Published September 8, 2017
Reykjavík City Hall might end up looking very different from its current form when municipal elections are held next spring. A four-party band of centre-to-left parties, which comprise the City Hall majority right now, may end up being replaced with a decidedly right-wing coalition, as well as the addition of newer, more populist parties. How we got to this point can be traced to an attempt to fill the shoes of one of the city’s most popular mayors in recent memory, Jón Gnarr.
A tough act to follow
Jón Gnarr and his satirical Best Party practically swept city elections in 2010, falling only one seat short of a clean majority. Partnering with the ideologically similar Social Democrats (ostensibly because current Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson had watched all five seasons of The Wire, a partnership requirement that Jón Gnarr publicly declared), the Best Party was never as popular as Jón Gnarr himself. The mayor enjoyed international attention, and became the first mayor to move forward with more contentious proposals—such as granting a plot of land for Reykjavík Muslims to build their mosque upon—by virtue of having no interest in being a career politician. He made humourous videos, dressed in drag for Reykjavík Pride, and popped up in interviews around the globe.
Four years later, the Best Party was no more, but its sister party—Bright Future, originally solely a parliamentary party—threw its hat in the ring for city elections, and so did the Pirates. The Progressive Party, originally predicted to win exactly zero seats, became the defining party of the elections, when Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir ran for office by making a lot of dubious and inaccurate statements about Muslims and immigrants. Suddenly, people forget about virtually every other issue: parties now defined themselves by whether or not they were xenophobic. The Progressives got their two seats, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. The Social Democrats won the lion’s share of votes, and formed a coalition with Bright Future, the Left-Greens and the Pirates, shutting out the Progressives and the Independence Party.
Dagur B. Eggertsson became Mayor of Reykjavík. During his tenure, he was hard-working, active on social media, and charming, but there was one problem: the Social Democrats were never a particularly inspiring party in city politics. If Reykjavík is a family, the Best Party was like your fun uncle who drops by to take you to the water park and lets you eat ice cream for breakfast; the Social Democrats were more like mom—putting food on the table and keeping the lights on but not at all as cool as Uncle Jón.
And a swing to the right
Parties now are gearing up for next spring’s municipal elections, and some shake-ups are certainly in the works.
Sveinbjörg Birna, after four years of virtual silence on the issue of foreigners, turned to noted hate speech platform Útvarp Saga to complain that asylum seeker kids are a drain on city schools, proposing a kind of apartheid system with separate schools expressly for these children. This time, the Progressives didn’t pull any punches. Condemnation of Sveinbjörg’s remarks was swift and resolute, and it wasn’t long before she announced her departure from the party. She is currently staying on as an independent councilperson, but has yet to announce with which party she will run, if she decides to run again.
Also exiting the building is Independence Party councilperson, Halldór Halldórsson, who has long been a fixture in city politics. His departure is in all likelihood due to the fact that the conservatives have always had a hard time hanging onto power in the city. Echoing the effect Jón Gnarr had on centrist parties, the departure of legendary politician Davíð Oddsson from city politics many years ago is something the Reykjavík Independence Party has never fully recovered from.
These conservatives might have reason to take heart. In a recent poll from Fréttablaðið/Stöð 2, the Independence Party is currently polling strongest of all for next year’s city elections, at 34.2%. Amazingly, the next largest party is the Left-Greens, but only at 17.8%. The Social Democrats and the Pirates are holding on at 13.7% and 12.4%, respectively, but Bright Future and the Progressive Party are all but vanished, at 2.7% each.
More interesting are the new faces that might take seats. The Reform Party, currently in the parliamentary ruling coalition, are polling at 5.8%, and The People’s Party—a populist party whose chair, Inga Sæland, has also made some questionable statements about asylum seekers—are at a surprising 7.1%.
What this means is, if the current polling numbers hold out, the current majority is over. If the Independence Party gets these votes, they will have not one but two centre-to-right parties to choose from for a possible coalition. In other words, the old faces are moving out, and new faces are coming in. Whether this is cause for celebration or alarm, the one thing for certain is that there’s seldom a dull moment in Reykjavík city politics.