Published December 9, 2016
When Iceland’s parliamentary elections were held at the end of October, pretty much every prediction of the results turned out to be completely wrong. At time of writing, Iceland still has no ruling coalition, and all attempts to form one have fallen apart. In fact, there are two separate ruling coalition talks going on at the same time. By the time this goes to print—hell, maybe even by the time I finish writing this sentence—the situation will be entirely different again.
Why this has happened involves an increased number of parliamentary parties, and a key decision made by President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson that exposes the flaws in our system.
It used to be so simple. Headlines the world over assured everyone that the Pirate Party was going to sweep the elections; who they invited to the ruling coalition was just a minor detail. As we know, things didn’t turn out that way. By a strange confluence of the results, which saw seven different parties making their way into Parliament, no two-party configuration can hold a majority. Iceland has generally been allergic to coalitions of more than two parties. This created the first problem.
The second problem is that forming coalitions always means developing a joint platform. You’d be forgiven for thinking this might be easy, what with most of these parties identifying with one side or the other of the centrist spectrum. Surely centrists are flexible enough to work with just about anyone, right? Well, yes and no. That certainly used to be the case in Parliament, but it hasn’t been since the financial collapse of 2008. During that time, the country was led by the right-wing Independence Party, with the partnership of the centre-left Social Democrats. And of course, let’s not forget the reason we had early elections in the first place: the Panama Papers scandal this spring, which effectively torpedoed an already increasingly unpopular Progressive Party.
As such, any parties invited to work with the Independence Party, who won the most votes this fall, have felt pressure to stick to their guns and compromise nothing. The right-wing Progressives, disgraced by the Panama Papers, aren’t even considered a possibility as a coalition makeweight. For better or worse, this has created a near-intractable situation. And that’s where the President comes in.
After Guðni gave the mandate to start coalition talks to the chairs of two different parties—first the Independence Party, and then the Left Greens—both failed to form a coalition. He then announced that he would not be giving the mandate to anyone else. Instead, he recommended that all party chairs talk to one another and iron out their differences. This clever move created a power vacuum of sorts. It’s why we now have two separate coalition talks going on at the same time. Everyone was given the mandate, in a sense, to make Iceland’s next government.
Voices within the Pirate Party have been floating the idea of a minority government. Which is hilarious, considering how unstable these governments are, and how quickly parties would likely turn on each other. The idea of a þjóðstjórn, wherein there is neither a ruling coalition nor an opposition, has been largely dismissed as solely an emergency measure that would lead to democratic gridlock.
Would it, though? It is arguably far more democratic to have all of Iceland’s voters equally represented and taking part in the process of shaping society (typically, bills from the ruling coalition roll on through to become laws, whilst bills from the opposition die in committee). Legislation would take more time to pass. But since when is the aim of democracy efficiency? If you want efficiency, you go with authoritarianism. If you want the people to have direct control of their destinies, you go with democracy—however slow, messy and headache-inducing it can be. That’s the trade-off.
In some ways, Iceland could serve as a political model for the rest of the world. We have all the tools at our disposal to create a directly democratic system of societal organisation. Yet we cling to obsolete and clearly deeply flawed methodologies for governance. If this election teaches us anything, it should be that trying to fit new ideas into an old system is like trying to fit a nitrous tank to a Ford Model T: you can probably find a way to do it, but the result is likely going to be disastrous.