You know those elections where the leader of Turkmenistan, North Korea, etc. wins with 99 percent of the vote – and ever wonder who the “one-percenters” are?
A similarly lopsided tally is surfacing on social media in response to a proposal to essentially ban foreigners from local elections in Longyearbyen – but a few souls are speaking out in favor of the surprising suggestion made by Norway’s government this week.
The proposal by the Ministry of Justice and Emergency Preparedness would require residents to have lived in a municipality on the mainland for at least three years to participate, whereas now anyone living in Longyearbyen for at least three years is eligible.
The proposal is based on the government’s stated policy of maintaining “a Norwegian local community on Svalbard,” which in the ministry’s interpretation means those who live in Longyearbyen also have strong ties to the mainland and the national interest. The ministry is concerned because the percentage of foreign residents in town has increased from 14 percent in 2009 to more than 30 percent today, with Svalbard’s tax office listing 908 foreign nationals among the archipelago’s roughly 2,900 residents.
There are numerous and often complex issues involved in the debate, such as whether the “discrimination” against foreigners violates the spirit (or the statues) of the Svalbard Treaty. Another is if foreigners should have full rights since entry is easier and taxes lower in Svalbard compared to those who immigrate to the mainland.
So while many of the comments – pro and con – may seem simple, they often reflect deeper experiences and thoughts of those making them.
“Right and reasonable if you ask me,” wrote Dag Ivar Devik Brekke, a Store Norske employee from 1997 to 2011 who now lives in Kråkerøy, in a Facebook comment responding to a Svalbardposten article about the proposal. “Seriously! The local government is paid by Norwegian tax dollars. Lots of tax dollars. It should not be able to be seized by a foreign state as a condominium.”
His comment unsurprisingly generated some quick and heated retorts, to which Brekke acknowledged “I understand that this can be unfairly experienced.” But he didn’t back off his basic stance: “at the same time, I also understand the authorities’s need to regulate access to such influence.”
“(Longyearbyen’s municipal council) is about enforcing Norwegian legislation and managing Norwegian state funds,” he stated in a subsequent e-mail interview. “The current proposal seems in line with mainland law on the issue and I for one might wonder why these principles are being addressed now after nearly 20 years.”
Among roughly a half-dozen people who “liked” Brekke’s comment shortly after it was posted was Roger Zahl Ødegård, a Longyearbyen resident for more than 30 years who headed the town’s cultural department most of that time until he retired last year.
“My only comment in this case is that I agree that it is natural that the law is the same on Svalbard as on the mainland,” he wrote in a brief online interview.
A more detached supporter of the proposal is Torbjørn Pedersen, a political science professor at Nord University in Bodø. In an interview with NRK, he agreed with the justice ministry’s stance that one of Longyearbyen’s roles is to make visible and emphasize Norway’s full and absolute sovereignty over the archipelago.
“In recent years, Longyearbyen has gained a more international feel,” he told the news network. “Then Longyearbyen no longer works as well for that purpose. Therefore, it is only natural that action is taken.”
A major complaint among those opposing the proposal – which has been voiced on many other issues where foreigners feel they are facing discrimination – is Norway is trying to enact policies that make foreigners “self-deport” by making Svalbard less enticing and easy to reside in. But Lars Jacob Hiim, the justice ministry’s state secretary, told Svalbardposten he rejects that accusation.
“This proposal will not contribute to a larger proportion of Norwegian citizens on Svalbard, nor is it the intention,” he said. “The background for the proposal is that those who have the right to vote and are eligible for election have a connection to the mainland. Such a connection is important to ensure knowledge of the goals of Svalbard policy and the special framework conditions for Svalbard. These are factors which, together with the low tax level and the absence of immigration legislation, set the preconditions for the development of society.”
Still, Hiim acknowledges, “we see that this can be perceived as unfortunate for people who have lived in Svalbard for a long time without prior stay on the mainland.”