An Introduction to Icelandic Politics

[Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
by Mingming Shi

The Making of an Independent State

Iceland has been an independent State since 1944 and before that time, it was part of the Danish monarchy, similar to the status of the Faroe Islands and Greenland today. Denmark used to maintain centuries-long rule over Iceland since the 1380s, and had a profound impact on the latter, however, Iceland was never an official colony of Denmark.

In 1874, Iceland received its first Constitution from King Christian IX of Denmark, which entitled the Icelandic Parliament more elbow room for law-making. Nevertheless, Copenhagen still held the ultimate veto rights over the acts made and passed by Icelanders. However, this Constitution was actually a milestone of Icelandic independence movement and laid a foundation for the country’s 1944 Constitution. 

In 1904, when the Home Rule Act was introduced, administrative power over the domestic affairs of Iceland was transferred from Copenhagen to Reykjavík. After that, Iceland had been fighting for more jurisdictional responsibilities for itself as a nation. Gradually, the power of the King of Denmark over Iceland had diminished, and was becoming more symbolic.

Then, in 1918, a new Act of Union of the relationship between Iceland and Denmark stated that the former would remain its position in the union with Denmark, while gaining sovereignty over its territory. On the 17 June 1944, almost one year before the end of World War II, the Republic of Iceland was created based on the unilateral decision agreed to by both the Icelandic Parliament and the people, with a new Constitution adopted, and Denmark was not invited to the negotiation of the arrangement due to it still being under occupation at the time.

[Map of Iceland from the CIA Facebook, via Wikimedia Commons]
Leaders of Iceland

Iceland has a president, who acts as the head of state for the country, as well as a prime minister, who is head of government. 

The first president of the country was Sveinn Björnsson, who was appointed by the Parliament. So far, there have been six presidents, including Vigdís Finnbogadóttir served as the fourth president from 1980 to 1996, who was the first female head of the country, and also the first democratically-elected female president in the world.

The president is elected every four years, with no limit as to how many terms can be served. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the fifth president of Iceland, held that position between 1996-2016, making him one of the longest-serving heads of state in Europe. 

The duties of the President of Iceland consist of six primary aspects, including a formal role in governance, the power to refuse laws, to have an influence on politics, (e.g. to appoint a candidate to form a government after a parliamentary election), to promote the national image of Iceland, to engage in various social occasions, and last but not least, to unifying the people. For instance, during the COVID-19 outbreak in 2020, the sitting President, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, has been actively uplifting the morale of citizens by encouraging people to follow the guidelines for public health, to spend time on indoors activities such as reading, and attending the recent Great Icelandic Litter Picking Day (Stóri plokkdagurinn in Icelandic).

The Alþingi and National Elections 

Despite the country’s small population, (approximately 366,000 people), there are a number of political parties in Iceland, representing the various interests of social groups. Two of the most famous and longest-lasting include the Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) and Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn), which usually enjoy the lion’s share of votes in parliamentary elections. In addition, the Left-Green Movement (Vinstri Græn), the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin), and the Pirate Party (Pírata) are also among the popular parties in Iceland. New political parties have been emerging in recent years, such as the Liberal Reform Party (Viðreisn), the Centre Party (Miðflokkurinn) and People’s Party (Flokkurfolksins).

Iceland has a unicameral (one chambered) parliament, which was established in 1843-45, and known in Icelandic as the Alþingi (or Althingi in English). It can be argued that it is the oldest known parliament in the world, as a version of it existed as far in the past as 930 BCE. The parliament has 63 seats, and the members are elected representatives from six electoral districts all over the country. Simply speaking, citizens of Iceland who are at the age of eighteen or over have the right to vote in the parliamentary elections.

Receiving the highest numbers of votes does not necessarily guarantee a given party leader the role of Prime Minister, especially since due to the proportional representation system, governing coalitions are common. After an election, the President of Iceland assesses the results and then asks the head of the party which he/she believes is the most likely to form a government to do so. If that task fails to be accomplished, the request would be passed down to the next party. The potential government is required to represent the majority of the parliament (at least 32 seats), meaning the need for  negotiations with other parties and thus, coalition governments are not uncommon in Iceland.

The current Prime Minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, is the head of the Left-Greens and has led a government in coalition with the Independence and Progressive Parties since 2017.

By law, elections (Alþingiskosningar in Icelandic) are held every four years, but it is possible for elections to be held earlier if a government falls due to a ‘no-confidence’ situation., and this has happened frequently before. To name two of the best known previous cases, the governmental administration of Geir Haarde collapsed shortly after the 2008 Financial Crisis (Kreppa in Icelandic) and Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir then assumed the position. And Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who became the Prime Minister in 2013 was forced to step down in 2016 in the wake of the Panama Papers scandals.

As well, there are also municipal elections in Iceland, which entitles people living in different parts of the country to participate and have their voices heard in community affairs. The qualifications to vote in this type of elections are more relaxed, compared to the parliamentary versions, and voters do not necessarily have to have Icelandic citizenship.

Statue of Leif Erikson in front of the Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavík [Photo by Marc Lanteigne]
Foreign Relations

The First World War caused serious damage to the economy of Iceland. However, afterwards there were opportunities for Iceland to restore its confidence via pursuing more independent diplomatic relations with other countries. The country it continued to develop its foreign policy in the late 1930s when it and its then-overseer, Denmark, were forced to be separated into two different camps opposing each other during the Second World War. Iceland was sheltered by the Allies, while Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany until 1945.

However, Iceland was hesitant to declare war on Germany due to neutrality of its diplomatic policies, and wanted to shield itself from external conflicts, but British and then US forces were ultimately stationed in Iceland during the war. Iceland missed the opportunity to become one of the founding states of the United Nations, (although it did join in November 1946). 

Nowadays, Iceland has been enjoying its membership in numerous regional and international organisations, and it was one of the foundation states of NATO. However, given its relatively smaller diplomatic capacity and prevalent small states and shelter ideology home, so far, it has only had opened a number of embassies and consulates abroad, and other Nordic states, such as Denmark, is partially assisting the former in terms of day to day diplomatic affairs in some regions of the world, such as handling visa applications to Iceland. Iceland is not a member of the European Union, but maintains close relations with that body and is a member of the Schengen Agreement, the European Economic Area (EEA), and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).