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A Fractured Right Arm: Iceland’s Conservatives Are Breaking Up

A Fractured Right Arm: Iceland’s Conservatives Are Breaking Up

Photos by
Hörður Sveinsson

Published October 5, 2017

Iceland has almost always had a right wing government. The one exception was in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, when a coalition of Social Democrats and Left-Greens ran the country from 2009 to 2013. After this brief step to the left, Iceland took a swing back to the right, re-electing that classic duo, the Independence Party and the Progressive Party.

But Iceland looks set to re-elect another leftist government at the end of this month. This is due in part to yet another scandal hitting the right barely over a year after the last one, but is also largely due to a phenomenon unheard of in Iceland: the splintering of right wing parties. This fracture can be attributed to growing populism, chaos that ensued from the scandal, and pure ego. Iceland’s monolithic right wing is, for the first time in history, breaking apart.

From Panama Papers To Paedophiles

The Panama Papers scandal of April 2016 unseated not just the Progressive Party; it utterly humiliated then-Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. In the months that have followed since, Sigmundur has refused to shoulder any of the blame for the scandal, and has neither forgotten nor forgiven those who distanced themselves from him when it became public. This will be important to consider later.

Last September, as readers will remember, another crisis erupted in the government, when it came to light that Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson—and pretty much the rest of the Independence Party—had covered up the fact that Bjarni’s father signed a recommendation that a convicted paedophile get his civil standing reinstated.

The fracturing of the right may spell the end of the chokehold conservatives have had on Iceland for decades now, and the left may actually become the new monolith.

In both cases, scandal torpedoed a ruling coalition party, prompting early elections. Both major right wing parties are now stained by corruption and secrecy. This might be survivable, if conservative voters didn’t have any other choices. But they do.

Divided, and possibly conquered

Since the Panama Papers, new right wing parties have begun to crop up, and seem to be doing so at an accelerating rate. The Icelandic National Front heralded the first major division, comprised mostly of right wing populists who do not believe the establishment conservatives hate foreigners enough. Then along came the Reform Party, comprised in part of former Independence Party players, who won seven seats in last year’s elections. They were followed by the People’s Party, which took up populist positions on the rights of Iceland’s elderly and disabled, with a healthy dollop of suspicion for asylum seekers. Soon thereafter came the Freedom Party, which is mostly about building up the police force and increasing border security.

Of these three, the People’s Party is the most viable, polling high enough at the time of this writing to win several seats in parliament. However, they may have a run for their money, as Sigmundur Davíð has announced that he will run again—under the banner of his very own party. Some Progressives are even joining him. We may like to poke fun at Sigmundur Davíð, but make no mistake: he has some diehard fans, and they will gladly vote for any party he is leading over voting for the Progressives. At the same time, the Progressives have a solid base of support in the countryside. So this party’s support will likely split into two differently-sized pieces.

So how’s the left doing?

While this chaos breaks out on the right, the parties on the left are actually doing pretty well for themselves. The Left-Greens are seeing a huge upswing of support, and the greatest share of Icelanders want Left-Green chair Katrín Jakobsdóttir as the next Prime Minister. The Pirates have seen a small dip in support, but the Social Democrats are gaining ground.

All told, if elections were held today, a coalition government comprised of the Left-Greens, the Social Democrats and the Pirates (who, while refusing to publicly align themselves with left or right, have a decidedly leftist platform) would be the most likely configuration. While still having a slim majority, this coalition possibility is helped not only by the Independence Party seeing its support tank, but also by the fact that the right would need a coalition of four or more parties to have a majority by virtue of the conservative vote spreading across several parties. Throw a Progressive Party clone in the mix and the right divides even further.

Elections are still a few weeks away, and of course anything can happen in Icelandic politics in that amount of time. But the fracturing of the right may spell the end of the chokehold conservatives have had on Iceland for decades now, and the left may actually become the new monolith. Strange days indeed.


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