Published September 22, 2017
Shortly before midnight, on Thursday September 14, Iceland’s ruling coalition of the Independence Party, the Reform Party and Bright Future came to an end, when the latter of those parties issued a terse announcement that they would be leaving the coalition. This prompted the collapse of the coalition, recriminations all around, and the conclusion that the Icelandic government will have new elections on October 28; almost exactly one year from the time of the previous elections, which were themselves early elections brought on by scandal (in that case, the Panama Papers).
While the reason for the debacle this time around had much to do with a controversial legal procedure known as “restored honour,” the roots of the issue can be traced back to last year’s elections. In many ways, the origins of the collapse are in fact within the parliamentary and coalition system itself.
In the beginning
When the Panama Papers scandal broke in April 2016, then-Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and his government faced the largest protests in Icelandic history. With his resignation from office, early elections were proposed, held in October of that year. However, seven parties managed to get enough votes to win seats in Iceland’s 63-seat parliament. These parties ranged fairly evenly from the right to the left, with a handful of them clustered around the centre. This kicked off a logistical nightmare in terms of forming a ruling coalition.
First of all, the Independence Party won the greatest share of seats—21 in all, representing nearly 30% of ballots cast—despite having been in the coalition with Sigmundur Davið’s Progressive Party when the government broke down after the Panama Papers. The reason for this is historic: the Independence Party is the second oldest party in the country, founded in 1929. It not only has a virtually unshakeable base of hereditary voters; it is, for many, the default vote in times when one does not know who else to vote for. In fact, many polls measuring levels of party support will include amongst their questions “Will you vote for the Independence Party or some other party?” It’s more than a party; it’s a cultural institution.
Second, there are a number of parliamentary parties that are ideologically similar to one another. The Reform Party is nearly identical to the Independence Party, and Bright Future is very similar to the Social Democrats. This effectively split the vote, further confusing matters.
Third, more established parties have an undeniable amount of animosity toward the Pirate Party, which went from three seats to ten in last year’s elections. Some of this has to do with the Pirates’ refusal to align with the right or the left, as they contend “right” and “left” are obsolete appellations. The Pirates have also not concealed their distrust for the older parties, and have been at the forefront of the movement to revise Iceland’s constitution— an idea that died in committee during the most recent leftist government.
Put all this together, and you have a recipe for disaster. Coalition talks went through many formations over the months that followed the elections last year, including a highly improbable five-party coalition. The idea of a minority government was also floated, although those are prone to votes of no confidence. Even a “national government,” wherein there is no ruling coalition nor opposition, was briefly considered, but this arrangement is historically associated with emergency situations.
Finally, in January 2017, a new coalition was announced: it was led by the Independence Party, and it would be supported by the Reform Party and Bright Future. The coalition had a majority of exactly one seat. It was all downhill from there, and was arguably doomed from the start.
So much for “changing how we do politics”
No one was surprised that the Reform Party would partner with the Independence Party. The Reform Party’s platform is not only very similar to the Independence Party’s, but it even has former Independence Party politicians in its ranks. People were, however, surprised that Bright Future would partner with these two. As such, it became a magnet for criticism.
Bright Future is the sister party of the now-defunct Best Party, a party formed by former Reykjavík mayor Jón Gnarr. While its platform had always been vague at best, Bright Future’s main selling point was that it represented changing how politics is done. Its members promised to open dialogues, concentrate on issues rather than party alignment, and to shake up the way lawmakers practice their craft. The fact that they then aligned with the Independence Party was difficult for them to defend.
Bright Future chair Óttarr Proppé defended the decision to Grapevine last February, telling us, “I’d say the Independence Party is not necessarily literally the status quo. In the joint platform that we made in this government, we see a lot of liberal thinking, and a more deliberate will for a more open and consensus-based way of working in politics than we’ve seen before. And this is not only my interpretation. All three parties agree on this.”
These justifications fell on deaf ears. Having barely squeaked in with 7.2% of the vote in October 2016, Bright Future’s levels of support steadily declined, reaching a nadir of 3.7%, according to a Gallup poll conducted last August.
Events that played out over “restored honour” would prove to be the final nail in the coffin, forcing Bright Future’s hand.
“Restoring honour,” dishonourably
Last August, it was reported that Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson, a convicted sex offender who had raped his stepdaughter almost every day for 12 years from the time she was five years old, received “restored honour,” a legal procedure which restores the civil standing of someone who has served a sentence for a serious crime and seeks to gain a position that a criminal conviction would normally prevent them from getting. In order to get restored honour, however, amongst the requirements is a letter of recommendation.
Initially, the Ministry of Justice refused to disclose who had recommended that Hjalti receive restored honour, but after concerted pressure—including a parliamentary committee ruling that the Ministry had gone beyond the bounds of the law to keep the information secret—the Ministry relented. It was then revealed that Benedikt Sveinsson, father of the current Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, had provided a letter of recommendation for Hjalti. Even more damning is the fact that the Minister of Justice, Sigríður Andersen, informed the Prime Minister Bjarni last July that his father had provided this letter.
Not only did Bjarni and Sigríður choose to keep this information to themselves; in retrospect, it became apparent that many MPs for the Independence Party knew this information, too, having at one point walked out of a meeting of the Constitutional and Supervisory Committee en masse in order to avoid incriminating themselves when the matter was being discussed.
This level of betrayal was too much to bear for Bright Future, the members of which cited “a serious breach of trust” in a brief statement explaining their departure from the coalition. Some members of the Independence Party, such as Sigríður and MP Brynjar Níelsson, not only accused Bright Future of being irresponsible, but Brynjar went so far as to say that Bright Future was only doing this because it were polling so badly. As it so happens, all of these explanations can simultaneously be true.
Picking up the pieces
At the time of this writing, President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson announced that there will be new elections on October 28, almost exactly one year from the day of our previous elections. There is little hope that things will significantly change. In fact, with a new party—the right wing People’s Party— currently polling at 11%, things might be even more complicated than before, as eight parties are now throwing their hats into the ring.
The Pirates have been the only party to strenuously object to early elections. They have instead proposed that coalition talks commence again, in the hopes of being able to form a new government from the people currently in parliament.
While that’s now a foregone conclusion, and the Pirates are preparing for elections, it does raise the question, How can we keep this from happening again? The answer is: only by radically changing the system from its current form.
So long as the Icelandic parliament—like parliaments the world over, in fairness—employs a system of ruling coalition vs. opposition, where majority rule takes precedence over consensus, we will always have to endure coalition talks in which elected parties compromise their platforms in the hopes of being able to rule, alliances hold for as long as everyone in the ruling coalition is polling well enough, and those unfortunate enough to get left behind will almost never see their issues transformed into binding legislation. Simply put, representative democracy has more to do with the force of the majority than it does with actual representation or democracy. Until such time as we trust ourselves and our legislators enough to put party allegiance aside and work together on issues, parliament will always more closely resemble a sporting event than a democratic institution.
This is the system we have. If we’re not going to change it, then crises such as this are going to be the norm rather than the exception.