Some local mayors are calling it a “people’s revolt” against the state: Norwegians voting in local referenda this week have been firmly rejecting state plans to merge their local governments to form much bigger municipalities known as kommuner. So strong is their opposition that top political scientists claim it can have major consequences for next year’s national elections.
The latest rounds of local voting on the state government’s so-called “municipal reform” proposal have been going on all over the country. While it’s common in many countries to hold referendum elections, it’s not in Norway, where politicians think they’ve been elected to make decisions. Many have supported the state government’s campaign to merge the number of Norway’s municipalities from 428 to less than 80, arguing that it will make them bigger and better able to provide social welfare services with more economies of scale. Now their constituents are sending them a strong message that they don’t agree.
Only nine of the 32 municipalities voting on Monday were in favour of teaming up with their neighbours. In some areas, like Hareid in the county of Møre og Romsdal, Fitjar in Sunnhordland and Lom in Gudbrandsdalen, more than 70 percent of those voting rejected mergers with their neighbouring kommuner. The mood was just as negative in earlier rounds of voting, and criticism towards municipal mergers (called kommunesammenslåing) has been growing for months. Many now seem especially opposed to the prospect that if their local municipal governments don’t merge with neighboring municipalities, they’ll be forced to by the state.
“If there’s anything folks are sensitive about in Norwegian politics, it’s when central authorities come with directives,” Bernt Aardal, a professor at the University of Oslo and one of Norway’s top election analysts, told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) on Tuesday. “If there’s any form of force from higher levels, it won’t take much for the opposition to really ignite. Now that there also has been this referenda voting, there can be an uproar if their results aren’t respected.”
Such elections in Norway are officially viewed as advisory, with politicians under no obligation to follow their results. It can be political suicide if they don’t, though, and several mayors who had supported mergers are now changing their minds. Nord-Fron Mayor Rune Støstad, for example, thinks he’s already seeing a local revolt in his municipality in Oppland County. He wanted to merge with neighbouring Sør-Fron and Ringebu himself, but was surprised when more than 62 percent of those voting on Monday rejected the proposal. In March, a local public opinion poll had indicated a majority in favour of a merger.
Some argue that voter turnout for the local referenda has been unusually low, and that only the opponents are expressing their views. In some of the voting this week, though, turnout has been high. “Folks aren’t stupid,” Støstad told DN. “They see what’s happening and they don’t think it will help to simply become bigger, if they’re going to lose local services anyway.”
That prospect looms because it’s likely that when three municipalities merge, their three local offices for various public services will be consolidated into one. Støstad, who’s from the Labour Party, told DN that he thinks local politicians, Members of Parliament and government ministers should all respect the “strong signal” they’re getting from voters. “When folks feel they’ll be forced to merge, they’ll rise up and say ‘no,'” Støstad said.
That makes the state’s minority government coalition and not least the government minister in charge of the municipal reform effort, Jan Tore Sanner, of the Conservative Party, vulnerable to a voter revolt in next year’s national elections. Sanner continues to promote municipal mergers, even arguing that it would not be “undemocratic” for local officials to ignore the referenda results and vote in favour of mergers anyway. “They’ve been democratically elected” to make such decisions, Sanner told state broadcaster NRK after the voting left him with a clear defeat.
More opposition may be mobilized
“We have discussed the need for bigger local governments since the early 1990s, when it was the (opposition) Labour Party that brought it up,” Sanner said. “Now we really need them, so that they can offer better welfare services to local residents.” He points out that more than 250 municipalities in Norway already have entered into preliminary agreements, and seemed undaunted that two-thirds of those voting are against mergers.
“We don’t want centrally-steered reform, we want the communities to merge on their own free will,” Sanner told NRK. “Now the local politicians will hear what their residents are saying and make decisions before the summer recess, before county and state officials make final decision next spring.”
That doesn’t remove the prospect of forced mergers, with researcher Aardal warning that could further mobilize opposition and boost support for the rural-oriented Center Party. It may wind up as the bitter enemy of the Conservatives and tip the balance in national elections next year. It won only 5.5 percent of the vote in the last national election in 2013. Recent polls show it now has as much as 6.9 percent of the vote, more than the other centrist parties currently backing the conservative minority government coalition.