Information about Icelandic politics is anything but accessible to outsiders (hell, most of us natives don’t know jack shit about them, either). Luckily, we found a political pundit and historian type who was all into explaining it to us. Straight outta Iceland’s leftest, greenest pastures, meet Stefán Pálsson! Read on to learn more about Iceland’s political roots, how small parties get on in Iceland, and the reliability of mid-term polls.
How would you describe Iceland’s recent political history?
Speaking in broad strokes—100+ years ago, Icelandic politics focused on the nation’s struggle for independence from Danish rule. While most agreed on that objective, they disagreed on how far they were willing to go to make it happen, which necessitated the creation of separate parties. Politics with some semblance of a left/right axis—where parties seek their voter base from different classes and regions—commenced around the time of the First World War, laying the foundation for Iceland’s modern politics.
Unlike what happened in the other Nordic countries, where the process of urbanisation began far earlier, securing social democratic parties a stronger position, Iceland has been under the rule of the right-wing Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) and the centre-right Progressive Party (Framsókn) for much longer than the two major left-wing parties [the People’s Alliance (Alþýðubandalagið), which eventually morphed into the Left-Green Movement (Vinstri-Grænir), and the Social Democratic Party (Alþýðuflokkurinn), which eventually became the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin)].
How have these four parties changed over the last century?
Well, the Progressive Party, for example, used to be associated with the cooperative movement—people used to joke was it was merely their political arm, which is no longer the case. Then, the Progressive leaders primarily spoke for the countryside. Iceland’s demography has undergone major changes since, and the current divide makes it impossible to run on a platform that appeals only to a rural base.
Similarly, the left-wing parties used to be in bed with the unions, with Alþýðuflokkurinn and ASÍ (“the Icelandic Confederation of Labour”) basically acting as two sides of the same coin. That, too, has changed.
Generally speaking, the parties have grown much more diverse. Alþingi used to be almost entirely made up of male lawyers, doctors, or public officials. Now, it comprises much more of a cross-section of society, with MPs of various backgrounds and both genders.
Another big change came through the increased importance of primaries from 1970 and onwards, where individuals could rise through the political ranks and secure a seat in Parliament simply by merit of being famous, personable, or popular—instead of having to remain loyal to the party for extended periods of time.
It’s worth mentioning that while the aforementioned parties—which have remained a constant in Icelandic politics since the advent of modern politics—we have often had a fifth, or even sixth party in Parliament since 1983. Grouping the “Big Four” together as “the establishment” has primarily been a form of rhetoric employed by supporters of smaller parties, a way to define their identities and ideas in contrast to them. Many of those smaller parties have been lead by former members of one of the four, folks who defected after getting upset, for instance, or losing an election.
These smaller parties are often very fluid, able to change their policies with very short notice, and not needing to place themselves on the traditional left-right spectrum. For example, the Liberal Party changed a lot over the time it was active; it went from being centred on fishing quota system reforms, to basically flirting with populist racism.
These new parties seem to pop up every few years, maybe surviving one or two terms before disappearing. The Pirates, however, seem to be doing exceptionally well in polls…
I’d be careful not to read too much into poll movements in the middle of a term—things that quickly become fashionable also quickly fall out of fashion, and if their numbers dip, the same media that covered their rise to popularity with fervour will be more than happy to report on their demise.
They’ve managed to sustain high popularity for half a year, which in itself is remarkable—however, it’s not unprecedented. The Left Greens, for example, ranked very high in the polls for most of the term following their first election in 1999, and were projected to get more MPs than the Social Democrats. Despite this, they lost a seat in the following 2003 elections.
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Alþingishúsið, The Parliament House, is a hulking grey stone building that sits on the edge of the sleepy Austurvöllur square in downtown Reykjavík. It’s the seat of Iceland’s Alþingi, an institution that was famously inaugurated in the year 930 by a coalition of chieftains who, in essence, founded the world’s first parliament, and began governing over what many claim to be the world’s oldest functioning democracy.