When Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson announced his resignation from politics earlier this month – to leave the prime ministerial position some time this month, and the party chairman position in early fall – the first question AFP asked me was, “Does this have anything to do with the economy?” As much of a shock as this may be to us, the international media aren’t exactly savvy to Iceland’s inter-party machinations. The official line is that Ásgrímsson’s resignation came as the result of countrywide municipal elections last month, which saw the party lose nearly a third of their seats across the country. That might have been the straw that broke Dóri’s back, but his resignation has been encouraged by the Progressive Party’s legacy of consistent failure.
First, there’s the national support the party has had since Ásgrímsson took over as prime minister in September 2004. According to Gallup, it was 13 percent at that time. Since then, it’s hovered around the 10 percent mark, which is where it stands today. If parliamentary elections were held now, the Progressive Party’s 12 seats would be cut in half. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise when you combine a nation with 60 percent of its population living in an urban area with a party established as “the farmer’s party”.
Then there are the municipal elections. What makes the municipal election results even sadder than losing 26 of 68 seats nationwide is that this comes after the Progressives launched an intensive image revamp. Never was this more the case than in Reykjavík, where the Progressives used to have two seats on city council as members of the inter-party alliance R-listinn. The frankly bizarre campaign practises of Björn Ingi Hrafnsson were puzzling – why does a party touting environmentalism drive around town in a Hummer, perhaps the least environmentally friendly car in the world? Not to mention such frivolous campaign platforms as school uniforms, ice skating rinks and moving the domestic airport onto an island. In fact, it didn’t look like the Progressives would even earn a seat on city council until two weeks before the election, but they barely managed. How they managed to do so probably skirts the edges of the law.
Recently on television news show Kastljós, columnist Ólafur Hannibalsson accused the Progressive Party of paying foreigners to vote for them. The Progressives have flat-out denied this charge, and have said that the accusation is insulting to foreigners in Iceland. Let me tell you about my experience with this party, a couple of days prior to the election.
A friend of mine, a foreigner who does not want to come forward, called my wife and me to say that he was being paid a small sum of money for every person he took to the polls by the Progressive Party. I thought, what an altruistic gesture from the Progressives, encouraging immigrants to get involved in the democratic process. Sure, I told him, come pick us up and we’ll put our names on your list. He showed us a list where many people had already written their names, addresses and identity numbers. But instead of taking us straight to the polls, we were taken to a Progressive Party campaign office near Hotel Nordica. There, a campaign worker encouraged my wife and me to vote for the Progressive Party. Then we were driven straight to the polls to vote.
Is this legal? Perhaps. Is it shady to pull a stunt like this? You bet. And our friend told us he wasn’t the only foreigner being paid to take others to a Progressive Party campaign office and then to the polls, either. It’s all so very Tammany Hall. This is what makes their assertion that Hannibalsson’s allegations were insulting to the immigrant community of Iceland so ironic. Could anything be more insulting to the immigrant community than to offer them nothing (if they have a platform regarding the immigrant community, I’ve yet to see it), yet pay some of them to get others to vote Progressive?
In any event, the Progressives have their one seat on Reykjavík city council now, and – just as they do in parliament – share the majority coalition with the Independence Party. It’s a favoured position the party has enjoyed for a long time now but as their popularity drops, the Independence Party may decide to drop them as well. As with most inter-party alliances in the world, coalitions in Iceland have little to do with shared ideology: prior to the current coalition in parliament, the Social Democrats shared the majority with the Independence Party. A new coalition might be waiting in the wings in 2007 although no one has officially admitted it yet. One thing is clear, the Progressive Party is taking an awfully long time saying goodbye.