From Iceland — The Exit’s Over There, Friend

The Exit’s Over There, Friend

Published June 2, 2006

The Exit’s Over There, Friend

“Here, give me that,” said a baseball cap-wearing man to a friend of his, who was drinking water out of a bottle emblazoned with X-D, the sign of the Independence Party. They were standing by a table outside the X-D campaign office where a large number of bottles had been placed for people to take at their leisure.

Once he had been handed the bottle, he picked at the label, tore it off and stomped on it a few times for good measure, and handed the bottle back to his friend. “There we go, much better now.”

…which pretty much summed up the mood in downtown Reykjavík on the day of the mayoral elections. Everyone had pitched their support and stood proudly by their chosen camp, and assumed an attitude of bigot-like hatred for anything any member of any other party stood for, which is surprising considering the general similarity between the various campaign promises.
Oh sure, there were superficial differences, some of them surprisingly bold stances: The Social Democrats had all but promised to put a leash on the irreverent dambuilders, an attitude that was conspicuously absent when they still had the chance to stop anything; the Liberals and the Independence Party both had very detailed solutions to housing problems that didn’t really seem to factor in things such as the environment and financing, both government (the cost of actually building the new houses) and personal (the cost of buying or renting said houses). The Leftist-Greens wanted to put up large amounts of parking meters everywhere to encourage people to drive less. Their solution? Bikes.

At least they had their head in the right place. The Progressive Party seemed to think that making everything look flashy, snappy and/or dandy would solve problems. A tunnel through Öskjuhlíð, the hill on which architectural mishap Perlan sits, would no doubt be very cool indeed, as would having our children wear smart-looking school uniforms. Ostensibly, their purpose would be to reduce income-based bullying, which leads me to believe that the Progressives’ information regarding life in school is about 50 years past its sell-by date.

So other than idiosyncratic tidbits, what exactly differentiated the promises each of the mayoral candidates was dishing out like so much confetti? Lofty and unrealistic ideals and celebrity support. Sure, voting to the left would certainly be showing one’s displeasure over the presence of an aluminium smelter in the desolate and beautiful Icelandic outback, but I feel fairly certain that the mayor of Reykjavik’s jurisdiction does not extend to any proposed building site.

Yet, next to the apparently mind-boggling issue of where Reykjavík’s domestic airport should be located, it was these ideals that drove most of the mayoral campaigns in Reykjavík this year.

Confused youths who innocently asked a volunteer at the X-D office if he was against the smelters were soon in a shouting match with the man, who eventually threw his hands up in exasperation, saying “Well, when you get old, you can have the smelter dismantled, that’s fine by me. But it’s getting built.”

The Leftist-Greens had already made their stance on the matter abundantly clear from the very beginning, and simply settled for peppering their near-invisible advertising campaign with vague statements on how “natural resources belong to the Icelandic people, and should be used for the good of the people without damage to the environment.”

And as for celebrity support, well, that can always do just as much harm as good. At the X-D youth office, ugly rumours regarding an incident in which award-winning author Hallgrímur Helgason bullied two of the X-D youth who were spreading pamphlets were circulating. Apparently, he and Social Democrat mayoral candidate Dagur Eggertsson compared the pamphlet’s title to Nazi slogans before the inebriated Hallgrímur shoved the pamphlets to the ground, drawing guffaws from Dagur and the several other X-S supporters and candidates present.

True or not, the fact that the story was being told at all was a testament to the Independence Party’s defensiveness this late in the game. Although the polls had all but promised them victory, their offices were a hive of nervous activity, leading me to believe once again in the value of persistence: If you pester somebody long enough, you’ll get his vote eventually.

Further reinforcing this opinion was the fact that the very unpopular Progressive Party’s campaign office turned out to be in a different postal area than all the others. Lodged in between corporate outlets and phone companies on Suðurlandsbraut, it was the kind of place you could only drive to, perhaps so people could better grasp their highway-riddled future vision of Reykjavík.

The inside of the office was like a cross between the wedding scene in The Godfather and a birthday in an old folks’ home. A handshake was obligatory, while backslapping was only recommended, if heavily encouraged. Not for us, that is. The Grapevine’s reporters were met with cold and unwelcoming stares that left little doubt as to their opinion of us and our being there.

Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson was there, looking more confused than ever inside his own party’s campaign office, and responded to the Grapevine’s photographer’s instructions to pose holding an X-B balloon with reflexes suggesting he’d spent the better part of the day mixing alcohol with Xanax and Ketamine. The balloon then proceeded to symbolically fall apart as soon as he handed it back.

Doddering prime ministers aside, the air of unwelcomeness remained as I wandered the premises. A particularly hostile group approached me looking for all the world like an 18th century press gang with their sinister leering.

“Well, I can see you’re not here to vote,” said one of them.
“Hardly,” I said, trying to remain unfazed.
“Well, then what exactly are you doing poking around here?”
“Uh, just looking for a friend of mine,” I said, trying to locate my fellow reporter out of the corner of my eye.

“You’ll find the exit over there, friend,” the man said, drawing a chuckle from the others.
Disgusted, I took their suggestion and hurried out as soon as possible, ashamed I had ever walked in in the first place. I felt tainted by the clammy, partisan-like unholiness of the whole thing in general, the disturbing sides that politics brought out in people. Oh well, at least the Progressives didn’t resort to square-dancing in public like the Liberals did to win some last-minute votes.

A sense of frustration permeated the air at the Social Democrat office, with people rushing in and out to conduct various last-minute errands before the hammer fell. Knowing that the polls had pretty much depicted them as the only hope of keeping Reykjavík on the left was evidently pushing them to the limit.

And as for the Leftists, well, they put up a heated tent and made waffles. Aside from two people arguing over finances in the doorway, things were very calm at the Leftist-Green office, and I was glad to see a quiet sort of righteous dignity in the people there, the kind of calm that comes with doing what you think is right without having advertised it across town. Although it may have cost them votes, they seemed somehow aloof from the weird, vicious tension seething below the surface in the other offices.

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