“This populist label started with Egill Helgason, who runs a political talkshow on RÚV and is supposed to be impartial. But it also depends on how people define it—some people say it means racism for instance—but if people want to call us names, then they have the freedom to do so. I meet everything with positivity and a smile,” says Inga Sæland. She is the leader and founder of the political party Flokkur Fólksins (The People’s Party), which was formed last year.
The party’s offices have a stunning view of Perlan and Hallgrímskirkja, not that Inga can enjoy it. She is on disability because of her poor eyesight and every time her phone rings she presses it close to her face and squints her eyes. It might raise some eyebrows to mention a person’s disability in an article about a political party, but her health problems are basically the foundation for Flokkur Fólksins.
“I am a severely visually impaired and I am on disability. I am used to denying myself of worldly goods that most people would take for granted.” These are the first lines in the “about” section on the party’s website. It is very unusual, weird even, for a party to introduce itself to potential voters with a first person account of the personal struggles of its leader. But it is this folksy element that has earned the party its populist label. And the approach seems to be working, with recent parliament polls putting them at 8.4% (up from 3.8% just a month ago),which makes them as big as the coalition government parties Viðreisn and Björt Framtíð combined. Their next goal is to get into municipal governments around the country. But despite its polling success, the party has also landed in hot water for accusations of xenophobia and anti-refugee sentiment.
Last March, Inga wrote a Facebook post about poverty in Iceland in which she discussed reports of homeless people spending the cold winter living in vans. In it she asked whether it was acceptable for people to reside in such conditions while asylum seekers were receiving benefits from the government.
“Asylum seekers who, precedent has shown, will not gain asylum here get free cab rides,” says Inga. “They’d rather take a cab than the bus, get a bankcard (with money from the government), receive free medical treatments, housing, dentistry, psychology help, etc.” She claims that it was a badly worded status and that she had immediately taken it down. The status received plenty of flack from Gunnar Smári Egilsson, leader of the Socialist Party, who called it “Trumpism,” which was made to turn people’s ire against asylum seekers instead of the powerful in society.
Inga claims that the criticism is a smear campaign put in place by parties unwilling to secede power. “People had warned us that now that we are polling this well people would start coming for us,” she says. “But we are not interested in participating in this sort of debate.”
Despite the status, she speaks glowingly about refugees and the word she most uses when talking about how they are treated in Iceland is “cruel.” She mentions the case of Amir Shokrogozar, an Iranian homosexual who applied for asylum in Iceland, and was turned down, despite having an Icelandic fiancé.
“Amir was working here, learned Icelandic, became a Christian, and fell in love with an Icelandic man, but despite that we threw him penniless back to Italy. This is simply cruel,” Inga says. “We have to realise that the people who arrive here are fleeing war and horrors and we have to help them, because they want to become Icelandic. We need more finance to help them and make sure they are cared for. We also can’t make people wait here for years while we decide whether they can stay or not.”
Fighting for the poor
What Inga talks most vividly about is poverty and corruption within the system. She says the minimum wage in Iceland is criminally low and that the tax limit needs to be raised. Previously she was a member of Samfylkingin, but following the 2008 financial crash she left the party and she accuses authorities of having forgotten the people.
“The people in power have no idea how things are; it is a national disgrace that there are poor people in Iceland. We are willing to work with whatever party wants to join us in fighting for these issues. If nobody wants to, then we are ready to remain in opposition,” says Inga. “The opposing parties have also allowed corruption to exist on their watch. The Prime Minister’s uncle was allowed to buy 20% in a public company and could immediately pay himself billions in dividends. This is money the public lost.”
There is certainly a degree of folksy populism with Inga, but she comes across as a genuine person with a strong conviction and principles. Whether that is true or not remains to be seen. She might be disgusted with how false our politicians are, but should the polls hold, she’ll have to accept her own reality—that she’ll become one of them.