Election season in Iceland always has a certain element of silliness. Campaign adverts can be cringe-inducingly bad; the “debates” are comprised of reiterated talking points with the occasional and rare zinger; giant blow-up posters of the same vacant smile on every candidate’s face are splashed all over town. If we’re really lucky, there might be a brand new party that’s virtually indistinguishable from some other established party, but they never do well enough in the elections to win a seat.
All that changed when the Icelandic government collapsed in 2009. Since then, we have been witnessing the age-old snark about Iceland—“a country of little kings”—proving painfully true, especially in this election cycle. More small parties have been forming, which is not in itself a bad thing at all, but there has also been an increased emphasis on which individuals are running for what party, rather than what that individual or party even stands for.
From direct democracy to celebrity
The government collapse of 2009 set the stage. We saw a new party form just a few months before elections and actually win seats: the Citizen’s Movement (Borgarahreyfingin), which won four seats in parliamentary elections. Normally, new parties are either utterly locked out, or required a long period of concerted campaigning just to get their foot in the door. The democratic crisis of 2009 changed all that. The Citizen’s Movement stood for directly democratic principles and had a well-known activist and poet in their ranks, Birgitta Jónsdóttir. Their election opened up the idea that direct democracy could happen; that ordinary people could, through sheer force of will, have direct power and influence in this country.
This was further reflected in the movement to draft a new constitution. While the rules for running for the Constitutional Council idealistically precluded anyone who had been in office or run for office before from running for the Council, all this meant was that Icelanders popularly known to the public for other reasons managed to get voted in instead. A lot of these council members were writers, bloggers, journalists and academics whose faces and names were well known to Icelandic households.
At this point, it seemed as though Icelanders were leaning away from party politics and more towards an appeal to celebrity, passing up on direct democracy entirely. That trend was cemented by the formation of Jón Gnarr’s Best Party.
Simply the best
The common narrative is that the Best Party, formed in 2009, became so successful in the 2010 Reykjavík elections because they represented a change from business as usual. This ignores the fact that there were other small, newly-formed parties who were offering something new; they just didn’t have the celebrity power of Jón Gnarr, who solicited the help of other celebrities, such as musicians Einar Örn Benediktsson and Óttarr Proppé. A party that literally stood for nothing—as their selling point was often touted—managed to win enough seats to have an almost clean majority in City Hall.
The result? Not that terrible, really. The coalition finished its term unremarkably; nothing to look back on and celebrate, but nothing to really complain about, either. The coalition of the Best Party and the Social Democrats could be likened to a family—the Social Democrats were like your parents, paying the bills and keeping the house in order but not being particularly fun to hang out with, and the Best Party was like your wacky uncle, the one who lets you have ice cream for dinner, watch an R-rated movie and stay up past your bedtime, but leaves all the heavy lifting to mom and dad.
Crisis after crisis
While the Best Party dissolved, its sister party, Bright Future, led by the aforementioned Óttarr, won six seats in the 2013 elections. But the effect of this celebrity movement devoid of a platform would live on.
Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, best known to most Icelanders at the time as a former reporter on public broadcasting service RÚV, further cemented his household name recognition by his involvement with the InDefense movement, a group that vehemently opposed any public bailout of Icesave. Sigmundur quickly rose through the ranks of the Progressive Party to become its chair. He also became the Prime Minister in the wake of the 2013 elections.
As is now a matter of history, Sigmundur would become unseated in April 2016 as a result of the Panama Papers leaks. Elections held in October of that year saw yet another new party: the Reform Party, chaired by Benedikt Jóhannesson, a well-known businessman and publisher. This party went from zero seats to seven in the span of a few months.
In light of the trend towards celebrity, it is then entirely unsurprising that the Independence Party would use both Bright Future and the Reform Party to bolster a ruling coalition. However, that coalition last barely a year, when a crisis over “restored honour” for a convicted paedophile led to Bright Future withdrawing from the coalition, effectively collapsing the government.
A circus without a ringleader
Which brings us to today. The 2017 parliamentary elections have eschewed any sense of democracy. Talk about issues has been drowned out by celebrity chatter. We’re seeing not one, but two new parties polling high enough to possibly win seats: the Peoples’ Party, a populist party with a platform as malleable and undefined as wet clay but led by the grandmotherly Inga Sæland; and the Centre Party, itself a cheap copy of the Progressives, formed by Sigmundur Davíð, and seeming to serve no other purpose than to get him into office again. The Progressives have managed to attract Biggi the Cop, a police officer who became Facebook-famous for his toothy, cheerful videos. Jón Gnarr announced that he was joining forces with the Social Democrats (although he’s been cagey about whether or not he will run again). Bright Future and the Reform Party are still running, no matter how badly they’re polling. Even anonymous smear campaigns and attacks on the media are ramping up. You get the picture.
For all intents and purposes, this year’s parliamentary elections are less about platform points or even party ideals than they are about individual charm and the headrush that comes from seeing some new faces in the running—even if these people have poorly defined or non-existent platforms. Why is this happening?
Where will this take us?
This is happening because Icelanders feel that we are out of options. New parties and familiar faces are trusted, even when they have literally nothing to offer, because they’re not The Four Parties, as Icelanders often call the Independence Party, the Progressives, the Social Democrats and the Leftist-Greens (just the fact that they’re called “the four parties” should tell you what kind of monolith they’re regarded as being). Throw a well-liked public figure in the mix, and that new party becomes all the more appealing.
None of this is to say that new parties or even celebrities running for office are bad things in themselves. They aren’t—when they offer actual change in the form of concrete platform points. But that’s not what’s happening. Making the shift away from this Battle of Egos and into elections over issues is going to require people running for office who are brave enough to take actual stands on actual issues. It will require both voters and the media to hold candidates accountable and demand they make concrete statements on the matters most pressing to Icelanders. And it will require concerted pressure on those voted in to make significant and systemic changes to our political institutions.
All of which may be wishful thinking. A nobody with great ideas is always going to have a harder time against a celebrity with no ideas. However, unless we’re willing to put aside celebrity and novelty and vote according to issues, this American-style circus is going to keep right on performing.