From Iceland — Iceland's Year in Politics

Iceland’s Year in Politics

Published January 18, 2010

Iceland’s Year in Politics

This past year in Iceland has probably been most memorable on the political front. The usual stories that get us international headlines—whaling, music, anything about green energy—all took a back seat to the January Revolution. After months of weekly protests, often to the derisive laughter of others that Icelanders have no stamina for sustained protest, the centre-right coalition of the Independence Party and the Social Democrats was forced to dissolve. A couple of months later, when new elections were held, Icelanders voted a leftist government into power, for the first time in the history of the republic.
Those were heady times, weren’t they? After nearly two decades of bowing to the nearly feudal stranglehold the conservatives had over the country, the Icelandic people said, “No. You ruined us; you have revoked your right to rule.” But more than just a shift from right to left was the hope that now, having seen what can be accomplished, the average Icelander would finally realise the real advantage of living in a small, tight-knit community—that direct democracy can happen. This was underlined when a new party comprised of a collection of activists, the Civic Movement (Borgarahreyfingin), at the time of the spring elections only a few months old, managed to win four seats in parliament.
Hope was certainly alive and well. This was months before the Civic Movement would end up dissolving after an embarrassing e-mail leak revealed inter-party bickering that led to one of their MPs leaving and the party re-inventing itself (at least in name, anyway), and months before opinion polls showed that the majority of Icelanders would, in fact, vote the conservatives back into power if parliamentary elections were held again.

Breathtaking hypocrisy
I’ll repeat what I said in the news story I wrote on the Icesave bill: the hypocrisy of the Independence Party is breathtaking. Watching the final vote streamed live to my browser from government television, and seeing one conservative after the other pour scorn and ridicule on the people cleaning up the mess the conservatives made, was truly rage-inducing.
Speaking of which, the economy has also been a sort of partisan banner, with conservative opponents frequently citing it as an example of the leftists’ incompetence. That is, if you ignore the fact that since the leftists came to power, unemployment has dropped (taking a modest rise in recent weeks though), taxes still remain the lowest in Scandinavia even after tax hikes were passed, and Iceland’s economic rating by international financial institutions such as Fitch has been steadily if modestly rising.

Troubling trends
Of course Icesave and the economy weren’t the only stories on the political front. Some troubling trends in the area of immigration and refugee rights have come up as well. Cries for reform in refugee law have been getting stronger with each passing month, and will likely not abate. Apparently, people fleeing totalitarianism and war aren’t exactly keen on being deported without their cases reviewed, being sent to notorious human rights violators in Greece with little reason given by Icelandic authorities beyond “because we can.” Minister of Justice Ragna Árnadóttir doesn’t seem too motivated to do anything about refugee law, but it certainly has been interesting seeing parliamentary reactions. Or the lack thereof.
Remember Paul Ramses, the Kenyan asylum seeker who was deported to Italy in 2008, separated from his wife and infant child here in Iceland? Remember the public outcry that rightfully arose from this, and the politicians who spoke openly about what a horrible thing this was? Yeah. Many of those same politicians were the ones who rejected a bill that I co-submitted which would have made the changes to refugee law that would have kept Ramses in Iceland. I guess these MPs have gotten more consistent, as they haven’t uttered a word about refugee law reform now.

Another revolution?
Human trafficking, on the other hand, looks like it’s finally getting the attention it deserves. Members of parliament recently approved a resolution to legislatively protect women of foreign origin from domestic violence, and police started focusing a lot more attention on human traffickers. We can only hope, then, that they’ll also be extending their efforts into educational campaigns, informing buyers of women (in particular, guys who like to go to strip clubs) that they are taking part in a nightmarish practice. We’d hate to think the police would actually be inconsistent; giving great attention to the demand side of drugs, but virtually ignoring the demand side of human trafficking.
The year to come is certainly going to be an eventful one. While the Icesave bill was passed into law on the second to last day of the year by a wafer-thin majority of 33 MPs to 30, the president held off on signing it right away. The following Monday, he announced he had vetoed the law, refering to national referendum instead. Cue one furious government (the news was just as much a surprise to them as it was the rest of the world), a dumbstruck opposition, a seething mad foreign press erroneously declaring that Iceland intended to refuse to pay, and a nation left with finding out what it means when you get what you ask for. At the time of this writing, only 41% of the nation agrees with the president’s veto. Tentative plans schedule the referendum to take place on the 20th of February. Unless and until the law is killed by simple majority, the current Icesave law still stands. Even so, 2010 will – to the greatest dismay of the Icelandic people themselves – in all likelihood be dominated by Icesave. God help us.

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