Arne O. Holm says Svalbard: While Temperatures Rise, Relations Between People Grow Cold

Emilie Enger Mehl på Svalbard
Justice and Preparedness Minister Emilie Enger Mehl struggles to explain why foreigners in Longyearbyen are stripped of their voting rights. Here from Mehl's first meeting with business and politicians on Svalbard in 2021 (Photo: Line Nagell Ylvisåker)

Commentary: Climate changes make the Arctic dangerously hot. On a human level, politician-made changes make relations between people cooler than before. The Norwegian neo-nationalism in Svalbard stirs surprisingly little debate.

“We have made thorough considerations prior to this decision” says Minister of Justice and Preparedness Emilie Enger Mehl to Svalbardposten when asked why foreigners in Svalbard are being stripped of their democratic right to vote in elections.

She says far less about what exactly those considerations have been, except from saying that thye have been thorough.

Revoking voting rights

And that is comforting, of course, when a nation on top of the list of statistics over democratic countries strips a third of its citizens of their voting rights.

Because that is what has happened in Svalbard. Up until today, everyone who have lived for three years or more in Longyearbyen have held the right to vote in local elections.

As of the next such election, that is no longer enough. In order to be allowed to cast one’s vote in Longyearbyen, one has to be able to demonstrate at least three years’ residency in a mainland municipality. Svalbard is Norwegian in every official document yet not when it comes to the question of voting rights. The official Norway is then limited to the mainland further south.

The unspoken reason for this is somewhat ironic.

“That is to make sure one has sufficient knowledge of what applies in Svalbard”, the Minister of Justice and Preparedness says when asked to explain why mainland residency is a requirement for voting in Svalbard.

The rationale appears rather absurd.

May it be an erroneous quote

I am almost tempted to believe she has been erroneously quoted by the excellent local paper in Longyearbyen. Here, however, I chose to trust my colleagues further north. That the minister actually argues that the only qualified knowledge about Svalbard can be gathered on the mainland, not in Longyearbyen.

I hardly know of any local population members, be they Norwegian or foreign, who know their local community better than those living in Svalbard. What else would you call the education and formation inhabitants get through education at the local university, through guide education, in school, and in kindergarten.

I myself lived in Svalbard when local democracy was introduced in Longyearbyen around the turn of the millennium. The fact that inhabitants were granted genuine voting rights for their own local council was a solemn confirmation of the desire for Norwegian democracy to apply everywhere Norwegian law applies.

Lump in the throat

I think then-Minister of Justice Odd Einar Dørum from the Liberal Party who had a lump in his throat when he introduced democracy in Svalbard.

Strange, then, that the official reason for stripping a third of inhabitants of their voting rights also is “to lead a consequent and long-term Svalbard policy”.

That gives quite new meaning to the terms ‘consequent’ and ‘long-term’.

Must go to Ballangen to learn about Svalbard.

The obvious explanation is that the rationale for revoking voting rights appears rather absurd. The true rationale is to strengthen Norwegian control over Svalbard and Longyearbyen. One may agree or disagree with that. Yet explaining such a dramatic change for the local community with such simple words leaves a lot to explain.

It could even trigger other nations.

A wedge through the community

There is no doubt that the Norwegian government will achieve what it wants. Not only will foreigners lose their voting right. They will also lose their eligibility for local council and, through that, the opportunity to affect their own everyday life.

When a wedge is hammered into a local community in this way, it leads to a colder society. It represents brutal sorting of people in a community that in more ways than one is a role model for integration and generosity.

Now, they have to go past Skibotn or Ballange, or something like that, to learn regulations in Svalbard.

The people making this decision include some of the 28 Members of Parliament and 17 government members who just a few days ago were told in no uncertain terms by the tax authorities that they had broken the regulation for commuter housing.

Most of them have lived in Norway all their life. That does not seem to help at all.

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