Published November 10, 2017
The time between the collapse of Iceland’s government and election day, while technically only being a little over a month long, felt like a year. International media, their attention already on Iceland due to the scandals surrounding former (and possibly future) Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, speculated that Iceland’s next government would be leftist. Surely this time, many reporters posited, these scandals would be too much for the nation to bear. It should be time’s up for the Independence Party, right?
The results of the elections however, present a problem that appears insurmountable: forming a functional government comprised of two parties. Iceland had seldom had a problem with this area, but it has happened before. Understanding the past will help us plot how we may get out of this crisis presently.
Scandal after scandal
To start with, our current situation began in April 2016, when the Panama Papers scandal forced then-Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson to resign from office. At the time, the coalition was comprised of the Progressive Party and the Independence Party. The decision taken at the time was to hold early elections that autumn. Parties kicked into campaign mode, and a new party, the Reform Party, began to raise enough support to win seats. When all was said and done, the addition of this new party led to a situation whereby no two-party coalitions were possible. What followed were weeks of coalition talks, where even a five-party coalition was attempted, but in the end we ended up with three: Bright Future, the Reform Party, and the Independence Party leading the government. Their coalition majority was only one seat.
This was already a recipe for disaster. Matters weren’t helped when the “restored honour” scandal broke, which prompted Bright Future to end their partnership with the other two parties less than a year into the term. Bjarni decided that new elections should be held, but this time, the campaign season shrank from a few months to a few weeks. Further complicating matters was the fact that a new party, the People’s Party, which had their sights set on municipal elections next year, and was formed in the wake of the Panama Papers, were at the time polling high enough to win parliamentary seats, and Sigmundur decided within days of the government’s collapse to form his own party, quickly sopping up support. Elections came and went, and once again, no two-party coalition could be formed, but possible three-party coalitions seemed to be a longshot at best.
Are you seeing a pattern here?
The decision to hold elections
The common thread in this is comprised of three elements: scandal, new parties, and the decision to hold elections within a very short span of time. Nothing can, or should, be done to prevent the creation of new parties; they are symptoms of the scandals that plague the more established parties on the right. The scandals themselves could be prevented—or at the very least, their impact reduced—by removing parties from power that become associated with them. That brings us to the problem with early elections after a very short campaign season.
As unlikely as it may seem, we do not actually need to hold new elections just because a government falls apart. In fact, shortly after Bright Future left the previous coalition, the Pirate Party suggested that the parliamentary parties simply go into coalition talks and try to form a new government without holding elections. For whatever reason, this idea was ignored; early elections were to be held and, given the fact that the government collapsed in the beginning of the parliamentary session, campaigning would have to be drastically shortened (remember that the Panama Papers scandal broke as the spring session was ending).
Learning from the past
With new parties created in the wake of scandal, followed by a brief but intense campaign, the results of the elections are unsurprising. Now we’re faced with the prospect of another weak, multi-party coalition, possibly setting the stage for yet another government crisis. We should keep in mind, though, that Iceland has been through this before.
From the time of Iceland’s independence in 1944, up until 1959, Iceland went through seven governments, none of which lasted four years. Crisis popped up again between 1987 and 1991, during which time Iceland had four governments. From there, we had a period of relative stability that lasted until the financial crash of 2008 led to the government collapsing the following year. So the fact that we have had four government in as many years since is not the worst we’ve ever faced. And we may be able to break the current cycle, but it would involve doing things much differently in the case that the newly formed government falls apart again.
Should another coalition breakdown happen, and we’re unfortunate enough that it occurs in the beginning or middle of a parliamentary session, it ought to be clear by now that snap elections are not going to solve our problems. Every attempt should be made to try and hold new coalition talks before concluding that new elections need to be held. If it is decided that elections are to be held, then we need a real campaign season.
Campaign seasons, in a parliamentary system, must be long enough for all contenders to be able to run solid campaigns; that is, where parties are afforded a longer period of time to hold debates, and where voters are given a longer period of time to deliberate on the issues once the dust has settled from scandals, rather than be bombarded with attack ads on social media. In order to allow for a long enough campaign season, we may have to hold our noses and accept either a minority government or even a national unity government in the interim. Minority governments and national unity governments are not ideal, but they function just fine in emergency situations, at least for as long as it takes to get properly set up for the next elections.
Having a stable, functional government is important in a parliamentary system. More important still is being able to deal with crises effectively, as they can and will happen. If we are to avoid having to go through this year after year, we have to use all the tools at our disposal to deal with them. But reducing the frequency of crisis in the first place means keeping parties from power that are magnets for scandal, and this, for better or for worse, is up to the Icelandic voters to make happen. The power to vote comes from being able to make an informed decision—something snap elections make difficult at best.