ELECTION 2019: Labor barely wins most votes (for now), but Liberals poised to take over leadership of local council

Labor barely won the most votes as of now, but Liberals are the ones who may be claiming victory for the next four years.

Who will lead Longyearbyen during the next four years remains very much in doubt following the local council election, as a preliminary vote count Monday night shows Labor edging Liberals 342 to 333. Both parties will get five of the 15 council seats with those totals and, while Labor has presided over the majority for the past 16 years, Liberals may have the advantage in forming a majority coalition during discussions in the coming days with the three other parties on the ballot.

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Conservative and Progress party candidates sit together at Stationen while awaiting the results of the Longyearbyen Community Council election Monday night. But while the Conservatives greatly outnumbered the Progessives at the tables, they each won two seats on the new council. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

While the Liberals’ strong showing surprised few, there were major shakeups among the other parties about to be wooed:

• The biggest loser was the Conservative Party, which four years ago won five seats and had the same seeming advantage Liberals do now in terms of forming a majority. They will only have two seats on the new council after receiving 184 votes as of Monday night’s count.

• A stronger-than-expected showing was achieved by the Progress Party, which was on the local ballot for the first time, by securing two seats with the 126 votes received. The party, known on the mainland as right-wing populists with some controversial statements by members about issues such as immigration, made the rapidly growing local foreign community a significant part of its campaign by touting “equal rights” for things such as social benefits.

• The Green Party suffered what some called a surprising last-place finish, winning a single seat with its 98 votes. The party won two seats four years ago, and the large influx of new residents – many of them younger foreigners employed in outdoor professions such as tourism – and high-profile events related climate change were seen by many as a plus for the party’s prospects.

The official results are scheduled to be released at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

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Terje Aunevik, standing at right, is positioned to be Longyearbyen’s next mayor if his Liberal Party can secure a majority on the local council. Photo by Mark Sabbatini / Icepeople.

“I will wait until the final results and then we’ll have discussions,” said Terje Aunevik, lead candidate for the Liberal Party and therefore Longyearbyen’s next mayor if his party prevails. As the locally popular head of the Svalbard Business Association, he was credited by other candidates as largely responsible for his party’s strong showing, but he shared the credit with a list of fellow party candidates that was the longest on the ballot.

“I would like to think it’s because we have an extremely good list of candidates,” he said. Also, “I think we have done a good job of campaigning because we haven’t pointed fingers at anyone.”

Some contenders said they were surprised as Labor’s strong showing due to voter fatigue that often plagues longtime incumbents, along with enormous economic and other difficulties the city has faced the past four years. But Mayor Arild Olsen, who like Aunevik is waiting for a final vote count before pondering majority negotiations, said his party has produced a “good result” during majority reign despite the hardships.

“These (past) four years have been quite rough with nature and losing a lot of industrial workers,” he acknowledged.

The math for either Labor or Liberals forming a majority is simple: the forerunners need two of the three remaining parties to get at least the eight seats necessary (unless, of course, the leading parties join up). Conventional wisdom would suggest the right-leaning Conservative and Progress parties would be more inclined to join the centrist Liberals rather than left-leaning Labor – but conventional wisdom went awry in the last election.

Four years ago the Labor and Conservative parties each won five seats, while Liberals in their first time on the ballot secured three to make them the kingmakers. The assumption was they would align with the Conservatives as they do on the national level, but instead formed a majority with Labor in return for getting to name the deputy mayor.

While Olsen and other Labor party members spoke optimistically about another possible alignment with Liberals this time around, the circumstances are obviously far different since the latter has the power to seize majority control. Aunevik, when asked about another possible alliance with Labor, stated his party has had good working relationships and sided separately with both Labor and Conservatives during the past four years.

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