Parliamentary democracy in Europe does not come much older than in the proud republic of Iceland. In fact these sophisticated island folk are credited with having the oldest parliament in the world. Vikings, in the 10th century picked an idyllic spot just 50 kms from Reykjavik to elect their representatives and settle their disputes in an orderly manner (how Scandinavian can you get) and called it Þingvellir. It was not until 1845 that political affairs were moved to the capital.
Unlike the US and many European countries including Britain, Iceland has only one legislative house and a modest number of political representatives. Every four years the electorate returns 63 members of parliament from at present five main political parties. The present government, in common with so much of Europe, is composed of a coalition, the conservative Independence Party and, their junior partner in government, the even more vaguely titled Progressive Party. This unlikely sounding combination is just two months into a staggering third term of office, having prevailed against the early pre-election odds to secure victory once more. The basis of this extraordinary reign has been the 90s economic boom which has seen the Icelandic economic capacity grow in leaps and bounds. Even a slowdown in productivity and creeping recession failed to knock the coalition from its political perch.
While the junior partner in this unholy alliance is a small rural based entity that evolved from the old Farmers Party, the senior member, the Independence Party, has been the national political heavyweight since independence. Though Iceland gained a large degree of freedom in 1918 it was only in 1944 that Iceland ceded completely from the, by then, largely defunct Danish empire. Since Iceland became an independent republic the Independence Party has enjoyed the fruits of political office for a staggering forty-two of the last 60 odd years.
This, it would seem, is not unusual, but indeed a classic post-colonial democratic pattern. Many former colonies that gained independence in the last two hundred years have displayed such tendencies. This manifests itself in an overwhelming and long-held dominance by one particular political grouping. India’s Congress Party, elements of which were at the forefront of the independence movement has ruled this vast subcontinent more or less continuously since 1948. It is only in the last decade that complacency and corruption have combined to threaten its dominance. Mexican politics too has suffered a similar stagnation. Last years elections saw defeat of the Revolutionary Party for the first time in almost seventy years.
The Irish republic’s political life since independence in 1921 has evolved along almost identical lines to Iceland. My country’s largest party, the dramatically titled Fianna Fail (soldiers of destiny) has held the reigns of power for almost fifty of the last seventy years, including two unbroken 16 years stretches. Only in the last 15 years or so have they repeatedly failed to achieve overall majorities and suffered the indignity of having to share power with a tiny coalition partner.
Iceland differs from these examples in that the Independence Party, from the outset, has always had to share power with another party, more often than not their current bedfellows the Progressives, who for their size have also had more than their fair share of office, often holding, as they do now, the balance of power between left and right.. Our latest dear leader, Prime Minister and Independence Party leader David Oddsson, is now entering his 13th year as premier. If, as planned, Oddsson retires to the back benches in two years time he will become the longest serving Prime Minister in Europe edging out such luminaries as Maggie Thatcher and Hitler for the title.
In terms of style and background freakish parallels can be drawn to yet another late twentieth century political megastar, Ronald Reagan. Like Reagan, David has a glamorous showbiz past. In previous incarnations Oddsson has been a writer of short stories and poems and the presenter of a successful radio show. According to recent surveys it seems that just like Ronny, Oddsson is the most popular politician in the history of his country too. And the spooky comparisons don’t end there. Oddsson also appears to have taken to simple-minded liberal economics with the same gusto as “the great democrat”. Luckily for independently minded left leaning third world countries everywhere, Oddsson’s army-less and powerless Iceland is no position to emulate Ronnie in foreign fields.
To avoid confusion it should be pointed out that the Independence Party’s conversion to Thatcherite economic policy is a fairly recent one. For a lengthy period after the war all parties in Iceland would have been, to greater or lesser degree, based on Scandinavian socialism and, at least by American standards, quasi communistic.
The history of those political groupings that have remained at least nominally leftist in Iceland is a sad, sorry but oh so familiar tale. The Icelandic left is composed of various factions whose longstanding inability to unite and work together and admittedly the afore mentioned post colonial political syndrome cost them dearly and has seen them occupy the opposition benches for the overwhelming majority of their history. In 1999 three of the four main leftist groupings finally amalgamated to form Samfylkingin. This new entity has followed the European socialist stampede to the centre leaving the environment minded Left Green Party as the only one even mouthing socialist sentiment these days. The Liberal Party brings up the rear as the smallest, though recently augmented, presence in parliament with four MPs.
After riding high in the polls for months before the election Samfylkingin peaked too soon and had their electoral ambitions thwarted once again last May. When the post election dust settled, the details of the deal that put the incumbent coalition back in power provided the biggest news of decade so far. After fifteen years Iceland will have a new Premier. In return for his continued support of the Independence Party, the year 2005 will see Progressive leader and eternal coalition doormat Halldór Ásgrímsson finally accede to the highest office in the land. With over 30 years in politics and countless political humiliations under his belt he is surely living proof that all good things truly do come to those who wait.
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