From Iceland — Going the Way of Styx

Going the Way of Styx

Published March 10, 2006

Going the Way of Styx

Not too long ago, a movement known as “progressive rock” began. Starting from the margins of music culture, bands such as Genesis, King Crimson and Yes became considered cutting edge, arbiters of musical innovation, attracting legions of fans. But it wasn’t long before the inevitable happened – they got cocky, and then absurd, driving more and more people away with every giant inflatable pig and each 15-minute guitar solo, until they eventually became living anachronisms, their once diehard fans now embarrassed and ashamed to admit they ever supported them. Soon, they faded away.

Decades beforehand – on 16 December 1916, to be precise – the Progressive Party was formed in Iceland. Starting out as a minor political group within parliament, it became the most powerful party in the country, offering new ideas regarding the cooperative movement and national welfare, rallying the support of a great deal of the nation behind them. But as more people began to urbanise, and as the country’s focus shifted from agriculture to fishing, the Progressives seemed anachronistic, and then downright corrupt. Today, they stand on the brink of extinction, kept alive in parliament only by being in a coalition with the Independence Party. If Reykjavík City Council elections were held today, they wouldn’t even earn a seat. In other words, the Progressive Party has become the Styx of Iceland.

It is often inaccurately reported that the Progressive Party is the least popular party in Iceland. Not so. According to the latest results of an ongoing IMG Gallup poll, that honour belongs to the Liberal Party. On the parliamentary front, the Liberals have the support of only 3% of the population, as opposed to the Progressives’ 10%. In city council, the Liberals have the support of a little more than 2% of Reykjavík’s voters, while the Progressives have 5%. But bear this in mind: the Liberal Party was formed in 1998. They have no legacy to point to, are not a part of any ruling coalition, and there is no family in the country that can trace a lineage of Liberal supporters. The 90-year-old Progressive Party has all of these advantages, and are only doing marginally better than their eight-year-old comrades.

In 1931, the Progressive Party had the support of 35.9% of the voters in the parliamentary elections. This figure is proudly mentioned in the “history and organisation” section of the Progressive Party’s website. What it doesn’t say is that’s the last time the Progressives ever gained that much support. After bouncing between 23% and 27% for a few years, party support peaked at 29.7% in 1959, and has been gradually declining ever since.

The turn of the millennium heralded a parade of bad decisions from the Progressive Party. First there was the Kárahnjúkar dam project – a hydroelectric dam being built in the highlands to provide power for an aluminium smelter in the east of Iceland – initially touted by then Minister for the Environment Siv Friðleifsdóttir in 2002. This project, which has caused dismay to many around the world and sparked not a few protests from within Iceland, continues despite declining support.

Minister of Industry Valgerður Sverrisdóttir has taken the Kárahnjúkar cause to all new levels of cognitive dissonance. When Ms. Sverrisdóttir was presented with the results of two polls earlier this month – one from Icelandic daily Fréttablaðið and another from Gallup – both showing the majority of the nation against the construction of more heavy industry, her reply was, “I’m happy to hear that the people of this country are pleased with the work we’ve been doing so far,” just before dismissing both polls for not asking the right questions. Sources close to the Grapevine have informed us that even more and bigger protests are being planned for the coming summer. In the face of this, another aluminium smelter has been slated for Húsavík, in the north.

Heir Apparent Steps Down
More recently, there’s former Minister of Social Affairs Árni Magnússon, who found himself embroiled in a court case last year when Valgerður H. Bjarnadóttir, the former director of the Equal Rights Office, was awarded six million ISK (about 100,000 USD) in damages in the Supreme Court, saying that Magnússon had unfairly pressured her to quit her job. Magnússon announced his resignation on 5 March, to take a position at the Bank of Iceland. Baldur Þórhallsson, docent of political science at the University of Iceland, told the Grapevine that Magnússon’s resignation had nothing to do with the trial, but rather, with political workings within the Progressive Party itself.

Þórhallsson believes that there is a division of sorts within the Progressive Party, which he divides between, “those who support [Prime Minister] Halldór Ásgrímsson and those who question his power. This creates a lot of tension within the party, and it causes conflicts that are more personal than conflicts with members of other parties. Magnússon has said in the past that he doesn’t take well to negativity and criticism in the public eye, and he’s been very much in the middle of this conflict within the Progressive Party.”

What caused this division? Þórhallsson puts the cause squarely upon 15 September, 2004, when Halldór Ásgrímsson became prime minister of Iceland by switching places with Davíð Oddsson.

“At that time, the Progressives lost a minister post,” he explained. “So someone had to go. Siv Friðleifsdóttir had a lot of supporters, and many people argued that Magnússon should go, as he was the newest minister in the party, having started in 2003, while Friðleifsdóttir had been Minister for the Environment since 1999.”

Invariably, Friðleifsdóttir was let go, with Magnússon – the new PM’s groomed successor – allowed to remain. But this decision wasn’t the first unpopular move Ásgrímsson has ever made.

While Minister of Foreign Affairs, Ásgrímsson essentially sold himself a newly privatised bank in 2003 through a series of companies owned by him and his family. This, however, wouldn’t be brought to light for another two years. In 2003, people were more aware of his and then Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson’s move to get Iceland in the “coalition of the willing,” despite at least 78% of the nation being against Iceland’s involvement in Iraq and without putting the matter to parliamentary vote.

Today, Ásgrímsson seems more like aging royalty than a prime minister, engaging in such activities as visiting Icelandic Canadians in Winnepeg, announcing the newly-measured height of Iceland’s tallest mountain, discussing the Cod Wars with George W. Bush, or having a photo-op with the newborn 300,000th Icelander. Occasionally, he will make predictions, whether it’s Iceland entering the European Union by 2015 or the final score of Chelsea vs. Barcelona, none of which are taken seriously. This ineffectual and sometimes absurd image has made him the subject of at least two songs – Ghostigital’s Not Clean and Skátar’s Halldór Ásgrímsson. For a person who’s been prime minister for about a year and a half, it would be quite an honour, if either song had something positive to say about the man.

Reform, Not Reunion Tours
Not to completely slam the Progressives, they do deserve credit for their work with women’s rights, having been one of the earliest and more outspoken proponents of closing the wage gap between men and women, along with the Social Democrats. And then there’s the smoking ban, a bill likely to pass parliament that would prohibit smoking in restaurants, clubs and cafés in Iceland, which was initially introduced by Siv Friðleifsdóttir – a proposal that 74% of the nation supports, according to a Gallup poll from February. These efforts, however, do not appear to be enough. According to Gallup, parliamentary support has been steadily dropping since last November, and it’s unlikely that they will win a seat on city council this spring. Should they be dropped from the ruling coalition, their 12 parliamentary seats would inevitably diminish further.

Árni Magnússon’s departure, then, was not a good sign.

“Árni Magnússon was a popular politician, especially with people working with issues dealt with by the Ministry of Social Affairs. He’s been very well received,” Þórhallsson told the Grapevine. “And Magnússon was picked to be Halldór Ásgrímsson’s successor. It was obvious that he had been chosen for this position and by leaving, Ásgrímsson doesn’t have a successor anymore.”

At the same time, Þórhallsson pointed out that the Progressives show room for improvement.

“Right now they’re being squeezed between a Social Democratic Party that is getting stronger,” he explained, “and the Independence Party. They have to find a base of support in Reykjavík. Right now, they’re seen as a regional party. Their support of aluminium smelters, for example, doesn’t sit well with people in Reykjavík.”

And this is where the Progressive Party could maintain its relevance. Just as modern progressive rock bands such as God Speed! You Black Emperor have forsaken the laser-light shows and flower costumes of old for a fresher, more current sound that still holds onto the basic principles of the genre, the Progressive Party would do well to come to terms with Iceland’s current political mood and abandon, for example, what former city councilperson Guðrún Pétursdóttir recently described on political roundtable television show Silfur Egils as an “old-fashioned” trust in heavy industry as an economic solution.

This leaves the Progressive Party with one basic choice: come to terms with the whole of Iceland’s current political and economic climate and reform their practices accordingly, or not change at all, and continue to emerge every few years, looking as sad and dated as a Genesis reunion concert, until people forget who they are altogether.

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