Published June 5, 2018
As the whole country watched the election results last week, safely half the country was only concerned about the results in Reykjavík. The other half were watching the results in their respective towns. The results of what is probably Iceland’s smallest municipality, Árneshreppur (population 55), barely clocked in at ten seconds of air time on national broadcasting, but make no mistake: the results of their election demonstrate what happens when an energy company is the centerpiece in an election, even when the closest thing to direct democracy is used.
In case you missed it: Árneshreppur is one of several regions in the northwest of Iceland where every resident was a candidate for a regional council. So instead of people voting for parties, they vote for individual residents and their individual platforms. Normally, elections in this sleepy northwest Iceland region are entirely uneventful. This year, they were mired in controversy as it came to light that 18 people had changed their legal residence to the region within a 10-day period, likely in the hopes of influencing the outcome of Árneshreppur’s elections.
The reason why these elections were so important to outsiders is the building of a proposed power plant on Hvalá river. Former MP Kristinn H. Gunnarsson, himself a staunch advocate of the plant for nearly a decade now, outed these new arrivals on his blog, listing their names and calling them “squatters”. Ultimately, the National Registry would void all but two of these new arrivals as legitimate residents in time for elections.
While this seems like a cut-and-dry case of election tampering by big city tree-huggers being prevented by plucky rural folks, the real election tampering was going on largely without objections.
For one, Kristinn didn’t get his list of names by pouring over the National Registry for irregularities. Rather, these names were handed to him by a member of the regional council. Bear in mind that Kristinn is not a reporter; he’s just a very vocal supporter of the Hvalá power plant.
Further, Sókn, the legal firm who put together the memo for the National Registry contending election tampering was happening, counts as one of their clients Vesturverk, an energy company in Ísafjörður that is doing the work of preparations for the Hvalá power plant.
Days before the elections, emails between Árneshreppur councilmembers and Vesturverk were leaked on social media. These emails do not appear to show anything illegal at work, but they do show a very cozy relationship between the council and the company. So cozy, in fact, that when one resident sent the council an email expressing concerns about the plant, that councilperson decided to forward said email to the company itself, asking for advice as to how to respond. The resident in question, as you may imagine, was not very pleased with this breach of confidence.
The company wins
Come election day, both supporters and opponents of the plant were in the running. The whole “squatters” exercise may have backfired, though, because all five seats on Árneshreppur regional council were filled by supporters of the Hvalá power plant.
Inarguably, moving one’s legal address to a region under false pretenses in the hopes of influencing an election is acting in bad faith. But then what does that make this level of collusion between a for-profit company and politicians? If a similar case happened in Reykjavík City Council, or Parliament for that matter, there would likely be thousands of people outside protesting loudly at this very moment. Yet because this was “only” happening in a tiny rural area, no one is batting an eye.
If nothing else, the Árneshreppur elections – as openly democratic as they are – show what happens when one for-profit company wields outsized influence over the interests of a region’s voters. This is a fairly secure fact in much larger elections. It’s the reason why there are laws on the books about Parliamentarians disclosing any potential conflicts of interest that may arise between the laws they write and their own financial dealings. It’s also why elected officials are not supposed to be literal advocates for for-profit companies, nor be this deeply involved in the company’s interests.
But apparently, none of this counts unless you’re a Reykjavík politician.