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Dato: 24.10.2021

Comments on the proposal – Revised rules for elections to Longyearbyen Community Council


Today, non-Norwegian nationals have the right to vote and can be elected as a member of Longyearbyen Lokalstyre, if they have lived at least three years in Longyearbyen. Citizens of Nordic countries have the same voting right as Norwegians – both need to have entered the population register of Longyearbyen at least 4 weeks before the election day.

The proposal for changing rules for elections to Longyearbyen Lokalstyre (LL) proposes a requirement of three years' residence in a Norwegian municipality for all non-Norwegians, Nordic citizens included, in order to have the right to vote and be eligible for election to LL.

Around 753 foreigners lived in Longyearbyen and Ny-Ålesund during first part of 2021, out of a population of around 2 459 people.

In practice, this would mean that third of the population in Longyearbyen will no longer be able to participate in local democracy on an island ruled by a democratic state of Norway.

Third of the population would lose their opportunity to influence their daily lives and be part of the process developing their home town.

Against democratic and sustainability goals

All democratic governments, Norwegian state and LL included, base their political processes and decisions on the UN’s sustainability goals.

The sustainability goals are based on democracy and citizenship. The right to vote is the most important democratic right that Longyearbyen citizens have today. This is crucial for the sustainable development of society.

Norway has for years participated in peacekeeping actions around the world and spoken for democracy.

Just the summer 2021 Norway hosted the Arendal Week festival of democracy, including conversation about how to make Nordics the most sustainable and integrated region in the world.

Against this backdrop the proposal does not promote the values Norwegian state has signed for. It would be social washing to first encourage the citizens to contribute, and then take away their right for voting.

Longyearbyen cannot be a democracy if the right for voting is taken away from third of the population. When the power is only within a small group of people, one cannot call it a democracy anymore.

Against Nordic Co-Operation

Citizens of Nordic countries have had the same voting right as Norwegians in Longyearbyen. Nordic countries have tight co-operation, common intresses and common cultural background. Nordic countries have admitted each other special rules for voting regarding other Nordic countries’ citizens.

The proposal sets Nordic citizens in the same position as other non-Norwegian nationalities, without taking in account the spirit and practice of the Nordic Co-Operation.

The proposal is unconstitutional

The proposal is unconstitutional, as it means that those who have the right to vote today will lose it, without having committed a criminal act.

The fact that the law would be applied retroactive is an issue. There are examples of Non-Norwegian residents who have lived in Longyearbyen for over 20 years, have voted in many previous locals elections, and would now lose their right to vote because they have not lived for three years in a municipality on the mainland Norway.

Non-Norwegian vote is not a threat

There are multiple reasons for why the actions presented in the proposal are not the most ideal choices for controlling the population structure of Longyearbyen.

Whether a voter is Norwegian or non-Norwegian is irrelevant, as LL is only able to decide on very specific things relating only to Longyearbyen. What the local government is able to vote is about bridges over Longyearelva, avalanche protection, bonfire places at the beach etc. These are questions that concerns everyone living in this town, no matter of nationality. LL does not make decisions over Svalbard policies or politics.

It also needs to be emphasised that the Norwegian state has plenty of opportunities (legislation, area plans, etc.) to delimit the elected representatives' room for maneuver.

Nevertheless the right to vote in local election is very important for residents of Longyearbyen, both Norwegians and non-Norwegians. It is important for the citizens to be able to take part in deciding how their everyday life works and how their home town is developing.

It should also be mentioned that not many non-Norwegians live in Longyearbyen long enough to be able to vote according to the current law. The high turn-over (average 25% per year) in Longyearbyen is important to take into account. Most of the people, including non-Norwegians, move away before their 3 year eligibility time is full.

On the other hand, several of the non-Norwegian residents have a residence time above the average, at the same time as Norwegian citizens may have a residence time below the average. One can ask whether a local democracy consisting only of a few Norwegian local politicians, and where, for example, "moment voters" have greater influence than long-term residents, is in the best interests of the development of the city and the local community.

In the discussion around the proposal, colourful scenarios have been expressed depicting the different threats that non-Norwegian residents’ right to vote would induce. The threats proposed are very abstract, imaginative, and in many ways not linked to the right for voting at all.

Changes in laws affecting people’s fundamental rights shouldn’t be done based on fear, or without proper, reasoned, well-grounded arguments and statistics.

The proposal is not the most effective way to control the population structure in Longyearbyen

The proposal as it’s presented is invasive for human rights and problematic in a social sustainability point of view.

Norwegian state has many more successful ways to strengthen Norwegian sovereignty and increase the presence than changing the voting law. These means include strengthening the law of orderly pay and working conditions, generalization of tariffs and introduction of the Holidays Act.

It does not entice more Norwegians to move into Longyearbyen if third of the population is living without basic right of voting. But it might allure them to move if they have more desirable working places, wages and life quality in general. It therefore seems natural to strengthen this type of legislative changes rather than restrict local democracy.

Controlling housing market is also an effective way, already used, to control who is able to live in Longyearbyen. Non-Norwegians not eligible for public jobs already rent expensive homes from the private market and receive no subsidy for rents, cars and other means of everyday life. There are not as many apartments in the private market for rent or sale as there are people interested in moving to Longyearbyen.

Against the spirit of Svalbard Treaty

The sovereignty of Norway over Svalbard was recognised when the signatory counties signed The Svalbard Treaty (Spitsbergen Treaty).

The treaty is two-sided: it recognises Norway’s sovereignty, but gives equal access to all of the signatory countries. As of 2018, there are 46 parties to the Treaty.

The Treaty states the following: “Svalbard is part of Norway. Svalbard is completely controlled by and forms part of the Kingdom of Norway. However, Norway's power over Svalbard is restricted by the limitations: Non-discrimination: All citizens and all companies of every nation under the treaty are allowed to become residents and to have access to Svalbard including the right to fish, hunt or undertake any kind of maritime, industrial, mining or trade activity. The residents of Svalbard must follow Norwegian law, though Norwegian authority cannot discriminate against or favor any residents of any given nationality.”

Because of the international access enabled by the Treaty, Longyearbyen's culture and traditions are highly different from the mainland Norway. It is an integral part of Longyearbyen’s culture and tradition to be international and inclusive for people off all nationalities and cultures. Against that backdrop it would be highly important that a voter would have first of all local knowledge, instead of primarily having knowledge gained in the mainland Norway.

Because of the Treaty, the signatory countries’ presence will not go away, but Longyearbyen can decide how to approach it – with equality in the spirit of the Treaty as according to the current law, or with inequality, leading to multiple social and possibly diplomatic issues.

The proposal does not promote Norwegian Svalbard goals in practice

The proposal as it stands would create a Longyearbyen that is a less-desirable place to live for Norwegians.

It would create a town of two classes: those with right to vote and those without. Third of the population losing their right to vote in a small town like Longyearbyen is a drastic change that has a danger of leading to increased segregation, inequality and hidden power structures. It would create a class of people who are lacking a basic human right and who don’t feel like they can affect their daily life and opportunities. This has a big chance of enhancing the dark and unpleasant sides of the society.

It would not only a problem locally, but also unfortunate for Norwegian Svalbard policy. Would this type of Longyearbyen be a type of society a Norwegian would feel comfortable moving into?

Because of the Svalbard treaty, the population of Longyearbyen is unique by its composition. There are children of non-Norwegian parents who are grown into Norwegian culture in Longyearbyen. Because of the treaty, there will always be non-Norwegians living on Svalbard, even if they lose their right to vote.

In this scenario Norway would be hosting a segregated community on Norwegian Kingdom’s soil, that is against the sustainability and democracy goals it is rooting for.

The value of having an inclusive society, where everyone can contribute and that one does not build on segregation and polarization in a small local community is very important, not least in an area of ​​great international political interest.