Finnmark fights forced merger

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Residents of Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark are so angry over the terms of a looming and likely forced merger with neighbouring Troms that they’ve threatened everything from civil disobedience to secession in recent months. Now they’re in the process of voting on the merger in a referendum, with the state government unlikely to respect its results.

Finnmark already is a huge county that wants to retain local control of its vast inland and coastal areas. Residents are resisting a forced merger with Troms County to the west, with voters casting ballots on the issue this week. PHOTO: newsinenglish.no

Finnmarkinger, as Finnmark residents are called, started voting last week in a referendum that has continued into this week for reasons of practicality. The area is so vast, with many people living in remote areas, that local boats have been sailing with ballot boxes from place to place along the coast. Around 55,000 people are eligible to vote, and the issue is so controversial that most all want their say. Local political leadership thus wants to be sure everyone has an opportunity to cast ballots.

“There’s strong engagement among folks,” Tarjei Jensen Bech, acting county governor of Finnmark from the Labour Party, told news bureau NTB. “I hope many will take part in the referendum. High voter turnout contributes to giving the referendum result legitimacy.”

He and other county leaders have asked for a meeting with Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who leads the Conservative party, after results are in. Her government has been pushing for municipal reform ever since it won power in 2013, with much of the looming changes coming in the form of mergers of both counties and communities in order to achieve greater economies of scale.

Government promotes economies of scale
Solberg and her ministers, including Monica Mæland who’s now in charge of local governments, think larger government entities can operate more efficiently, save taxpayers money and provide better welfare services in the future. The opposition Labour Party has until recently agreed, and Parliament has voted to greatly reduce the number of Norwegian counties including Troms and Finnmark.

The reality of turning most all of Northern Norway into one county that will be larger than Denmark have since soured many, including local politicians who are members of Labour. That’s prompted national Labour politicians to re-think the issue as well, to great objections from the conservative government coalition that’s eager to enforce the Parliament’s decision.

It’s all led to an unusual level of hostility, not least after a recent survey showed fully 86 percent of Finnmark opposing the merger with Troms. The survey, conducted by research firm Sentio for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), also showed that 73 percent of Troms residents oppose the merger, too, but not so greatly they’ve resorted to a referendum. Both sides have also been disagreeing on everything from where to base a merged county government’s administration to the name of the merged county.

The biggest dispute, though, is over the numbers of representatives to a new merged county commission. Troms, which has a bigger population than Finnmark, is slated to get two more delegates than Finnmark, which is objecting mightily.

“I’m quite certain there will be a solid majority of ‘no’ votes on the merger,” Bech told NTB. “Our hope is to reverse the merger. We believe it’s unfortunate to force two counties into merging when those involved don’t support  it.”

Government viewed as ‘arrogant’ and ‘audacious’
That’s echoed by people like Kari Carstens, who runs a hair salon in Finnmark’s current “capital” of Vadsø and her customer Per Ollila. “We have managed well on our own and we can continue to do so,” Carstens told NRK on Sunday. Both she and Ollila call the state government’s pressure to merge both “arrogant” and “quite audacious.”

Mæland, the state government minister in charge, appears unwavering in her threats to all but ignore the referendum results, and even “punish” Finnmark residents if they don’t soon name new representatives to the merged county commission with Troms.

“Finnmark is steering its own developments in this,” Mæland told NRK on Sunday. “If they continue to boycott appointing new representatives to a merged commission, we’ll set up one ourselves.” A compromise hammered out earlier between Finnmark and Troms gives Finnmark 17 representatives while Troms will have 19 because of its larger population. Finnmarkinger now want to dump the whole thing.

Mæland denies she’s being arrogant: “My job (as government minister) is to carry out the measure agreed in Parliament. No one can vote locally to ignore such a measure.” She said she can understand that Finnmark residents are provoked, and that she respects the opposition to the merger, but she claims it’s too late to halt the merger process now. Her government colleague Frank Bakke Jensen, Norway’s defense minister who comes from Finnmark himself, has called the entire referendum process “immature,” claiming that local political leaders “haven’t understood their democratic roles.”

Monday is the official election day, as the preliminary voting of the past week winds down. A result is expected before the 17th of May holiday on Thursday, which may be cause for more celebration in Finnmark and frustration in Oslo.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund