Plenty of handshakes, smiles and congratulations – along with lots of pro forma yea/nay votes – were exchanged by former and newfound rivals as the newly elected Longyearbyen Community Council met for the first time Monday night to formally vote on leadership and committee positions.
The Labor Party is extending its 16-year hold on the majority, despite winning just 31 percent of the vote and five of the 15 seats on the council, by forming an alliance with conservative politicians who were the minority opposition during the past four years. Meanwhile, members of the Liberal and Green parties – who were part of the previous Labor major – now find themselves left out following an election and post-ballot politicking with plenty of unexpected twists and turns.
“I think it will be an exciting council with a good mix of old hands, newly elected and some who are back after several years outside,” said Arild Olsen, retaining his title as Longyearbyen’s mayor for a second four-year term, in his opening remarks at the meeting.
The new majority consists of five Labor Party members, three from the Conservative Party and two from the Progress Party. The Liberal Party has four seats, despite losing to Labor by a voter margin of 345-350 in the election, while the Green Party has one.
A key reason for the shifting alliances is the Conservative and Progress parties agreed to pair up before the election. In the post-vote negotiations the Liberal Party – which many expected would seize control of the leadership, since they are aligned with the conservatives at the national level – declined to offer the same policy/committee concessions as Labor.
The upshot is the biggest immediate change to the status quo of the Labor-led council is the conservatives get leadership of a new Environment and Business Committee, since top criticisms by the latter included Labor’s handling of mass layoffs caused by the near-total shutdown of coal mining by Store Norske and developing new infrastructure as newfound avalanche threats forced hundreds of residents to permanently abandon homes in “red zone” areas. Allowing more private sector opportunities in areas ranging from residential properties to new municipal facilities such as a power plant are likely to be favored by the new committee.
As in the previous election, a salaried deputy mayor’s job went to the party able to keep Labor in power – in this case Conservative Party leader Kjetil Figenschou. But unlike the previous election where the job paid half of the mayor’s salary (Olsen was paid 885,491 kroner in 2015), the new arrangement calls for paying a quarter-rate salary while directing the remaining portion to the new committee.
The forming of that and other council committees occurred in a series of votes during the meeting, with the Liberal/Green minority voting against all the new majority’s proposed lists in favor of their own counterproposals.