From Iceland — Crowded House: Parliamentary Elections In The Pandemic

Crowded House: Parliamentary Elections In The Pandemic

Crowded House: Parliamentary Elections In The Pandemic

Published September 6, 2021

Photo by
Art Bicnick

Correction: Independence Party candidate Viktor Ingi Lorange is, in fact, neither an immigrant nor of foreign extraction, despite his inclusion amongst these candidates. This was a mistake on my part, and for that I sincerely apologise, to him and to our readers. His responses to our candidate questions are still valid and will hopefully help our readers make an informed decision before going to the voting booths.

Nearly four years ago, in the wake of snap elections held after the collapse of the previous government, Iceland’s current government was formed. It was a tumultuous process, involving negotiations between eight different parties over a span of weeks. In the end, it was three parties—the Left-Green Movement, who ostensibly lead the government, the Progressive Party and the Independence Party—who managed to have the most combined seats for a stable majority, and who were able to hammer out a power- and platforming-sharing agreement between them.

This time around, nine parties—including the new Socialist Party—are polling high enough (or in some cases, almost high enough) to win seats in Parliament. Meanwhile, the parties comprising the ruling coalition are on a knife’s edge between holding and falling. On top of all this, the coronavirus pandemic has been dominating local headlines, and the government’s management of the situation and other parties’ proposed approaches to COVID-19, will likely be key influences on people’s ballot-box decisions—not to mention the influence it’s had on campaigning, which has barely even begun just a few weeks before election day on September 25th, or the effect it may have on voting itself. It’s a very unusual election season for Iceland.

In this feature, we spoke to six candidates from as many parties, spanning from the left to the right, whose names have not been very prominent in the media. We also spoke with two political scientists for further analysis. Here, you can learn what makes this election special, what Iceland’s next government needs to take care of first, where the different parties stand, and why there are so few immigrants in Parliament—despite the fact that Iceland’s immigrants comprise over 15% of the population.

For a more detailed overview of the platforms of all the parties running, visit our election guide.

More parties, more problems

“What’s very special about this election is how many parties are running,” Hulda Þórisdóttir, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Department of Political Science of the University of Iceland, told us. “Not only that, but how many parties are running that have a very viable possibility of getting representatives elected. This is a trend that started after the economic crisis. It’s almost stabilised, and now we have so many parties that are polling at around 10%.

“What makes this really interesting is what comes after the elections,” she continues. “How is the government going to be formed? That’s probably going to be a very difficult process, because a lot of negotiations have to take place. There used to be four or five parties, larger parties that were a bigger umbrella for a wider variety of opinions. But now with more parties, they become somewhat narrower. You as a voter can elect a party that’s closer to your opinions than you could maybe 15 years ago, when you may not have found as close of a match with your values. But the negotiations that happen within these bigger parties, which have to comprise a broader spectrum of opinion, that has to take place now after the elections. So that’s going to be interesting. In many ways, this unique situation is a referendum on the last four years of a government spanning the left to the right.”

“I think it’s probably not unlikely that amongst the first things Parliament addresses is how we deal with the pandemic going forward. It wouldn’t surprise me if that ends up being the biggest issue in the long term.”

Eva H. Önnudóttir, a political science professor at the University of Iceland, also noted the number of parties running, but also the pandemic and how this government has handled it distinguishes these elections.

“What makes this election special, in my opinion, are the circumstances in which it’s taking place,” she said. “And by that I mean the pandemic, which has been going on for more than a year and a half now. While typical left-right politics have been disconnected via the pandemic, which makes the circumstances of this election special, the main campaign issues will probably be typical important issues such as the healthcare, welfare, the economy and the environment. The government has had to deal with the pandemic, so there hasn’t been the usual campaign points, such as about how far to go when it comes to being socially minded or individual minded and such.”

The big three

When it comes to what issues Parliament will need to tackle first, and what issues are burning most in the hearts of Icelandic voters, Hulda and Eva were in agreement on what matters most, in their estimation: health care, the economy and the environment.

“There’s no one [issue] that dominates everything,” Hulda said. “But if I had to pick one issue that’s going to be on the mind of most voters, that would be the healthcare system. People on the left are worried that it’s underfunded, people on the right are worried about too much centralisation in the healthcare system and how it’s run. This would be followed by one issue that’s always big—the economy, and how to get it going strong after COVID—and then environmental issues; what parties will be offering credible and viable solutions, and not just greenwashing.”

“The campaign is only now just starting, so we’re still not yet seeing what are going to be the major issues in this campaign,” Eva cautions. “But we can assume that we’ll be seeing the usual big issues: the economy, health care and welfare, and some parties are also emphasising environmentalism. I think it’s probably not unlikely that amongst the first things Parliament addresses is how we deal with the pandemic going forward. It wouldn’t surprise me if that ends up being the biggest issue in the long term.”

Hulda agrees, believing that the pandemic is inextricably woven into the issue of health care in Iceland.

“You as a voter can elect a party that’s closer to your opinions than you could maybe 15 years ago, when you may not have found as close of a match with your values.”

“This has been a very popular government,” she told us. “It is a ‘rally around the flag’ effect that we’ve been seeing, because we’ve been fighting a common enemy. The government was politically savvy enough to think the best way through this was to give a lot of power to the scientists in these matters, with health care officials not making this political.

“In terms of addressing the other issues, if there is one issue in Iceland that crystalises the difference between being on the left and being on the right in economic issues, it’s attitudes towards the healthcare system. There’s really no disagreement over how to fund health care. People agree that it should be publicly funded, both on the left and the right, and that everybody should get access to health care no matter their background. But there is disagreement over who should provide the services; whether that should solely be the government, or if private organisations should be allowed to do that, too.

“That’s been a big tension within the current government, but the Ministry [of Health] has been with the Left-Greens, so there has been more of the politics of that party that have been implemented in the healthcare system. People on the right have voiced their disapproval of this. So it’s hard to say whether people are happy with this, it really depends on whether you’re on the left or the right. As for the economy, I have not noticed very strong opposition to how the government has treated the economy. Of course, there are some dissident voices, but they’ve not been very prominent.”

Our selection of candidates

In choosing who to reach out to, we had some basic criteria. We chose little-known to unknown candidates from parties running in the greater Reykjavík area with a realistic chance of getting into Parliament, who had people of foreign extraction at least 10th on their list, and who were not openly bigoted. This is why, despite the record of the Independence Party in their leadership position over some of the worst offenses of the Directorate of Immigration, it is more or less certain that they will be a part of the next ruling coalition; they can’t exactly be ignored. And this is also why, despite the Centre Party featuring at least two immigrants on their lists, they were not featured; their dangerous anti-asylum seeker and anti-queer rhetoric is a matter of public record, and does not need to be platformed further. This same goes for the People’s Party, in having no people of foreign extraction on their lists, having one of Iceland’s most notorious racists, Magnús Þór Hafsteinsson, on their staff and for barely polling high enough to gain a seat. And the Reform Party is a special case, having one person of foreign extraction on their Reykjavík area lists, Rhea Juarez, but at the 11th seat.

All this said, readers are more than welcome to familiarise themselves with all the parties, who they are and what they stand for, in our handy election guide.

We asked them all the following questions:

1. Briefly introduce yourself by summing up who you are in one or two sentences.
2. Why run for your party? Relatedly, why should they get someone’s vote instead of another party?
3. What are the top three things Parliament absolutely needs to address after the elections?
4. Are there any parties you would refuse to form a government with?
5. Iceland’s immigrant population—which includes those who are now citizens, capable of voting in parliamentary elections—is over 15%, but this is not reflected in the number of immigrants currently in Parliament. How would you account for this? What do you hope your party can do to change this for the better?

Here’s who they are, and what they had to say:

Viktor Ingi Lorange, 10th on the list in the Reykjavík North district for the Independence Party

Photo by Art Bicnick

1. My name is Viktor Lorange, I’m 27 years old. Originally I’m from the Grafarvogur suburb, but currently living downtown. I work as a digital consultant, am gay and have a cat named Abba. I am also a candidate for Parliament for the Independence Party in Reykjavík Constituency North.

2. Because it is my conviction that by trusting individuals with the freedom to make their own choices and allowing them to prosper on their own terms, we build a stronger, more diverse and thriving society. This belief has been the core of the Independence Party’s manifesto since its foundation. It is my hope that voters can see that this approach has made Iceland a prosperous country — from being one of the poorest in Europe to one of the richest. We want people to be able to live up to their potential, which in return benefits society as a whole. To achieve this, we need to create an environment for entrepreneurship, competition and knowledge, based on a foundation of a robust welfare and education system where everyone is on equal footing. This is what we offer to the voters and what we can deliver with their support.

3. Healthcare, the climate crisis and to make Iceland more open to people who want to come here and live.

4. No. We will work with any party that is willing to work with us towards our goals.

5. Iceland’s demographics have changed very drastically and rapidly in the last decades, which is why I think the immigrant population isn’t properly represented and hopefully, it is just a matter of time until this will change for the better. As a society we need to do more to make it easier for immigrants to take full part in our society, e.g. with better access to language courses and more social mobility. I hope my party will both work towards enacting such changes through parliament and do more to empower these new and important members of our society within our party.

Guy Stewart, 8th on the list in the Reykjavík South district for the Leftist-Green Party

Photo by Art Bicnick

1. I’ve worn several hats: actor, graphic designer and teacher, in Canada and in Iceland. What I enjoy most is reading aloud to children and making things – mostly drawing, painting and calligraphy – and nagging people about the hydrogen economy.
2. The world is calling in our debt: in terms of climate change, it’s time to pay the piper. With the time I’ve got left, I want to unburden our children of that debt as much as possible. I think the most effective way is to invest that time in the Left-Green Movement under the leadership of Katrín Jakobsdóttir. Economics, migrant issues, innovation, welfare—every major issue must take account of climate change. In Iceland, no other political force is so invested in that battle, and frankly no one else is united enough to engage in it effectively.
3. In my opinion, after climate change, the most immediate crisis facing everybody is the threat COVID presents to the health care system. I hate to think of where we would be if not for Svandís Svavarsdóttir in our corner. A strong vote for the Left-Greens is a clear mandate to support health care workers and improve service.
Secondly, I look forward to the completion of initiatives started by the Left-Greens this term, such as the constitutional changes proposed by Katrín, and the Miðhálendisþjóðgarður. After a long list of solid accomplishments, these are a legislative priority.
The third issue isn’t legislative but cultural. Polarization and talking past each other is one of the great challenges of our time, and Katrín is exemplary in – actual engagement! Parliamentarians have to be able to talk to each other if they’re going to accomplish anything.
4. Of course I have my own predispositions. My lefty trajectory is from the Arts & Crafts Movement—beauty, nature, honour, chivalry. So when chivalry’s rampant steed is appropriated as a logo by the enemies of chivalrous ideals, it rubs me the wrong way. But I hope I can transcend my own limitations and work with people who are prepared to sacrifice in order to work with the Left-Green team. It’s a matter of character. I know Katrín steers by the star of our environmental and social ideals, and nobody does it better. The government she negotiates will be the swiftest possible way to our goals. It’s not as if we have all the time in the world.
5. Of course we want people to be represented, and to have a voice. Time is a factor. In my case it took several years living here—and the 2008 crash—to see myself as being invested enough to seek citizenship. I was brought up to view citizenship as a duty to participate actively in democracy. Not everyone has that sense of agency, or feels welcomed with open arms. Then there’s the challenge of language. Aside from free language lessons, we must actively encourage self-efficacy. One interesting sign of agency is the appearance of Kópur, a labour union addressing the needs of workers of foreign extraction. Many such workers endure criminal exploitation.

Brynja Dan, 2nd on the list in the Reykjavík North district for the Progressive Party

Photo by Art Bicnick

1. I’m 36-years old and own a small company in Smáralind called Extraloppan. I sit on the board of Barnaheill and Icelandic Adoptions and am very passionate about issues related to children.
2. The Progressive Party has done great things during this last term. Minister of Social and Children’s Affairs Ásmundur Einar [Daðason] has served during the greatest improvements to the social welfare system in decades. This work has only just begun, and it is extremely important that he gets to continue his work. We also emphasise green infrastructure, small and medium sized companies, and elderly persons issues.
3. Children’s issues, preventative measures where we invest in people, climate change and our health care system are the issues we most need to deal with.
4. The Progressive Party is a party of cooperation. We do not rule out working with anyone ahead of time.
5. This is true, and something we need to improve, as Parliament should best reflect the composition of the nation. The Progressive Party is responding to this by, for example, having an immigrant in third on the list for the southwest district, and the Social Minister appointed a person of foreign origin to the directorship of a government office. This is unfortunately uncommon. The Progressives want a diverse society and this is of course a part of it.

Donata H. Bukowska, 7th on the list for the Southwest district for the Social Democratic Alliance

Photo by Art Bicnick

1. I came to Iceland 20 years ago but I was born and raised in south Poland. I am a mother of two young children, and a primary school teacher educated in, amongst other things, teaching Icelandic as a second language, biology and Polish. I have also been a teaching consultant for students with Icelandic as a second language in Kópavogur primary schools but in the spring I began working as an expert in school development for the Ministry of Culture and Education.
2. All of the work of the Social Democrats is based on a policy of equality, which I am deeply fond of. The values, ideology and emphasis of the party and its platform mesh very well with my own personal values and political opinions. That’s why there’s no question in my mind about participating in the party. The Social Democrats are the one party in Iceland with a realistic and ambitious platform based on equal opportunities for everyone.
3. Health care, education, and the new constitution.
4. I would never form a government with the Centre Party, the Independence Party, the Icelandic National Front [a far right party not polling anywhere high enough to win a seat in Parliament].
5. I am certain that, with time, we will see more immigrants win seats in Parliament. This active participation takes time, both for society and for immigrants themselves. I still doesn’t happen automatically, so we need to work purposefully to create a more open society that accepts immigrants with an open mind and celebrates their backgrounds, strengths, knowledge and efforts regardless of whether they speak Icelandic with an accent, use poor grammar or can’t trace their ancestry back to the Settlement times. To get immigrants to take an active part in politics, we also need to build real trust with them, and the feeling that they can make a difference, and that their voices are just as important as the voices of in-born Icelanders. In the Social Democrats, there is a great deal of will to support the active participation of immigrants in society and politics. As my experience shows, all are welcome in the party to work with us, or just to pop by and chat. I am certain my party will continue to work purposefully to increase the participation and inclusion of immigration in Icelandic democracy.

Lenya Rún Taha Karim, 3rd on the list for the Reykjavík North district for the Pirate Party.

Photo by Art Bicnick

1. My name is Lenya Rún Taha Karim, a 21-year old law student who is running for Parliament for the Pirate Party in the Reykjavík North constituency. I am of Kurdish origin and the daughter of an immigrant and a refugee.

2. I chose the Pirate Party for numerous reasons. Not only did I agree with their policies, but I also thought it would be a perfect fit for someone like me—I’m a person of colour and I wouldn‘t be subjected to tokenism there. The Pirate Party focuses on human rights issues just as much as economical issues, which shows you can facilitate a progressive economy while advocating for human rights issues at the same time.

The answer to why the Pirate Party should get someone‘s vote instead of another party is quite broad. Firstly, the Pirate Party requires transparency when it comes to decision making—that is a very important quality for a political party to have. Secondly, the Pirate Party has a very strong and capable grassroot, which shows how important real democracy is to them. Thirdly, the Pirate party submits proposals and legislations that are important to address as soon as possible. A clear example of this was during the 2021 Israel-Palestine crisis, when the Pirate Party submitted a parliamentary resolution as soon as they could to take some sort of action. To sum this up, the Pirate Party is an honest, democratic and diplomatic party. I think we could do great things if we were to form a government with parties whose policies align with ours.

3. The climate crisis, decriminalization of drugs and immigrant/refugee matters.

4. Yes, the Centre Party and Independence Party. I would love to see a government formed without the Independence Party—they are intertwined with some of the biggest lobby groups in Iceland and we will never see radical change when that’s the case. As for the Centre Party, I think their ideas and policies could be downright dangerous to the public.

5. I think that there is definitely a lack of immigrant representation in Parliament. I didn‘t have any role models when I started out in politics, nor did I grow up with any representation. The lack of representation and role models could lead to other immigrants being hesitant when it comes to running for Parliament. I hope to be the role model and representation for others that I lacked when I was starting out in politics.

As for the Pirate Party, I truly believe they will be as welcoming to other immigrants or people of foreign origin as they were to me. Inclusion is very important. Our society desperately needs to welcome more diversity and it needs to be reflected in positions of power.

Kristbjörg Eva Andersen Ramos, 7th on the list for the Reykjavík North district for the Socialist Party.

Photo by Art Bicnick

1. My name is Kristbjörg Eva and I am running for the Socialist Party.

2. I am running for the Socialist Party because it is the only party representing the lower class. The party’s values are ones which every society should strive for: freedom, equality, humanity and compassion. These goals will only be reached by bringing power to the citizens of the country. The Socialist Party of Iceland is the party of wage earners and all those who suffer from want, invisibility and abjection. The opponents of the Socialist Party of Iceland are the capitalist class and its functionaries. The terrain of the Socialist Party of Iceland is a broad class struggle that rejects compromise and false dialogue. And that is why it is important that people vote what’s best for our society and that’s why they should put X to J.

3. Healthcare, the issues concerning the hospital are a disgrace to our people. There has to be revolutionary changes to turn things around for the better, including the care of the health care workers. Environmental issues—this is a no-brainer. It is time we have a strong leader to lead the community to a better world. It is only when the leaders of our country take action against big corporate companies that we will see change. Our tax system and reconstruction of the tax system, with an eye on making the wealthy pay an adequate share in common expenditures but alleviating the burden of others.

4. Yes, the Independence Party.

5. In my opinion it is unacceptable that there is no representation for such a big community. Iceland takes pride in being known for their successful battle for equality but the reality is that a big portion of people, mostly immigrants, have been forgotten. That is why it is important that this group is well represented in parliament and their voices are heard. In the socialist party we have many great people that know their experiences and want to represent them so their community will be seen and heard.

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