Iceland’s Election: Take Two

101 Reykjavík (Photo by M. Lanteigne)

For the second time in less than a year, Icelanders will be voting in parliamentary elections on 28 October, after another period of political upheaval which saw the unstable centre-right coalition government collapse last month. This vote will also mark the second time in a year that an election was forced due to a political scandal, and although many of the same parties from the 2016 election will be back again, there will be some new players and issues as well.

The nine-month old coalition government, led by the centre-right Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) or IP, in partnership with two newer, centrist parties, Regeneration (Viðreisn, also known as Reform) and Bright Future (Björt framtíð) fell in September after revelations surfaced that the father of Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson of the IP had written a letter recommending that a convicted paedophile, Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson, be granted the right to ‘restored honour’ (uppreist æru), in accordance with Icelandic legal procedures dating back to the 1940s, so that he could again practice law. The public outcry over the disclosure was matched with concerns that this information was subject to a cover-up, and ultimately Bright Future, led by Óttarr Proppé, abruptly withdrew from the coalition, causing the government to collapse and prompting Prime Minister Benediktsson to call an early election. The laws on restored honour were repealed at the end of September, just before parliament was dissolved.

The affair brought an ignoble end to a rickety coalition government, which was put into place following more than two months of formal and informal meetings between the seven political parties which attained seats in the Icelandic parliament (Alþingi) after the October 2016 elections. The resulting coalition had to operate with a paper-thin majority, with thirty-two seats of a total of sixty-three. The trio of parties had to paper over differences with the European Union, and the ongoing thorny question of whether a national referendum on EU membership should be held.

Bright Future and Regeneration have been much more sympathetic to European Union engagement, and indeed the Regeneration Party was formed partially due to concerns over IP’s increasingly ‘Eurosceptic’ stance. Although polls repeatedly suggested that a majority of Iceland’s voters favoured staying out of the EU, there had been great public support for a vote to settle the matter. There was a protest in Reykjavík in February 2014 over the government’s plans to scrap any referendum on the question. Even before this latest scandal, it was unclear how long the government coalition would have been able to hold together due to policy differences, but few predicted that the administration would be this short-lived.

Polls taken since the election was called would seem to suggest at first glance that the big winner in the upcoming vote could be the Left-Greens (Vinstrihreyfingin – grænt framboð) or VG, which surpassed the IP in recent voter surveys. However, there are early signs, especially after the latest poll [In Icelandic] by MMR, that the vote, like last year, may be spread across several parties. As Iceland maintains a proportional representation election system, outright majorities are rarely possible and so coalition governments are commonplace. There may be a shakeup among some of the newer, smaller parties, as both Bright Future and Regeneration saw their polling numbers fall over the past few months to the point where neither party might attain the five percent threshold needed to maintain seats in parliament.

As with last year, a wild card in the upcoming election could be the Pirate Party (Píratar) which received a great deal of international attention last year for its outsider status, initial great popularity in Iceland, and the possibility that it would be at the centre of the next government, (the party ultimately finished in third place). The Pirates’ popularity has since come back down to earth, with the party receiving about ten percent support, but there is still the possibility that it could play a kingmaker role should the vote be split among many other groups. However, one of the Pirates’ leading members, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, announced last month that she was not going to run for parliament again. The Pirates, which have run on a platform of government transparency, direct democracy and anti-corruption, have also been pushing for reform of the country’s constitution, an issue which appears to be gaining some traction among the Icelandic public.

Undecided voter, Reykjavík. (Photo by M. Lanteigne)

The upcoming vote will not necessarily be merely a repeat of the same parties however, as two new political organisations have rapidly appeared on the scene, both of which could also affect the outcome of the next election, namely the Centre Party (Miðflokkurinn) which has yet to put forward a specific platform, (although the title of the organisation suggests a placement in the middle of the country’s political spectrum), and the populist People’s Party (Flokkur fólksins).

The Centre Party represents the latest chapter in the rise, fall and return of former Prime Minister and head of the centre-right Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn), Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. Gunnlaugsson, who had to step down as leader in April 2016 after he was implicated in the Panama Papers scandal, specifically that he and his wife had undisclosed links with secret offshore investment concerns, according to leaked documents. The Progressives were severely punished by the electorate in 2016, and shortly after this year’s vote was called, Gunnlaugsson left the party and announced that he would form a rival organisation. In an unexpected twist, the most recent polls actually place the Centre Party ahead of the Progressives (7.3% to 6.4%). Adding to the woes of the Progressive Party was the news that Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, a former foreign minister, would be leaving the party [In Icelandic] along with other senior members.

The People’s Party, founded only in 2016, stands on a platform of anti-poverty and combatting corruption, but has also been criticised for negative views on immigration and asylum policies in Iceland. After failing to win any seats in the 2016 election, the most recent polling numbers suggested 8.5% support.

The suddenness of the election call, so soon after the previous vote, has prompted some of the parties, including Bright Future, the Left Greens and the Progressives, to plan on borrowing funds [In Icelandic] in order to set up their campaigns, while the Pirate Party has stated they will avoid having to do the same. There is no shortage of issues facing both the veterans and the newcomers, including the economy, tourism, fishing, relations with Europe and the environment. However, the number of parties contesting this election raises the possibility of yet another unstable coalition as well as smaller parties again holding the balance of power. After a year of government instability in Iceland, many voters are likely hoping for calmer political waters ahead.

[Þakka þér fyrir to Hjörtur Guðmundsson for his assistance with the researching of this post.]