Vote for sale: Fight for council majority drags on w/out major bargaining chip as Store Norske’s fate likely set

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Eirik Berger may the least experienced politician in Longyearbyen, but right now he’s arguably the most powerful. And he’s taking his time making sure he doesn’t squander it.

The leader of the local Liberal Party, which technically has no political power at all, will occupy a measly three seats on the 15-seat Longyearbyen Community Council when the those candidates are sworn in as the party’s first members Oct. 27. But those three seats will presumably determine which of two other parties will have a majority coalition and, while the general assumption after last week’s election was they would align with the Conservative Party rather than current ruling Labor Party, Berger said a decision may not happen until sometime next week.

“We’re in a good position,” he said. “There’s progress, but we’re not ready to reach an agreement.”

Essentially, it comes down to aligning with the highest bidder, although the value placed on negotiating issues such as office titles (the Conservatives are reportedly willing to appoint a Liberal Party member mayor in exchange for support; Labor is not) more substantiative issues beyond honorariums are also in play.

But even that has has evolved into a different situation than some envisioned at election time because the perhaps the biggest political issue – how much financial support should the local council seek to support the money-losing coal mining operations at Store Norske – now appears to be a largely moot point.

Svalbardposten and NRK reported this week the coal company’s proposal to put most of its mining operations on hold for up to three years in the hope coal prices recover, appears to have support among ministry officials at the national level who will ultimately make a recommendation to Parliament. The reports note coal prices are expected to average about $50 a ton for the next three or four years, far below the $65 a ton Store Norske says it needs to break even with its current operations.

Store Norske’s proposal seeks about 300 million kroner to maintain its mines at Svea and Lunckefjell during the interim. Local Conservatives said during the election it was more sensible to seek additional funding so the mines could continue operation, allowing Longyearbyen to transition more gradually into other industries. Liberals said they support local mining, but only if it can be done without additional government funds. The Labor Party endorsed the coal company’s plan.

Berger said a resolution to that issue doesn’t necessarily change who the Liberals might align with.

“You have other positions as well you can talk about,” he said.

Berger also isn’t ruling out another unorthodox development: the Conservative and Labor parties forming a dominant majority since they have aligned on many issues during the past four years.

But harsh criticism by Consevatives about some Labor Party actions during the election and similar attacks by Labor against Conservatives afterward for a supposedly unfeasible proposal to seek citizenship rights for many of the 25 percent of Longyearbyen residents who are foreigners doesn’t bode well for that scenario.