For those not familiar with Norway’s political parties and the unusual “private sector” economy in Longyearbyen, it might seem inconceivable the Liberal Party would join the Conservative Party (rather than the left-leaning Labor Party) to form a new ruling coalition on the Longyearbyen Community Council.
Especially, since as will be explained shortly, the Conservatives and Liberals (or Right and Left parties, if literally translated) differ fundamentally on perhaps the most important issue of all for at least the short-term, if not their entire four years in office.
Norway’s Liberal party is primarily associated with social liberalism, which shares the Conservatives’ endorsement of a market economy while taking a more centrist approach to social policy by favoring both an expansion of individual rights while still favoring a strong government role in issues such as poverty and health care. The national government’s current Conservative-led ruling coalition includes the Liberal Party, as well as the Progress Party and Christian Democratic Party.
With the economy the dominant issue in Longyearbyen, the similar free-market platforms of the Conservative and Labor parties would suggest they’d be suitable allies since, among other things, both favor an aggressive attempt toward luring and retaining businesses. But their biggest disagreement, about the future of Store Norske, actually flip-flips the concepts of what many consider conservative and liberal policies.
The local Conservative Party wants the government to provide funding to continue all current coal mining operations, even at a heavy loss, until the city has time to make a gradual transition industries, an approach some might compare to socialism. The Liberal Party, on the other hand, favors keeping open only those operations that can operate profitably without further assistance from the government.
Obviously that will be a primary topic of discussion as members of the two parties are expected to meet the day after the election. Another may be a question of titles – while it might be assumed top-ranked Conservative Party candidate Torgeir Prytz will become Longyearbyen’s next mayor, he and others said after the votes were counted it remains unknown who will get that title. Liberal Party members have already stated getting one of their own named Deputy Mayor is a minimum requirement, suggesting additional concessions of more significance will also be necessary.
(Since this newspaper has already engaged in one absurd “longshot” prediction – the Green Party would win five votes; they actually won two – here’s another as the soon-to-be council members meet behind closed doors: Longyearbyen’s next mayor will be either Leif Terje Aunevik or Kristin Furu Grøtting from the Liberal Party. Both of them – especially Aunevik – received by far the most of what might be called “personal” votes (categorized in two ways) in their party, which allows candidates to be chosen and elected in an order other than their place/ranking on the ballot.)
Store Norske, for those unfamiliar with its ownership history and recent developments, has long been almost entirely (more than 99 percent) owned by the national government, and a condition of a $500 million kroner bailout package approved by Parliament was the government would acquire all outstanding private shares as well as all of the Store Norske’s property and infrastructure. So the bailout – and any further assistance – is arguably the government investing in its own assets in the hope they somehow become profitable again, either with a recovery in coal prices or finding new life in research and other industries.
One area of agreement among all of the parties on this year’s ballot was the government should go even further in its ownership of local assets by taking over the city’s infrastructure – and perhaps giving Store Norske a new role as the manager of those facilities. Which means that while Longyearbyen will now have conservative leadership after a Labor’s long reign, smaller government isn’t part of the macro picture. Instead, both the local Conservative and Left parties are hoping to scale back the number and complexity of regulations affecting businesses here.
One example cited by Prytz during the campaign was need for tour boats to submit trip plans three months in advance, a difficulty since passenger loads and weather conditions are often impossible to know that far ahead of time. He said shortening that period to as little as a week would be a significant incentive for an industry the city is basing much of its future economic hopes on.
Similarly, top-ranked Liberal Party candidate Eirik Berger said the tourism industry should be allowed to operate more on a “trust-based” relationship with the government than existing regulations allow.
A wild card – in an election full of them – would be if the Labor Party is cooking up some kind of secret plan to win over the Liberals, but the possibility seems unlikely as top-ranked Liberal candidate Arild Olsen issued the rather fatalistic declaration that “we will be the majority in four years,” essentially conceding his party won’t be during the interim.