Published September 28, 2016
Next month, Iceland’s parliamentary election will come a bit earlier than usual. Thanks in large part to last April’s Panama Papers leak, and the ensuing protests, Icelanders will vote for their next government on October 29, instead of May 2017. The results of numerous polls over the past few months, from various sources, show it’s highly likely that—whatever the result—the country is due for some significant changes in Parliament. And there may be more civil unrest in store.
The odd couple
As things stand now, Iceland’s Parliament spans a spectrum from left to right. The (centre-right) Progressive Party and the (right wing) Independence Party comprise the ruling coalition, while the (politically ambiguous) Pirate Party, the (left wing) Left-Greens, the (centre-left) Social Democrats and (centrist) Bright Future comprise the opposition. This is very likely to change utterly come November.
Polls from Market and Media Research, Gallup, Fréttablaðið/Stöð 2 and others have, for the past several months now, shown similar patterns of support: the Pirate Party—who currently only have three seats in Parliament—and the Independence Party are far and away the largest parties in the country, and are currently hovering at similar levels of support. While the Pirates had dominated the polls for a year from March 2015, their numbers have been in steady decline since this spring. At the same time, the Progressive Party is steadily shrinking. The Left-Greens are the second-largest opposition party in the country, with some recent modest growth, while the Social Democrats are in decline. Bright Future are all but wiped out.
Adding more variables to the mix is Viðreisn, a centre-right party that formed earlier this year. Despite not having any seats in Parliament, they’ve managed to tie with, or surpass, Bright Future, the Progressives and the Social Democrats. In addition, two prominent members of the Independence Party—former party vice chair Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir and former Prime Minister Þorsteinn Pálsson—have joined the new party. This, and other factors, could significantly hurt the Independence Party. But we’ll get to that in a bit.
What kind of Parliament will we get?
If the current polling numbers are reflected in the election results, we are left with two very possible options—and neither of them is likely to be taken with a shrug.
The first option is a ruling coalition of the Pirate Party and the Independence Party. Mathematically, it makes sense, as they are currently the only two parties that could comprise a two-party coalition with a solid majority of parliamentary seats, and having a two-party ruling coalition is considered a solid, stable government in Iceland. Ideologically, things get more complicated.
Pirate Party captain Birgitta Jónsdóttir has publicly stated that she considers it out of the question that these two parties could ever find enough in common to form a joint platform—the lynchpin of any ruling coalition. At the same time, other Pirates that the Grapevine has spoken to have been quick to emphasise that Birgitta’s position doesn’t represent the views of the entire Pirate Party. The party itself hasn’t released a statement on this matter, but remain emphatic in their contention that they’re neither right wing nor left wing; in fact, they consider the concepts of right and left to be obsolete in today’s politics.
However, the Pirates do represent a big change to the existing order—and it doesn’t get more status quo than the Independence Party. As such, this coalition would be difficult to form, not least of all without sparking outrage amongst Pirate Party voters.
The other option would be a coalition of three or even more parties. This is not unprecedented in Icelandic politics, but is generally regarded as a stop-gap solution, or even a sign of a crisis. For about fifteen years—from the mid-1970s until 1991—Iceland went through a series of multi-party coalitions. This period was dubbed the Stjónarkreppa (“the government crisis”). In fact, a large part of the admiration former Independence Party chair Davíð Oddsson still enjoys is due to him having put an end to this crisis: namely, by helping ensuring the country would be ruled by the Independence Party and the Progressive Party from April 1991 to May 2007.
The wildcard in all this is Viðreisn. How many votes they can siphon off of the Independence Party still remains to be seen, but prominent conservatives joining up with these newcomers doesn’t bode well for the Independence Party. Moreover, primary elections within the Independence Party have all but eliminated all women from the top seats, and conservative women are already talking about forming a party of their own. With Þorgerður and others in Viðreisn, these conservative women voters could very well move their support Viðreisn’s way.
Where does this leave us?
One should keep in mind that actual votes can deviate wildly from polls. However, when many different polls show very similar numbers, month after month, we have a clearer picture of which way votes could go. As it is, it seems as though no matter what the result of next month’s elections, Iceland is very likely to have a political crisis on its hands come November, whether between parliamentary parties, or amongst the general public—or both.