Published August 19, 2005
The Liberal Party was founded in 1998 and has only three seats in parliament, but the most recent Gallup poll shows their support already at 5%. Their popularity continues to rise, however slowly, despite having lost one MP – Gunnar Örlygsson – to the Independence Party earlier this year. They have one person on City Council, Ólafur F. Magnússon, who is in the position of being able to help swing votes between the majority coalition R-listinn and the Independence Party.
The Grapevine spoke to Liberal Party MP and co-founder Sigurjón Þórðarson, who is also the only member of parliament to be a member of Ásatrúarfélagið, an Icelandic association practicing a Norse pagan religion. In fact, he’s also a goði (chieftain) in the faith, presiding over Hegranes in northwest Iceland. Þórðarson told us about why the party was formed, what it’s like to be a pagan MP, who among him is, in his own words, “a traitor” and why the Independence Party is “communist.”
What got you involved in politics?
I lived in the northwest, and saw the population going down. As manager of public health in the region, I saw that the quota system [wherein the government lays strict outlines for how many tons of what kind of fish may be culled by every fishing company] was total nonsense. I’m a biologist, and my brothers are all fishermen, and the way I looked at it, there were two things wrong with the quota system. Number one is in how they manage fish stocks, and number two is the injustice it causes. A fishing company can sell its quota to any other fishing company, taking its jobs out of town. With the quota system, it doesn’t matter where the fish are caught. All of Iceland’s fishing could be done off of the Westmann Islands. Also, the quota system makes criminals out of hard working fishermen – in order not to go over quota, they have to throw fish back in the ocean. Or in order not to go over the quota for a certain type of fish, they record the excess amount of cod as haddock, for example, in their logs. The quota system practically forces them to take these measures.
I imagine that would deplete regional fish stocks, like what happened to the herring in Siglufjörður not too long ago.
Perhaps the herring wasn’t over-fished in Siglufjörður. It could be that the ocean became colder at that time. When you fish a great amount, you leave room for recruitment [drawing in more fish stocks]. When the spawning fish stock goes up, recruitment goes down. It doesn’t pay off for society to stock fish. Sometimes, when overfishing is said to be the cause of the collapse of fish stocks, the reason can also be changes in the environment, such as a colder climate.
So it’s the quota system that led you to forming the Liberal Party?
Yes, but also, another thing that’s rotten about politics in Iceland is how parties hide who is financing them. We want to try to clean up politics. Let me ask you a question: Do you think the Independence Party is right wing?
Yes. I believe they want further privatization, so I’d say they’re right wing.
In recent years, shares of the GNP that the government is using are always growing under the Independence Party/Progressive Party coalition. If we measure them on a scale of how big the public spending is, the Independence Party is communist. We always see a rise in expenditure under them. Another thing that worries me is the burden on the taxpayer because when there’s an increase in taxes, it’s always on the lower salaries. The Independence Party has been doing well for big companies, but the smaller ones aren’t doing so well.
So is the Liberal Party the true right-wing party in Iceland?
We don’t emphasize the right, but I’d say we’re right of centre. We want to privatize where it’s sensible, and we want fairness in business. When [consumer watchdog group] Samkeppnisstofnun went after the oil companies, the director [Stefán Már Stefánsson] was sacked and his group split into two different groups because he was interfering. One main swindler who cost the public billions, Kristinn Björnsson, is married to Sólveig Pétursdóttir, and he cheated the police while she was Minister of Justice. Now he’s the vice chairman on the board of Morgunblaðið. [Opens a copy of Morgunblaðið on the desk.] This paper is just a decoration around the government.
What are your thoughts about Gunnar Örlygsson leaving the Liberal Party, which he said had “moved too far to the left,” to join the Independence Party? Were you surprised when it happened?
I think his reasoning is nonsense. I was surprised, and I wasn’t. We don’t miss him, but we miss his seat. I think what he did was very unfair to the people who voted for him. I wouldn’t like to be in his shoes. He’s a traitor.
Do you think, for as young and as small as the Liberal Party is, that you’re taken seriously by the rest of parliament?
I think we’re taken seriously by the voters. What we’re aiming to do and what we are doing is stirring up the establishment. We’re building up an equilibrium. What we’re aiming for is for the people of Iceland. I think the other parties have missed their vision. They’re looking more into forming cliques than serving public interest.
Do you feel as though your colleagues treat you differently for being the only pagan member of parliament?
I don’t think my faith matters to them. If anything, I think I get respect for that.
Does your faith shape the way you approach laws and the structure of government?
I’m in favour of separating faith and law, but I do think that faith marks the individual. I think that Christians and Ásatrúar have influenced each other. For example, look at the simliarities between Christmas and the pagan Jól. We’ve done that for ages, and I think this faith has shaped Icelanders’ views on things. A lot of what we believe comes from the old beliefs, and has influenced how we are today.
There’s the concept of “drenglyndi” [noble-mindedness], the philosophy of the Old Norse, as well as Hávamál [a collection of Old Norse proverbs], and the belief in a simple way of life. I think a lot of Icelanders can find a connection to that.
So what brought you to Ásatrú?
My brothers have been doing this for ages and also, this is not a “supposed to do” religion. In Ásatrú, you take responsibility for your actions and if you do wrong, you try to better yourself. It’s also a cultural thing.
What Liberal Party legislation or initiative are you proudest of?
It’s like this in Iceland: there’s a funny democracy here, where there are very few opposition bills that get through. What we do is we take a stand, and we influence discussion on how the government acts, although they deny it. I’m sure we influenced creating a discussion on the hiding of financing by political parties. I also think we have an influence over the fisheries, and have started having influence in other countries, too. We’re in very close contact with the Faroe Islands.
In what areas do you think the Liberal Party can improve?
The best thing for us is to get more into the local governments, which is very important. One thing that’s important in Icelandic politics is to be frank with who you work with. We want to lift the tax burden from the lower salary earners, and the fisheries are of course one thing that we think are very important for Iceland’s future. If small towns die, Iceland will lose out on a lot of possibilities for those who want to visit us. I’m sure the tourists who come here want to see more than just one city.
In the life of politics, money is just one way of measuring something. There are other things. We want more discussion about fairness. What makes life more pleasant is not just about how much money is in the bank.
Say I’m an undecided voter and don’t know which party to vote for. What reasons can you give me to vote for the Liberal Party?
I think there are many reasons. It’s very important to have a party that isn’t in close contact with one financial provider. We speak a simple language that’s not decorated with complicated words. People can count on and understand what we’re saying. We’re the people’s party.
What’s next for the Liberal Party?
The voter decides what’s next. We want people to take part in politics. There’s a lot of easygoing people with us.