From Iceland — All Tomorrow’s Parties

All Tomorrow’s Parties

Published March 15, 2012

All Tomorrow’s Parties

So, will the Icelandic government survive yet another Grapevine deadline? Probably, but its chances of re-election are looking increasingly grim. This time, though, the threat is emerging from the left, and the landscape of Icelandic politics might hang in the balance.
For most of the last 100 years, there have been four major parties in the Icelandic Alþingi: The Independence Party (right/conservative), The Progressive Party (centre right or centre left, depending on which way the wind blows), The Social Democrats or their equivalent (left) and then a party that’s further left, currently the Left-Greens. There has usually been a splinter party too, (even farther left or farther right), but these almost never last for more than two elections.
Even though the line-up is fairly consistent, the instruments played are not. During the boom, for example, both The Independence Party and The Progressive Party and even most of The Social Democratic Alliance Party had become thoroughbred neo-liberals, moving further to the right and leaving the Left-Greens alone in what had previously been the centre to left part of the spectrum. The economic collapse then led to a left swing, The Social Democrats reaffirmed their leftist roots and formed a government with the Left-Greens in 2009.
In the elections that year, a new party, The Civic Movement, got four MPs in, but started committing hara-kiri almost upon arrival. First, one of its MPs left the party, and then the party itself left the three remaining MPs. Nevertheless, those three MPs, who formed The Movement, have managed to make their presence felt in the Alþingi, not least of them Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who has received international attention for her support of Wikileaks.
The municipal elections of 2010 brought a different kind of party to power in Reykjavík. Comedian Jón Gnarr became mayor, heading a coalition of his own Best Party and The Social Democrats. Meanwhile, The Progressive Party, originally a farmers’ party and often weak in the capital, was finally wiped out. Was this the new face of Icelandic politics, the irreverent Best Party taking the place of the sombre old farmers’ party at the centre of the spectrum?
In fact, the very notion of centre seems to have changed. Whereas it used to imply people were rather content with things the way they were, not wanting too much of one thing or the other and certainly not radical change, it now appears to be made up of people who felt cheated in the boom, those not satisfied with the results of reconstruction or those opposed to the old four party left-right system. Polls consistently show this to be upwards of half of all voters, so it is small wonder that the new parties would want to appeal to these constituents.
The old centre party, The Progressives, have meanwhile abdicated from the centre. Their leader Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson usually presents himself as the angry man of Icelandic politics, but with their nationalist rhetoric, they seem to have placed themselves to the right of The Independence Party.
Could The Best Party step into the void and repeat its impressive Reykjavík results on a national level? Best Party CEO Heiða Helgadóttir certainly hopes so. She paired up with Guðmundur Steingrímsson to form the Bright Future party. While Guðmundur seems sensible and remains well liked, he is much tainted by previously having been a member of no less than two mainstream political parties. So much for outsider status.
It should be noted that they announced their candidacy prior to coming up with a platform or even their party’s name. Rather than heralding the beginning of a powerful new force in Icelandic politics, this seems more to have encouraged others to do the same.
The new party that has caused the biggest stir is the one led by Lilja Mósesdóttir, previously a Left-Green who abandoned ship halfway through the current term. Lilja has often complained that the left government is not being left enough, so it would seem reasonable that after setting off on her own, that her party, would be even farther to the left. Right?
Wrong. Lilja has also headed for the centre, calling up former Independence Party member and beloved weatherman (yes, really) Siggi Stormur (“Siggi Storm”) to front the party with her. Perhaps inevitably, the party is called Solidarity, and perhaps just as inevitably, Siggi has already left amid rivalry over who gets the most airtime, and says he will not vote for the party.
Without Siggi’s vote, Lilja’s following will no doubt mostly come at the expense of the left. Meanwhile The Movement is showing signs of life, with reconciliation between party MPs and other party members in the works.
It’s hard to see any major policy differences between the new parties. All claim to represent a broad front of agreement cutting across old divisions, while increasingly fracturing the political landscape. All want a substantial reduction in people’s debts, as do most people, but no one seems to have a realistic plan for achieving this.
What does seem obvious is that the current two-party government will not survive the next election unchanged, being weakened both by constant attacks from the right and splintering on the left. The solution would be to bring in other partners, but since the current government has a hard time reaching agreements, would a three or four party coalition really be more manageable? And would Lilja, if induced to join, be more willing to cooperate with the government, as head of her own party rather than a member of the Left-Greens?
Perhaps we’ll see a Best Party-style landslide of one of the new parties, thus presenting a credible alternative to the four established ones while taking votes from both left and right. But with still a year to go, it is more likely that new parties will appear rather than old ones merging, this seems remote. The Best Party itself benefitted greatly from being the only viable alternative to the old four, but no party is now in this position. And no party has yet suggested that rarity in Icelandic politics: an electoral alliance.
The alternative is clear. According to polls, The Independence Party has regained most of its strength (around 35% of the vote), even if it is unquestionably the party most responsible for the collapse. The increased fracturing will probably put them in a key position after the next election, regardless of whether that’s what most Icelanders want.

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