From Iceland — Democracy in Action: In your face protestors!

Democracy in Action: In your face protestors!

Published June 2, 2006

Democracy in Action: In your face protestors!

On Austurvöllur, right next to the campaign office of the Independence Party, the Friends of Iceland had orchestrated a big protest against heavy-industrialization and proposed damming projects around the country. There was a festive spirit in the air as people gathered to witness the musical acts perform and signed petitions to the government to halt further damming projects.
As the biggest political party in Iceland, and the controlling party in the parliament, the protest outside was largely directed at the Independence Party—whose campaign headquarters were in the same square as the protest. Inside their office, however, nobody seemed the slightest bit worried. Despite the protests of anguished youths, or maybe because of them, polls projected the Independence Party to win a majority of City Council seats and reclaim control in City Hall, lost in the 1994 mayoral elections.

None of the candidates were present, but volunteers were freely offering opinions on everything that mattered, and all that didn’t. An older volunteer who stood outside the office and listened to the music coming from the protest concert on Austurvöllur approached me. “Who is playing?” He asked me. I offered that this was probably the reggae outfit Hjálmar.

“Ah, yes, Hjálmur. That is very nice,” he said.
“Friðrik Sophusson was here earlier.” He added. [Former MP and Minister for the Independence Party, and current CEO of the National Power Company, responsible for the damming projects.] “I think he is a great man.”

I gave him a confused look.

“He is willing to listen to all sides. He lets everyone have a say. When the National Power Company put down the cornerstone for a new control house for the Kárahnjúkar dam, he let the protesters put an engraved stone with a message to future generations in there as well.
“I thought it was a very noble gesture of him, I respect that. It was democracy in action. Yes, he is a great man.”

I remained silent for a few seconds while I pondered whether I should point out that listening to someone’s point of view after the fact was not all that noble. Eventually, I just mumbled something incoherent, not really wanting to raise a ruckus in the lion’s den.

Instead I ate some more of their liquorice and observed as the volunteer got into a heated argument with three youngsters who had wandered off from the protest site to offer their opinion on the future of Iceland and heavy industry.

A decidedly right wing party in Icelandic politics, the Independence Party had campaigned on central and leftist issues such as increasing the welfare service in the city, as opposed to lowering taxes or privatizing city owned companies. With one poke of a finger, the wolf had emerged from his sheepskin, and the whole pretentious sham came crumbling down.

The irony is that on the same day that more than 3000 people had gathered to protest the acts of the Independence Party in the parliament, the citizens of Reykjavík were likely to elect that same party to control City Hall.

High Spirits
The Left-Greens were in the same high spirits as everyone else. They had brought out a tent and were serving waffles to anyone who cared for a taste. I asked Árni Þór Sigurðsson, the Left-Greens candidate about the upcoming elections. “I am very optimistic,” Sigurðsson said. I asked if he was sure to get elected: “Yes sure, we’ll do a lot better than that.”

We discussed the reports that had surfaced that the voters turnout was unusually low this year and Sigurðsson offered the explanation that the Election Day fell on a day Saturday that followed a national holiday on Thursday, therefore a lot of people might have decided to take the Friday off and leave town for a long weekend.

“Legend has it that a low Election Day turnout is in favour of the left side,” he said, smiling. Obviously, not everyone had lost hope that the Independence Party could be fended off from City Hall.

As the election drew to a close, however, it became obvious that the voters did not particularly care much either way. At the end of the day, only 77% of registered voters in Reykjavík had bothered to vote, one of the lowest turnouts in the history of the Reykjavík mayoral elections, in a country that has historically put a lot of pride in their active participation in the democratic process in public elections.

In a way, the low turnout was even more surprising, considering the fact that the race for City Hall was projected to be extremely close. According to the latest polls, all parties were just a few votes short of securing their next City Council member, and a small change in percentages could have made the difference in which side would claim the victory.

Sigurðsson’s explanation might have been a factor, but more likely the low turnout can be attributed to the fact that a lot of people felt they were not presented with clear options. Leading up to the elections, nominees agreed that the elections did not really revolve around ideology, but technicalities. The political platforms of the parties were frightfully similar. Even the right wing Independence Party had gone towards, and even beyond, the middle ground.

“This is Not What We Had in Mind”
As the polls closed and the first numbers from the count started to appear, it became apparent that Sigurðsson’s theory was somewhat holding up. The Left-Greens were actually gaining votes, while the Social Democrats were not. The Liberals were also gaining votes, but the real losers of the election was the Progressive Party, which saw its support plummet, although not nearly as much as some polls had projected. Meanwhile, it looked as if the Independence Party would win back City Hall, after 12 years in opposition.

I made the trip to Hotel Nordica where a large number of Independence Party members had gathered to follow the elections. Those in attendance were jubilant, and eagerly waited to see if they would manage to secure their eighth representative on City Council to secure a majority.
The face of their primary candidate was on a giant TV screen at one end of the room, speaking to members of the media and his supporters hung on to his every word, cheering and clapping at all the right places. Even if their support was hovering just above 40%, instead of the 50% the most optimistic of polls had projected them, they felt and looked like winners.

At the nearby Hotel Ísland, the Social Democrats had set up their camp for the night. There were decidedly fewer of them in attendance than I had expected. Perhaps the appalling first numbers from the vote count had diminished their spirits somewhat. They had set their eyes on five representatives, even eyeing the sixth as an outside chance. The results were not particularly encouraging. According to the latest count, they had only managed four representatives, and the fifth one seemed a very distant possibility.

Stefán Jón Hafstein, the third person on the Social Democrats ticket, looked heartbroken as I approached him. “This does not look good,” he sighed. “This is not what we had in mind, we expected more support.”

“But, on the bright side, at least we managed to prevent the Independence Party from receiving a clean majority.”

Do you have any idea how things will continue?, I asked him.

“Well, obviously the Independence Party will form a coalition with one of the small parties.”
When I entered the Progressive Party’s gathering in the downtown Þjóðleikhúskjallarinn, Björn Ingi Hrafnsson was giving a speech to his supporters. “We led the discourse during the campaign.” he said while his supporters cheered wildly. “The battle was fought on our turf, even if we were not projected to do well.”

“This is a victory for the party as a unit. Tomorrow, the reconstruction will begin.”

The Progressive Party had lost one seat on City Council and seen its support plummet to a paltry 6.3%. Most people would have considered this a losing campaign, but Hrafnsson, whose party, just a week ago, was only at 3%, had reason to be happy. Now, his seat on City Council meant that his party was in a pivotal position.

With the Independence Party needing one seat to form a coalition majority to take over City Hall, and the two parties working in a coalition in parliament, a co-operation in City Hall between the Independent Party and the Progressive Party looked very possible, despite the fact that the party was on the brink of extinction.

Hrafnsson was ecstatic as I asked him about his position; “Yes,” he said with big grin. “We will talk to the other parties, I feel very good about our position,” he said as he skittered past me to accept pats on the back and exchange kisses with equally ecstatic party members.

The other small party, the Liberals were just as happy as the Progressives. Having secured one representative in City Hall by increasing their support from 6.3% to a respectable 10.1% of all votes. Ólafur F. Magnússon had managed to secure his seat on City Council and was in high spirits as I approached him.

“I am extremely happy with the results. It is a clear demand on behalf of the voters that our voice will be represented in a coalition majority.”

Magnússon’s phone rang and he hurried into a corner to talk in private. When he returned I asked him if the other parties were already contacting him. “Well, this was not a call from any of the other parties, but some of them have talked to me already. I am just waiting for them to call so we can begin formal discussions.”

The Aftermath
When all votes had been counted, and all the numbers were in, the position had not changed significantly. The Independence Party still had 7 representatives, the Social Democrats did not manage to add the fifth, The Left-Greens had their two and The Liberal Party and the Progressive Party had one representative each.

With a working majority needing the support of eight out of fifteen members of City Council, and no party able to secure a clean majority, the most likely candidate to lead a coalition was The Independence Party, which needed only the support of one representative to secure the majority.

Early on Sunday morning, rumours were floating that the Independence Party and the Liberal Party had started formal negotiations to form a majority. This was confirmed later in the day. At that time the Liberal’s representative Magnússon said that he had spoken to members of the other parties earlier that day, but the Independence Party had shown much interest in preliminary discussions, and he considered that option to be more likely to bear fruit than a coalition of four different parties. Further discussions were planned on Monday.

On Monday, news surfaced that all talks between the two parties had been cancelled. Apparently Independence Party leader Vilhjálmsson changed his mind and was now in bed with the Progressive Party. The sudden change of direction lead many to believe that this had been planned all along and even decided higher up in the chain of command, in particular as a highly controversial law proposal from the Progressive Party suddenly found the support of the Independence Party that same day, and seemed set for a fast track through parliament.

The Independent – Progressive coalition in parliament has made no secret of their wishes to privatize the National Power Company. In order to do that, they would need to have the support of the Reykjavík City Council, since the City owns 45% stakes in the company. The newly formed coalition in city politics sets the stage perfectly for the privatization of the National Power Company, as all the other parties in city politics have been opposed to this plan.

The new turn of events meant that Ólafur F. Magnússon of the Liberals suddenly found himself on the outside looking in. When I talked to Magnússon after the elections he said he had simply been duped.

“It was very unpleasant to experience this from Vilhjálmsson. He contacted us early on the Election Day, before the polls were even closed. His representative approached me with an offer for cooperation, and told me that any disagreements over issues could be worked out. They presented us with blueprints for a new design for the Reykjavík Airport [the biggest dispute between the parties] that would have allowed the airport to remain where it is, and he insured me that we could reach an agreement over this issue.

“We had planned a meeting on Monday at 13:00. He never showed up for the meeting, and called me at 14:00 and told me that he was putting further talks off, since he could not see us reach an agreement over the location of the airport.” Magnússon explained.

“It turned out it was all a ploy intended to keep us out of any meaningful discussions with the other parties, while the Independence Party and the Progressive Party worked out their differences,” Magnússson said.

“I’ll have to admit that I was duped. Maybe innocent doctors are not the right people for politics,” he added. “But we are still the winners of this election.”

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