Out of left field: Liberal Party defies predictions, joins Labor for new Longyearbyen Community Council majority

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After all the shocks and twists, Longyearbyen’s new political leadership will be pretty much what everybody long expected before the votes were counted.

The Labor Party will retain its leadership of the Longyearbyen Community Council and top-ranked candidate Arild Olsen will be the city’s new mayor starting Tuesday after the newly elected Liberal Party members agreed to form a majority with the Labor members. The general assumption after the Oct. 5 election – by Olsen and other Labor Party members, along with the media and many residents – was the Liberals would shake up the city’s leadership by aligning with the Conservative Party.

“We were actually preparing for being in the opposition,” Olsen said Monday.

The Liberal and Conservatives each won five seats on the 15-seat council in the election – loss of two for Labor and a gain of two for the Conservatives – with the Liberals winning three seats and the Green Party two seats. The ruling Conservative Party is aligned with the Liberal Party and two others at the national level.

Local Liberal Party leaders said in the days after the election they were talking more with Conservatives than the Liberal Party, but Olsen said the possibility of successfully negotiating an alliance began to seem feasible about a week later.

“It was no particular issue,” he said. “We had a sense the negotiations with the Conservatives wasn’t going forward so they wanted to talk to us.”

In addition, Olsen said media speculation the Conservative/Liberal alliance was a done deal may have affected the thinking of some during negotiations.

“We had some good negotiations four the past three weeks and and a good tone,” he said. “A lot of people have asked me what we have given. I don’t think we have given up anything. What we have gotten is a good platform…it’s not finished yet. I think what we have sounds very good and we have a lot of things we agree about.”

Some media reports stated the Conservatives were willing to appoint a Liberal party member as Longyearbyen’s next mayor in exchange for their support – a possibility Liberal Party members didn’t publically reject during the negotiations. But the Conservatives, in a post Tuesday on their Facebook page, denied agreeing to such a concession.

“From the Conservatives’ side, there has not been a desire to meet Liberal demand for leadership of the local government, as we consider it reasonable that position will accrue to the largest party in the coalition,” the post noted. “However, in talks ushered by the Conservatives with the Liberals there was a provision the Liberals could get the deputy mayor position and the head of the control committee.”

“It also emerged during the talks that there was great political agreement between Svalbard Liberals and Conservatives. We therefore consider it very surprising that the Liberals choose to forfeit a historic opportunity to get a middle-class composed local council by accepting an, at best, identical offer from the Svalbard Labor Party.”

The Conservatives argued the election “clearly signaled a desire in the population for a shift in Longyearbyen,” but Olsen noted Labor still got the most votes of all the parties. The Labor Party got 347 votes, Conservatives 299, Liberals 212 and the Green Party 136.

Top-ranked Liberal Party candidate Eirik Berger will be the city’s new deputy mayor in part of the new Labor-led coalition and the job will become a half-time salaried position rather than a 10 percent of full-time position  – a difference of a few hundred thousand kroner.

Olsen acknowledged some might interpret that as a money-for-support deal, but making the deputy mayor’s job half-time has been discussed for the past two years and there is sufficient money in the budget for the raise.