In October 2008, Iceland became the focus of international attention when its entire financial system collapsed. Part of the cause was undoubtedly connected to Iceland’s tiny currency being especially vulnerable to shockwaves from the devastated real estate market in the US, but the lion’s share of the blame fell squarely upon the unethical and illegal practices of Iceland’s own investment class, many of whom controlled the banks that were privatised only five years earlier.
The catalyst for the protests was arguably one man: Independence Party MP Sigurður Kári Kristjánsson. The Monday after the crash, as the nation waited with bated breath to see how Parliament would respond, Sigurður’s first order of business was to call for the sale of alcohol to be permitted in private shops. This obvious disconnect from reality sent many Icelanders to the lawn of Parliament, and the protests began.
The ruling coalition at the time, comprised of the Independence Party and the Social Democrats, continued to stall, even as protester numbers grew. The lack of initiative only stoked the anger of the protesters, and swelled their numbers. It was only a matter of time before the whole thing reached critical mass.
These protests became popularly known in the international press as the Pots and Pans Revolution, a translation of the Icelandic term, búsahaldabyltingin. It would be difficult to classify the public response as a revolution, at least at first anyways. The early protests were characterised largely by rallies, speeches and song. Popular public figures assumed the helm, calling for reform rather than revolution. That began to change quickly, however, as autumn turned to winter.
In November 2008, activist Haukur Hilmarsson climbed onto the roof of Parliament and hoisted the flag of the Bónus supermarket chain. While Haukur regarded the act as a light-hearted stunt, it was also very poignant: with a single image of a corporate logo flying high above Iceland’s legislative body, the iconic image was created of Iceland’s political class in collusion with the capitalist class. The following month, a group of about 30 people, while trying to peaceably enter Parliament in order to access the public galleries that overlook the main hall, were met with a harsh response from security, police and the state prosecutor, who singled out nine of these people—later called the Reykjavík Nine—to be unfairly and inaccurately characterised as inciting violence. The courts would later side with these protesters, ruling in their favour.
Both of these events set the stage for police escalation, and heightened anger amongst the Icelandic citizenry.
New year, old anger
As January 2009 rolled around, the government went from seeming negligent to being downright irresponsible. Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde, of the Independence Party, had hired private bodyguards, but apart from that, no visible response to the protest was made. That would change as the month wore on.
On January 20th of that year, direct physical confrontations with the police had begun. Arrests were ramping up, along with the use of pepper spray and tear gas, while protester numbers continued to grow. The political fallout also began to take its toll, as ministers began to resign or announce that they would not run for office again. By January 26th, it was all over: the government resigned, an emergency coalition was formed, and new elections were scheduled for later that spring.
But did we learn anything?
Yes, some bankers went to jail. And no, the government took over the banks rather than bail them out. This much is true. Beyond that, pretty much nothing has changed.
The government that was to follow, Iceland’s first left-wing government ever, lasted a single term of four years. During this time, they tightened the austerity belt, pissed off the entire country again during the Icesave debacle, called for a constitutional referendum and then promptly ignored it. When 2013 rolled around, Iceland chose the Independence Party and the Progressive Party—the same two parties that paved the way for the crash—to lead the country again.
Today, there is even talk of privatising the banks again, as if the five years spanning 2003 to 2008 never happened. While the tourism boom is not really comparable to the pre-crash financial situation, the economy is still running hot. When, not if, another crash washes over Iceland, it’s difficult to say how the people will respond. But at least there’s a precedent we can look back at and learn from.
Correction: The original version of this article stated that the Reykjavík Nine attempted to force their way into the main Parliamentary building. This is incorrect, and has been amended.