National Policies, Local Effects: Explaining Support for Municipal Mergers

Party affiliation matters for local politicians’ support for mergers, but pragmatic interests at the local level should moderate this support. 

By Kiran Auerbach*

In June 2017, the Norwegian Parliament passed a reform to reduce the number of municipalities from 422 to 356 by the year 2020. By merging several municipalities together, this reform serves as an example of a national policy with strong effects on the local level. The impact of the reform will be uneven and affect municipalities differently depending on their local context and whether or not a municipality will experience a merger. As a result, municipal mergers have been a hotly contested policy issue for both Norwegian politicians and voters that will likely affect the outcome of next week’s local elections.

We analyzed individual local politicians’ support for mergers using survey data from the Panel of Elected Representatives (PER). Norwegian politicians were asked to rank their level of support for future mergers on a seven-point scale. The findings show that local politicians are not always in line with their party’s official position. On the one hand, Figures 1 and 2 showcase that politicians from the Conservative (Høyre) and Progress Parties (FrP) are supportive of mergers. This makes sense since these parties were in government at the time of the merger decision and they have promoted the municipal mergers most fervently.

Figure 1: Support for Municipal Mergers: Conservative Party Politicians

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Figure 2: Support for Municipal Mergers- Progress Party Politicians

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Figures 3 and 4 present the positions of the two parties opposing the reform in the parliament decision. Our data show that politicians from the Center Party (Senterpartiet) are aligned with the official party position. However, the data also show that politicians from the Labor Party (Arbeiderpartiet) have a mixed attitude towards the reform. This is somewhat in line with the party´s confusing take on it, from being a potential coalition partner for the government´s suggestions after the election in 2013 – to voting against the reform in Parliament in 2017 due to more strategic reasons connected to the upcoming national election in September that year.

Figure 3: Support for Municipal Mergers- Center Party Politicians

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Figure 4: Support for Municipal Mergers-Labor Party Politicians

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What determines support for national policies that strongly affect local units? Specifically, when are the stances of local politicians, who face the brunt of such policies, in line with their parties’ official positions, and when do they clash? Our hunch is that local, pragmatic interests often outweigh the ideological stances of parties. In particular, if a party promotes mergers but mergers threaten an individual politician’s elected position, then the politician’s is not likely to support the policy. The threat of losing becomes real as municipal councils are merged together and local candidates must compete for fewer available seats. To test this hypothesis, we are in the process of analyzing how mergers will affect local competition, based on parties’ previous seat shares in municipal councils.

We have already found preliminary evidence that local interests affect support for mergers. For all parties, politicians from high income municipalities display lower support for mergers. We think this means that politicians from wealthy municipalities have concerns that a merger could hurt his or her municipality financially. On the other hand, politicians from more populous municipalities are associated with greater support for mergers. This could be that politicians from these municipalities perceive that their municipality will retain its political power and independence by absorbing smaller municipalities.

In sum, while party affiliation matters for local politicians’ support for mergers, pragmatic interests at the local level should moderate this support. We can see from the distribution of Labor politicians’ that many of them are not in line with their party’s official stance. This variation in support is important to explain as the Labor party has a huge local presence, currently controlling almost half (47%) of all mayorships in the country.

 

*Kiran Auerbach is a postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen

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