Tempers flare over Norway’s new map

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Norway’s conservative, reform-minded government has won support in Parliament to merge a wide range of local governments and counties as part of regional reform that will re-draw the country’s map. Government minister Jan Tore Sanner has been pushing to consolidate local governments to cut costs and bureaucracy, but the plan was meeting a torrent of objections and criticism on Wednesday over 13 mergers that will be forced.

Government minister Jan Tore Sanner of the Conservative Party, who’s in charge of local governments and administration, claims that regional reform and municipal mergers are critical if Norway’s social welfare state is to be maintained. Many rural residents and especially those represented by the Center Party firmly disagree, and see the mergers as a threat to their local power base. PHOTO: KMD

Outrage especially in outlying areas was unleashed as soon as news broke Tuesday night that the two government parties (Conservative and Progress) had won support for the plan to re-allign local jurisdictions from one of their two support parties in Parliament, the Liberals. Their other support party, the Christian Democrats, has favoured county and municipal mergers but not by force. That’s exactly what the government plan will involves in some cases, and why tempers are flaring.

The county reform plan that also has support from the Christian Democrats will reduce the number of Norwegian counties by half, merging Hedmark and Oppland, for example into one new and bigger county (fylke) called Innland. Hordaland and Sogn og Fjordane have already voluntarily agreed to merge into a new county called Vestlandet, while Nord- and Sør -Trøndelag have agreed to merge into Trondelag.

Now, however, the northern counties of Finnmark, Troms and Nordland are set to merge into one, while Telemark and Vestfold will be prodded to merge as well, along with the Agder counties. The government also has a majority to form one large county around Oslo called Viken that will extend from the mountainous areas of Buskerud down to the hills and flatlands of Akershus and south to Østfold and the Swedish border. That merger is controversial among the counties involved, but likely to be forced through.

Manic over municipal mergers
Only the counties of Rogaland and Møre og Romsdal will remain as they are, but they also contain several municipal governments that now appear on the merger list. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the vast majority of the 70 existing municipalities likely to disappear will do so voluntarily. At a press conference on Wednesday, the government and its support parties announced that the total number of Norwegian kommuner will be reduced from 358 to 428. That’s still higher than what Sanner initially wanted, but it’s a compromise he and his government colleagues can all live with. The goverment parties also plan to continue efforts towards more reform and more voluntary mergers.

As newspaper Aftenposten reported on Tuesday, though, around 13 municipal mergers may be forced through, and that has enraged many local officials and residents because the consolidation will overrule the results of many recent public referenda held on municipal mergers in many of the affected areas. Now, after many merger proposals were rejected by local voters, they feel more than ever that they’re not being heard by the “elite” politicians in Oslo. That in turn fuels the debate that has pitted advocates of rural areas (especially in the resurgent Center Party) against urban areas.

There’s been less anger over the regional reform proposals to transform Norway’s 19 counties into the 10 or 11 new counties plus Oslo. There’s also been rising debate over the costs and functions of the current county system, and the high salaries paid to county officials, and the two government parties had even proposed scrapping the counties all together. What’s happening now with the county- and local-government mergers is the result of weeks of meetings between the government and its support parties, which have finally hammered out a compromise.

At the more local kommunal (municipal, or township) level, emotions are running high. It’s the kommuner in Norway that are responsible for financing (with lots of funds from the state) and running the most important public services like schools, nursing homes, health care (apart from hospitals, which are state-run) and everything from garbage collection to parks and recreation. Local residents want to keep their services as close to where they live as possible, and their locally elected politicians want to hang on to their jobs. They don’t want their municipality to be forced into mergers with other neighbouring municipalities, for fear that local schools and other services will also be merged and they’ll have to travel father to reach them.

Threat to the Center Party’s local power base
The Center Party, which caters to constituents like farmers and other residents of outlying areas, has been the most firmly opposed to municipal reform and most any attempt at centralization and consolidation. It also wants to retain as many public sector jobs as possible in areas where there aren’t many private sector options.

Einar Lie, a professor of economic history at the University of Oslo, pointed in newspaper Aftenposten over the weekend to another reason why the Center Party so strongly opposes municipal mergers, but which it doesn’t talk about as much: Even though the Center Party currently holds only 5.5 percent of the seats in Parliament after the last national election, its popularity in local elections has left it with nearly as many local mayoral positions in Norway as those held by all the parties holding a majority in Parliament. Municipal mergers, especially those forced by Parliament, thus pose a serious threat to the Center Party’s local power base, and its officials are already claiming that they’ll do all they can to reverse the entire regional reform process if they win government power along with Labour in the upcoming national election.

It’s thus important for the Center Party and others opposing regional reform and other issues like police, hospital and agricultural reform, to stir up the conflict and bash the current majority in Parliament at every turn. If they can keep anger, debate and opposition levels high until September, they’ll have a much bigger chance of winning voters away from the government parties and form a new left-center government with Labour that’s likely to usher in a new wave of regulation, higher taxes and protectionism that will keep costs and prices high, but safeguard their entrenched interests.

Sanner of the Conservatives, of course, will keep trying to push through the reform and win re-election for the government coalition in September. “The public debate has been characterized by efforts to pit the countryside against the cities for much too long,” Sanner stated. “That’s wrong. We need both sustainable cities and strong rural districts to preserve the welfare state.” Norway’s new map is due to be re-drawn and completed by January 2020, barring any reversals.

For a full county-by-county overview of both the looming county- and municipal mergers, with various maps, click to NRK’s compilation here (external link, in Norwegian only. “Tvangssammenslåinger” on NRK’s list means “forced mergers,” while “frivillge sammenslåinger” means “voluntary mergers.”)

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund