STRIPPING VOTING RIGHTS FROM FOREIGNERS? Longyearbyen residents must reside on mainland for at least three years to vote and run for local office under Justice Ministry proposal

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Foreign residents in Longyearbyen will lose their right to vote and run for office in local elections if a proposal by Norway’s Ministry of Justice and Emergency Preparedness published Wednesday is enacted.

Numerous residents and Longyearbyen’s mayor immediately expressed dismay at what the latter called an unexpected proposal released without notifying local officials in advance.

The proposal, which would be effective as of the next local council election in 2023, would require residents to reside in a mainland municipality for at least three years to be eligible to vote and run for office. Currently anyone living in Longyearbyen for at least three years has such rights. The ministry is accepting public comments on the proposal until Oct. 25.

But the percentage of foreigners who’ve moved here from abroad has risen significantly during the past decade, prompting the ministry to “address the need for a connection between Longyearbyen and the mainland” in its overview of the proposal.

“Most people who lived in Longyearbyen at the time of the establishment of the Longyearbyen local Council had connections to a mainland municipality,” the ministry states. “This is no longer the case. In recent years, there has been an increasing degree of migration to Longyearbyen directly from abroad, and there is now a larger proportion of inhabitants who have no connection to the Norwegian mainland. The composition of the population is therefore different now than when the local government was established. This has made it natural to assess whether the framework that was once laid down for election to the local board is still appropriate.”

“The ministry believes that in light of this development there is reason to make some adjustments to address the need for a connection between Longyearbyen and the mainland. On this basis, we propose a change in the regulations, so that length of residence in Longyearbyen no longer counts as an independent criterion for eligibility and the right to vote.”

Longyearbyen Mayor Arild Olsen, a longtime resident serving his second four-year term in office, stated in an online interview the proposal was unexpected and dismaying. He compared it to a recent government proposal to modify local kindergarten and school programs, where in a discussion with them last week he emphasized it was crucial issue “we as a local democracy should take a stand on…and it has naturally created great engagement and polarized discussions.”

“This hearing we have now received in my lap I will put on the same line, because it shakes democracy and will trigger the same consequences we know from previous hearings,” he stated. “It seems like a very unwise time and will add extra stones to a sorely tested local democracy.”

Olsen said the local council should have been contacted in advance of the proposal being published, “so that at least the sitting elected representatives have a clear understanding of the content and on that basis could express themselves in the case, and possibly acknowledge questions and misunderstandings that naturally arise immediately from the local population.”

“If the reports from the media are accurate, I immediately see a number of problems with the consultation proposal itself,” he noted. “Among other things, it will be able to create further class divisions between those who have and those who do not have rights. If rights disappear, the duties and loyalty of the society in which you actually live will become diffuse, with the consequence that over time separate societies and hidden power structures emerge. It is not only a problem locally, but also unfortunate for Norwegian Svalbard politics as such over time.”

Early reaction at the Facebook page of Svalbardposten, which first reported the story, was overwhelmingly negative, especially among those who see it as yet another discriminatory move intended to discourage foreign residents in violation of Svalbard’s much-touted status as an international community.

“With an ever increasing number of non-Norwegians on the island, many working in the service and tourism industries (which the government has encouraged), and a decreasing percentage of Norwegians, voting rights will be allocated only to a privileged few,” wrote Yann Rashid, director of a guiding/logistics company in Longyearbyen. “I’m disillusioned, but not surprised given the alarming grip tightening the government has been exercising in Svalbard.”

Other accusations of discrimination against foreigners have been prolific among those residing both in Longyearbyen and Svalbard’s other communities, to say nothing of international bodies such as the European Union and Russia who are pursuing heated legal challenges to Norway’s assertion of various rights under the Svalbard Treaty.

Among the most notable complaints by local foreign residents of Longyearbyen are being frozen out of various forms of COVID-19 assistance/grants, and being unable to conduct banking or other essential business due to the inability to register for the required online ID. A frequent complaint is Norway’s government, and to a lesser degree the local council, are largely deaf to input from foreign residents and the unique circumstances they face in Svalbard.

While Norway’s government is endorsing a more diverse family-oriented community to replace the longstanding coal mining industry that is now nearly extinct in Longyearbyen, it is also actively trying to lure and retain a higher ratio of Norwegian workers and students in the archipelago as it confronts challenges to its sovereignty in Svalbard.

“Honestly – we must have already lived here longer than others to get voting rights in the local government, and never achieve voting rights for the parliament,” commented Anika Paust, head of sales for one of Svalbard’s biggest tourism companies. “If Norway wants to reduce the number of foreigners in Svalbard, they might want to do something similar to what they do on the mainland – offer them citizenship after a certain time up here.”