From Iceland — Terrified Politicians

Terrified Politicians

Published May 27, 2010

Terrified Politicians

Icelanders are heading into their second elections since the economic collapse of October 2008. In April of last year, we had the parliamentary elections where the left won a resounding victory—since then we have what is nominally the most left wing government in the history of the republic. But then the government is in a way a victim of circumstance: It is difficult to run generous left wing welfare policies in a state that is practically bankrupt. The government is thus forced to follow a strict program dictated by the International Monetary Fund, stipulating how it should cut down the huge budget deficit and repay foreign debt.

So in the course of a year, the present government has become almost as unpopular as the former right/centre government that presided over the economic collapse, which was ousted after the so-called Pots and Pans Revolution of January 2009. The general feeling in the country is that politics are useless, political parties are corrupt and politicians mendacious and irrelevant.

Reykjavík as crown jewel

Politics are not helped by the fact that the political parties—save for the socialist Left Greens—had a very cosy relationship with the financiers who bankrupted the country. Politicians acted as cheerleaders for the banksters, who repaid them with donations into party coffers and money gifts to individual politicians, parliamentarians and members of the Reykjavík city council. There are demands for several politicians to resign because of this, but so far they have resisted. Thus, Icelanders’ disgust with traditional politics keeps on growing.

The municipal elections on May 30th arouse no passion in the population. The elections are held all around the country, in townships large and small, but the greatest prize is Reykjavík. Reykjavík was always the jewel in the crown of the Independence Party, which has dominated Icelandic politics since the 1920s.

For decades the party reigned supreme in Reykjavík with a clear majority in every election. The leaders of the party were brought up in Reykjavík politics; they almost invariably were mayors of Reykjavík before they went on to become party leaders and prime ministers. This was, for example, the story of Davíð Oddsson, the strong man of Icelandic politics for the last three decades. He graduated from the law faculty of the University of Iceland, was mayor of Reykjavík, party leader, PM and, lastly, head of the Central Bank of Iceland—a position which has strangely been used to reward politicians on their way to retirement.

And this was exactly the path of Geir Hallgrímsson, a leader of the Independence Party, a generation older than Davíð Oddsson. He ended up in the luxury of the Central Bank, a black modern building towering over central Reykjavík and a rest home for political veterans. But then Geir never had to deal with an economic collapse, so his competence was not really tested.

Losing Reykjavík

For the Independence Party, Reykjavík was also the lynchpin of a system of patronage where people got jobs, housing, permits, and different rewards based on where they stood in politics. If you wanted to enjoy the benefits of life in Reykjavík you had better support the Independence Party—and so it was for a long time.
This started changing in 1994 when the left wing parties in Reykjavík managed to mount a challenge to the Independence Party in the guise of Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, a tough feminist, then a member of the so called Women’s List. At that time a person of extraordinary self confidence, she seemed the first politician to be unfazed by the power and the traditions of the Independence Party which up to that point had been a source of inferiority complexes on the left wing.

Under Ingibjörg Sólrún the left managed to hold on to Reykjavík for three consecutive elections. This was not excessively due to the success of their policies, for the demographics have also changed. Many conservative voters have moved to outlying towns such as Garðabær and Seltjarnarnes where population is more uniformly affluent and where the Independence Party can rely on a sound majority every time there is a vote.

So in Reykjavík the Independence Party can no more count on winning a clear majority—those days have passed. After the last elections, after some very complicated manoeuvring, the party managed to form a city government with the quite marginal Progressive Party. The present mayor, Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, has done quite well; she has a decisive personality, manages to distance herself from unpopular decisions, and is mostly free from the scandals that have shaken the nation. No wonder she is being named as a future leader of the party, and in due time, Prime Minister.

But at the same time her party is deeply unpopular. It is blamed for the corruption, recklessness, deception and lack of regulation, which led to the collapse of the economy. Party leader, Bjarni Benediktsson, has extremely low approval ratings. He is perceived as having been too close to the financiers who plundered the country. The party’s VP, Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, was recently forced to resign because of huge loans her husband, a former handball star, received when he was an employee of the Kaupthing bank.

Every-party hurts

The situation is not much better in the other parties. The social democrats, now leaders of the government, were also in government at the time of the collapse. The aforementioned Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir was then Minister for Foreign Affairs and party leader. Since she was forced to leave politics her successor and present PM Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir has seen her approval ratings plummet—she is now mostly linked to enforcing unpopular IMF policies and a deeply unpopular application to join the European Union. She is not referred to as Holy Jóhanna anymore.

Even the Left Greens, who had no part in the collapse of the economy, are suffering. The party is divided between loyalists who support party leader and finance minister Steingrímur J. Sigfússon and his pragmatist, pro-IMF policies, and a more militant, anti-globalist, anti-EU faction, led by Ögmundur Jónasson, who was Minister of Health for a short while until he decided to leave the government. The party, which looked so cohesive in its long years of opposition, is now in total disarray.

Comedy with a spark of danger

In Iceland, Reykjavík elections have always been a big deal, a test of strength between left and right. But now the situation is different. People generally dislike the political parties; in a way they seem pitiful. The parties have looked very cowed during the election campaign; they are handing out their balloons, flowers and hot dogs, but the general feeling is that they feel ashamed of themselves. It has been very difficult to get the party faithful to volunteer for election work. Within the parties there is great resentment against politicians who took money from the financiers and who are still clinging on to their seats.

This might be a great atmosphere for populists and demagogues, but surprisingly their kind has not really showed up on the political scene, not yet anyway. Instead Reykjavík now has a party led by Jón Gnarr, Iceland’s most popular comedian. The party calls itself Besti flokkurinn, “The Best Party”.

Jón Gnarr is a phenomenon in Iceland, a man who speaks volumes. He has created television shows, movies, radio programs, penned books and articles—always with a spark of danger in it, Jón Gnarr’s jokes often seem to be on the verge of madness. Not everybody finds him funny, but he has a strong cult following. As a person he gives the feeling of being rather obsessive; this latest venture of his has been described as being Kaufmanesque—in the vein of legendary US comedian Andy Kaufman.

The best party?

The Best Party is formed around Jón Gnarr. Most of the other members could be categorized as artistic types, belonging to a crowd you could find hanging around in Reykjavík’s more fashionable bars and cafés. Many of them have links to Icelandic pop star Björk. Number two on the list, Einar Örn Benediktsson, used to be a member of the Sugarcubes.

The Best Party has no real policies to speak of. They want to put a polar bear in the Reykjavík ‘domestic animal’ Zoo. They demand that Alþingi becomes free of drugs before 2020. They want to do all kinds of things “for idiots.” The parody is basically that the other parties are so boring that you can’t vote for them.

At the time of writing, polls indicate they might get up to 36 percent of the vote. That would give them six members on the Reykjavík council. This represents a total collapse for the old parties. They do not know how to react. Do you answer a joke like this without becoming ridiculous yourself? Or is this a joke: what will Jón Gnarr and his friends really do if they get elected?

Well, they will have to attend a lot of meetings. The inner council meets once a week, the larger council meets every two weeks. There are a lot of committees dealing with all aspects of Reykjavík life. There is an unwieldy bureaucratic system for a city this size. There is practically no money to speak of; basically all the parties agree that the school system and welfare programs have to be protected as tax revenues go down. There is little room left to do funny or nice things. So after the election it is possible that Jón Gnarr’s joke might turn out to be a bit long-winded.

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