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Reykjavik Elections: Same Choices, New Faces

Reykjavik Elections: Same Choices, New Faces

Photos by
Art Bicnick

Published June 5, 2018

We put a lot into covering the run-up to last month’s municipal elections. There was certainly a lot to be excited about. 16 parties in the running, more immigrant candidates and more women leading their party lists than ever before. Voter turnout was also predicted to be higher than last year, and it was, ultimately. Things looked set for there to be a historic turn of events in Reykjavík.

Instead, here we are. Once again, we’re looking at Reykjavík being led by either the Independence Party or the Social Democrats, the same as it’s been for decades (while the Social Democrats were not formed until the turn of the century, a lot of the same people in that party comprised R-list, a centre-left amalgamation of sorts, through the 90s). You can increase the number of City Council seats from 15 to 23, have more parties in the running than in recent memory, and the outcome is still the same.

It’s not all bad, of course. There is still a lot of new ground broken by this City Council and a lot to be happy about. We need to consider all the elements at play in order to understand why we seem to be stuck in a rut.

The two towers

When the last ballots were counted, the Social Democrats and the Independence Party were the big winners, getting seven seats and eight seats respectively. As tedious as it is to see these same two parties on top all the time, it’s also unsurprising.

The Independence Party is more than a political party. It’s an institution, a way of life, the default choice for people who don’t know who else to vote for. So engrained is their presence, so natural in our eyes is their position on top that some polls will actually ask respondents, “Will you be voting for the Independence Party or some other party?” The big blue bird of prey circles the skies, always, casting its harrowing shadow on us all.

The big blue bird of prey circles the skies, always, casting its harrowing shadow on us all.

The Social Democrats are more of a Reykjavík institution. They’re not that different from what R-list used to be, in Reykjavík’s heyday, so for Reykjavík voters they are usually the safe bet. So much so that even Jón Gnarr’s ostensibly revolutionary Best Party was fairly indistinguishable from the Social Democrats, in terms of policy. Small wonder Gnarr chose the Social Democrats as partners.

Tipping the balance

As I write this, who will actually lead the city is still undecided. Informal talks and late night phone calls are being had. The math is precarious. Apart from the gains of the Two Towers, the Left-Greens held their own single seat, and the Pirates pulled ahead to go from one seat to two. Meanwhile, three parties with a parliamentary presence – the Reform Party, the Centre Party and the People’s Party – won four seats altogether; two of which belong to the Reform Party now. The Socialist Party, an absolute newcomer to election campaigning, also secured a seat (more on them later).

Given that it takes 12 seats to form a majority, things look very delicate for the Social Democrats. They would need not only their partners from the previous majority, the Left-Greens and the Pirates, in order to secure a coalition; they would also need to do a little juggling. Convince the centre-right Reform Party to pick their side? Bring the People’s Party into the fold? Some combination of all these things? It’s not ideal.

The Independence Party has an easier time of it, but not entirely. Having the Centre Party and the Reform Party on their side would give them a solid 12 seats, but the Centre Party aligning with them is not necessarily a given. And pretty much every other party has ruled out helping the Independence Party.

Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir, the Socialist’s new city councilperson, is Reykjavík’s first woman of colour in recent memory, and now the youngest member of City Council at the tender age of 26, beating Independence Party stalwart Davíð Oddsson’s record from 1974.

This is why people are saying the Reform Party is in the key position here. Whoever they side with, they will undoubtedly wield a lot of power over what the majority platform will be.

The bright side

There is, however, plenty to be happy about. The Socialist victory matters, and not just because they campaigned aggressively and well. Sanna Magdalena Mörtudóttir, the Socialist’s new city councilperson, is Reykjavík’s first woman of colour in recent memory, and now the youngest member of City Council at the tender age of 26, beating Independence Party stalwart Davíð Oddsson’s record from 1974.

In fact, women, in general, were the big winners in the municipal elections across the country. In Reykjavík, our City Council will now be mostly women. There are also now two immigrants, Sabine Leskopf of the Social Democrats and Pawel Bartoszek of the Reform Party.

Speaking of immigrants: if you enjoy a little schadenfreude, it may please you to learn that the far-right anti-immigrant Icelandic National Front managed to not only secure a record-breaking low number of votes – 125 – but they also secured fewer votes than the number of signatures of support that they needed to run in the first place. So low were their numbers, in fact, that you’d need to go all the way back to 1924, when Reykjavík was pretty much a fishing village of 20,000 people, to find a party that managed to fail harder.

The lesson

When all the formal talks have concluded, and Reykjavík is being run by either the Independence Party or the Social Democrats, take heart. There’s more women and more immigrants on the Council now. There’s more diversity of ideas. And none of the openly racist parties managed to win a seat. Life isn’t so bad in Iceland’s capital after all.


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