From Iceland — Reykjavik’s Greatest Hits: The Shenanigans Of City Halls Past

Reykjavik’s Greatest Hits: The Shenanigans Of City Halls Past

Published May 18, 2018

Reykjavik’s Greatest Hits: The Shenanigans Of City Halls Past
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Baldur Kristjánsson

Most of our readers are familiar with the wacky hijinks of Parliament and all its scandals and early elections. Meanwhile, Reykjavík City Hall has mostly flown under the radar. This isn’t to say City Council is comprised of a bunch of nerds who think garbage pick-up scheduling and the number of traffic lights are fascinating conversational topics. Denizens of City Hall can also get up to some pretty shady and amusing stuff. Here are some of the most recent highlights of the high times.

1. The Reign Of Davíð Oddsson. Davíð Oddsson is a political legend in Iceland. Today remembered as The Boss of the Independence Party who used to be Prime Minister, Central Bank chair, and is now co-editor of Morgunblaðið, Davíð’s beginnings include a stint in Reykjavík city politics, which saw him fight tooth and nail to become Mayor in 1982. One of the first things he did was reduce the number of seats in City Council from 21 to 15 (it went back up to 23 only recently) and was well-known for eating the first hamburger at the first McDonald’s in Iceland (which left our shores in the wake of the financial crash). But he and the Independence Party held a grip over Iceland’s capital that was so strong, the other parties on the council had no choice but to consolidate into a single party, the Reykjavík List, in order to unseat the Independence Party (Davíð left for national politics in 1991).

2. Palace Intrigue And The Death Of The Liberals. After 12 years of relative peace and stability in Reykjavík, many people came to the conclusion that life was boringly normal in the city, and that it was time to shake things up. And shake things up they would. Reykjavík city politics from 2007 to 2008 was a veritable House of Cards, both in reference to the television series and its inherent instability. There’s a lot to unpack here, but these are the broad strokes:
In 2007, the Independence Party won seven seats—not enough for a clean majority in the 15-seat City Council their own Davíð Oddsson helped create. So the natural question was, who to partner with? At first, presumed-mayor Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson started talking with Liberal Party leader Ólafur F. Magnússon, but broke those off over a dispute over where the domestic airport should be. Ólafur was heartbroken, and Vilhjálmur sidled on over to Progressive Party leader Björn Ingi Hrafnsson to form a new coalition. All went well until it came to light that Vilhjálmur and Björn had made a back-room deal with investors to privatize and sell off Reykjavík Energy. The coalition exploded, and Ólafur would enter talks with other members of the opposition and Björn, and a new coalition was born, with Social Democrat Dagur B. Eggertsson becoming mayor. All good, right? Well, no, as Ólafur took a leave of absence, only to return and find that City Council had pushed through a measure about Laugavegur 4-6 that he strongly opposed. And so it was back to forming a coalition of the Liberals and the Independence Party again, with Ólafur made mayor. That, too, fell apart shortly thereafter, as Ólafur’s deputy, Margrét Sverrisdóttir, strongly opposed the coalition.

And that’s how Reykjavík had three coalition majorities in just 20 months.

3. The Best Party And Jón Gnarr. Voters had long grown weary of city politics. The back-room deals, the back-stabbing, the broken promises and nepotism—all par for the course in Icelandic politics, but even by our own standards, things had gotten a bit too swampy in City Hall. It was time for a clean sweep. Enter: the Best Party, in 2010.

For many of our readers, this is when they first became aware of city politics in Iceland. The Best Party ran on a platform that was deliberately a parody of the vacuous and absurd nature of politics. During one radio debate with then Mayor Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir, Jón Gnarr said that one of his first acts as mayor would be to change the species of tree being planted downtown. A fun-filled political party led by a beloved celebrity and his celebrity friends was bound to be a success, and that it was: they won an almost clean majority in City Hall, and partnered up with the Social Democrats.

This term was pretty much OK. The biggest highlight was Jón Gnarr encouraging City Hall to finally approve a plot of land for Iceland’s Muslims to build a mosque—something they were constitutionally more than permitted to do, but up until that point, no party on the right or the left ever dared to support.

4. The Notorious B.D.S. Dagur is normally thought of as an innocuous, charming mayor who is neither a magnet for scandal nor great acclamation. All that changed in 2015, when outgoing Reykjavík City Councilperson for the Social Democrats, Björk Vilhelmsdóttir, submitted a proposal to City Council that would prohibit the city from buying products made in Israel. The City Council majority passed the measure, and almost immediately, Iceland was assailed with an international backlash. Under a torrent of bile from Jewish groups the world over, Dagur would eventually walk back the measure, amending it to only include Israeli companies operating in occupied Palestinian territory, but eventually, he put the measure out of its misery.

5. The Familiar Binary Returns. This year, the Social Democrats and the Independence Party—led by Dagur and Eyþór Arnalds, respectively—are once again the main competitors in what has effectively become a horse race. These two parties continue to exchange first and second place positions in the polls, even as an additional 14 (!!!) parties have also thrown their hat into the ring. Whether Reykjavík will veer to the right or the left still remains to be seen, but at least the race is anything but boring.

Read more election coverage here.

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