From Iceland — City Elections: Holy Wow What Just Happened?

City Elections: Holy Wow What Just Happened?

Published June 4, 2010

City Elections: Holy Wow What Just Happened?

Not everyone was chugging beer and watching Eurovision during the last Saturday of May, you know. Some of us were following the municipal elections going on all over Iceland. There were a number of interesting things happening in towns and villages across the country, but all eyes were turned to Reykjavík, where The Best Party (Besti flokkurinn)—originally created by comedian Jón Gnarr as a parody of Icelandic politics, but then turned into some kind of serious campaign—were projected to do exceedingly well. And do exceedingly well they did.
Voter turnout in the capital was only marginally better than it had been during the last elections, in 2006—about 56,000 ballots were turned in from about 85,000 eligible voters. When they were all counted, the Best Party managed to win six of Reykjavík city hall’s 15 seats.
Every other party took losses. The Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) went from seven seats to five, the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin) went from five seats to three, the Left-Green Party (Vinstri grænir) went from two seats to one, and the Progressives (Framsóknarflokkurinn) lost their one and only seat. Ouch!

Are ‘The Big Four’ over?

Almost immediately, there were reactions from party chairs, some of them humble, some of them not so humble. The Social Democrat Prime Minister has said that these results indicate the sun setting on ‘The Big Four’ system, and the Leftist-Green Foreign Affairs committee chair said everyone should be doing some serious reflection of their platforms, one party was having none of that humility and self-examination talk: the Independence Party.
Both former mayor Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir and party chair Bjarni Benediktson appeared to be almost delighted that they had lost control of the capital, talking at length about how good their numbers were as a whole across the country.
It’s true that the conservatives finished with 37.4% of the vote last Saturday—more than any other party on a national level—and that this figure is up from 23.7% in 2009’s parliamentary elections. But we’re talking about the Independence Party here. They’ve been around forever. They’re the party of the establishment, and so seeing them plummet to single-digit support within the span of a couple of years after literal decades of control just isn’t going to happen.
They are firmly entrenched in a number of municipalities around the country; namely Ísafjörður, Garðabær, Reykjanesbæ and the Westman Islands. They either held or gained their position in all of these towns. However, they also lost Reykjavík, Kópavogur, Akranes, and Akureyri—all large to mid-sized Icelandic towns. Again, within the context of history, this is a real punch in the gut to the conservatives, and they’d do well to stop patting themselves on the back and start thinking up a new game plan.
“We could potentially envision voting for you”
Even more hilarious is how Progressive Party chair Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson responded. He engaged in a combination of mathematical acrobatics and utter denial to point out that a recent Gallup poll showed that 25% of residents of one neighbourhood in Reykjavík, Grafarvogur, said that they could conceivably see themselves voting for the Progressives. You know, when I was in high school, plenty of girls said they could conceivably see themselves going on a date with me. It almost never happened, which depressed me some, but Sigmundur has shown me that I was actually a very popular guy.
What now?
So what now? Well, the Best Party are currently in coalition talks with the Social Democrats. Which makes sense, really; while the Independence Party would give the Best Party a much stronger majority, the two are about as unlike each other as Rush Limbaugh and Lewis Black.
In the meantime, they’ve set up a website,, where you can go and offer suggestions as to what issues the new majority should address, and how. It’s definitely worth a look anyways, even if it’s not in English.
So will this mean Reykjavík is going to become a better city? A more fun place to live, as the Best Party has been calling for? Well, Jón Gnarr is a big fan of the HBO television series The Wire—a big enough fan that he made it a stipulation for any party they join up with to have watched it, and he gave a copy of it to Social Democrat city councillor Dagur B. Eggertsson. Here’s hoping he’s a fan of the series because it’s a fine example of how not to run a city.

Grapevine liveblogged the elections, as well as the Eurovision Song Contest. Visit for a full transcript if you will—below are some highlights from the night.
19:16: No election night would be complete without taking advantage of a lull in the ballot counting to call up some academic type and get them to state the glaringly obvious. However, I don’t actually know any academic types, but people at Vísir do. They contacted professor of political science Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson who said that this year’s municipal election was “historic”, and that “The Big Four” cannot continue doing what they’ve always been doing. He added that the sky is blue, grass is green and fire hot burn bad bad.
21:43: So the different candidates have appeared on television station Stöð 2, were all asked the same questions, and all gave pretty much the same answers. Yes, even Jón Gnarr. You know, “we want to continue doing the good work that we’ve been doing, create jobs” and so forth. Who’s going to say otherwise? It’s like these people get their answers by writing phrases on slips of paper, shaking them up inside a brown paper bag, and then drawing them in any particular order. And they pass the bag around. Don’t get me wrong—I wouldn’t go so far as to say it doesn’t matter who you vote for. It certainly does. But you wouldn’t be able to tell a difference in platform by the way they talk to the media, that’s for sure.
00:09: Speaking of first numbers—if they bear out, and the Best Party ends up finishing as the largest party in the city, we’re going to have a Best Party/Social Democrat coalition majority in city council. I just don’t see them forming a coalition with the conservatives, and the Leftist-Greens won’t be able to give them a comfortable enough majority. And no other parties are getting in. So, that pretty much leaves the Social Dems. In all honesty I’m not exactly recoiling in horror at the idea. But as I said, first numbers can change.
02:16: Well, looks like the final numbers are still going to be some hours away, but there’s not likely to be a lot of major changes between now and the final results. And even then, there’s a new majority that needs to be formed, which could take days. The Social Dems in Hafnarfjörður are already talking to the Leftist-Greens there, but the courting process in Reykjavík takes a bit longer. 
It’s been fun covering this election cycle. But fun time’s over pretty soon, and then the real work begins. I can only hope there’ll be some follow-through to the talk. Jón Gnarr, as I’ve said, is sincere in his intentions and motives, even if he might not know just how he wants things to materialise. I’d like to be dancing on my living room table about this, but like a lot of people in Iceland, the past two years have really worn down my trust in the administration of power in this country. But you can’t help but be optimistic. Night all.

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