Forced mergers between lots of Norwegian counties and municipalities have created new tension and uncertainty in the run-up to next month’s local elections. Researchers aren’t sure whether the mergers will activate more democracy and mobilize voters, or whether voters have turned apathetic and won’t bother to cast a ballot.
“Most Norwegians have a close relationship with their home kommune (municipality),” Yngve Flo of the University of Bergen told news bureau NTB. It’s the municipalities, from Oslo as Norway’s biggest to Utsira as the smallest, that are responsible for administering such important public services as schools, nursing homes and day care centers.
Relations aren’t as direct with the counties (fylker), which are responsible for construction and maintenance of many local roads, public health, culture, regional development and high schools, among other tasks.
Norway’s 18 counties at present will be declining to 11 as of January 1st, because of mergers mandated by Parliament (and controversial in the case, for example, of Finnmark and Troms). The number of municipalities is dropping to 356 with more likely, all because mergers are supposed to provide more economies of scale and less bureaucracy that in turn is expected to result in better delivery of services.
Even though the mergers won’t be official until January 1, voters in affected areas will be voting for their new political leadership in the seven “new” and bigger counties and 47 newly merged municipalities. Election researchers are especially keen to study voter turnout in Finnmark and Troms, where Finnmark residents voted overwhelmingly against the merger in a referendum last year. It was deemed invalid.
There’s also tension regarding the formation of a large new county to be called Viken, which will result from the merger of Buskerud, Akershus and Østfold. Some fear that will make it hard for local residents to identify with a new county that’s large and diverse.
Election campaigns among Norway’s political parties, meanwhile, got underway in earnest over the weekend, with lots of debates over issues expected at the large Arendalsuka gathering this week in Arendal. The biggest issues include property tax (administered by municipalities), road tolls (bompenger), state police reform that’s left some areas short of cops on the beat and, not least, programs aimed at reversing climate change. The election, the only one in which non-citizens are allowed to vote if they have acquired permanent residence permission, is set for September 9,