives’ having thorough knowledge and understanding of the Svalbard policy and the frameworks within which Svalbard operates.

“That is why the government now introduces a requirement about three years residency in a Norwegian municipality for non-Norwegian citizens in order to have the right to vote and be eligible for local council in Longyearbyen”, Mehl says.

In-migration from abroad

She says to Svalbardposten that this amendment has been decided implemented in order to maintain the local council’s affiliation with the mainland, as well as to ensure that those who are elected for the local council have sufficient knowledge about what applies to Svalbard.

In recent years, the population mix in Svalbard has changed.
Norwegian Justice and Preparedness Minister Emilie Enger Mehl (Center Party)

“We want to maintain a Norwegian family community that is attractive. In recent years, the population mix in Svalbard has changed and major changes have taken place since the local council was established in 2002”, Mehl says to the paper.

The Svalbard policy defines the framework for the local community a.o. when it comes to services and welfare available. The purpose of the local council is to ensure rational and efficient governance of the joint interests within the framework of Norwegian Svalbard policy and in this way, the local council also governs national interests.

Thorough assessment

Longyearbyen Local Council has no taxing authority and tax levels are low. Thus, significant amounts are transferred from the mainland economy to provide public services and infrastructure. Inhabitants with previous residency on the mainland will thus often have contributed to this funding. The requirement about mainland affiliation should be seen in light of this.

The proposal hearing took place in the autumn of 2021 and the changes to the regulations are adopted through a royal resolution.

“The government has conducted a thorough assessment and decided that these changes are necessary”, says the Minister of Justice and Preparedness.

Creates a bigger divide

When the proposal was out on public hearing, Local Council Leader Arild Olsen (Labor) said to HNN that while he understood the state’s wanting more control over who lives in Longyearbyen, stripping them of their voting rights was not the way to go.

Arild Olsen, leder i Longyearbyen lokalstyre og Ap-politiker. Foto Line Nagell Ylvisåker
Longyearbyen Local Council Leader Arild Olsen (Labor). (Photo: Line Nagell Ylvisåker)

“If foreigners in Longyearbyen do not have the right to vote at local elections, that may render local democracy irrelevant” Olsen argued. He was worried that the consequences of shutting a major group of inhabitants out from local democracy might create a bigger divide in the local population than there is today.

“If anyone were to be shut out from public debate, having control over hidden power and trade structures will be hard”, he said back then and argued that there was nothing to indicate that the number of foreigners would be reduced if they were stripped of voting rights.

“But local authorities may lose their power. That is an unnecessary risk for Norway to take. we cannot say ten years from now that this did not work, so they’ll get their voting rights back”, Olsen said. In his experience, it is mainly Norwegians who problematize the framework of the Svalbard policy and who push limits and want increased social rights.

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This article was originally published in Norwegian and has been translated by HNN's Elisabeth Bergquist.