The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Or so it would seem, judging from the recent Parliamentary elections in Iceland, Saturday, May 12. Before the elections, the right-centrist government coalition majority of the Independence Party and the Progressive party had been in a ruling position for three consecutive terms, a total of 12 years. The Independence Party had actually been a member of the previous government coalition as well, so they had 16 years of uninterrupted government participation under their belt.
Leading up to the elections, the government opposition had placed the focus of their campaign on bringing the government’s reign of power to an end. For the most parts, their campaign was not so much focused on political issues. Their efforts were mostly directed at the Progressive Party, the smaller of the two coalition parties with roughly 18% support in the last elections. Looking back this might be considered to have been a mistake on the opposition’s part. A week before the election, journalist and political analyst Arna Schram said in an interview with the Grapevine:
“The remarkable thing about this campaign is that there do not seem to be any issues that stand apart, there is no single issue that people are voting on in particular as opposed to often before. I thought the environment might be that issue, and their stand on the environment has surely helped the Left-Greens, but environmental issues still don’t seem to capture the people.”
The opposition failed to engage people in a political discussion on the future (or the next 4 years at least) of the country and thereby missed their opportunity to control the discourse and capture the voters’ hearts and minds.
Election Day was sunny and bright, usually not a good sign for voting turnout. There were 221,368 voters registered and at the end of the day, 183,547 of them had voted. That is around an 83% turnout, one of the lowest turnouts ever recorded in Iceland, a nation that has always prided itself on strong participation in elections.
When the first numbers from the count were released at 10 pm, all signs pointed to the government having lost their majority, as the opposition held a majority of one in the number of M.P.s. Leaders of the government parties spoke cautiously, although they sounded pessimistic.
At 12 pm, the next batch of votes had been counted and new numbers were released. The government was still in a minority, but the Progressive party needed only 300 votes to acquire one more representative at the expense of the Social Democratic Alliance, the biggest party of the opposition.
When the next numbers were released, the situation had been turned on its head. The government was back in the driver’s seat, with the combined number of M.P.s from both parties being 32 as opposed to 31 M.P.s from the opposition; but it would only take 64 votes to swing the situation again. For the rest of the night, the two blocks, the government and the opposition alternated holding the majority. When I vacated my post in front of the television to get some sleep around 4 pm, the government was standing.
And that was the final outcome – the only outcome that mattered at least. Of course there were many ways to interpret the results of the elections, but at the end of the day, with every vote counted for, the government was still in charge and nothing had changed since the day before.
Of course that is not entirely true. The Independence Party, the bigger of the two government coalition parties, had received 36.6% of the votes, a sizeable addition since the last election and enough to get them three new M.P.s elected and 25 in total. If not for the Left-Green Movement, who doubled their vote tally (14.4%) and managed to get four new members elected and a total of nine M.P.s, the Independence Party might have been considered the winners of the election.
The Liberal Party (which, turns out, is not so liberal after all) more or less maintained their number of votes and representatives with four M.P.s. The Social Democratic Alliance managed 26.8%, a decrease that cost them two representatives in the Parliament giving them 18 M.P.s. The Iceland Green Movement received only 3.3%, which does not warrant them a seat in Parliament under the current legislation.
The smaller of the government coalition parties however, The Progressive Party, suffered a loss that can only be compared to Custer’s last stand. Having faced diminishing interest from voters in their political platform since early last decade, the party only managed to gather a paltry 11.7% of the votes and seven representatives. The party’s chairman, Jón Sigurðsson, was not among the seven, despite running number one in the Reykjavík’ North district.
But, despite the Progressive Party’s big loss, the government coalition still held the majority, thanks to the increased votes for the Independence Party.
Florida All Over Again
The real blow of this election was not delivered to a party, but rather to democracy itself. Due to the peculiarities of the Icelandic electoral system, the operating government coalition at the time received a combined number of 32 M.P.s despite only being endorsed by 48% of the nation. Meantime, the opposition parties received a combined total of 52% of the votes, but only 31 M.P.s. That is a 4% difference, a huge number by all accounts.
Icelandic electoral legislation is not easily explained, but the key behind this deficiency is the enormous difference in population between districts. The weight of the votes is skewed, so that votes from more depopulated rural districts actually weigh more than votes from larger districts. That means that there are proportionately fewer voters per M.P in the rural districts and an M.P. from a large district, such as either of Reykjavík’s districts, will need proportionately more votes to get elected. In addition, each party must receive at least 5% of the total votes to be eligible for a seat in Parliament. This clearly affected the Iceland Green Movement, which received enough number of votes for two M.P.s, if not for the 5% rule.
Obviously, this means there is no such thing as ‘one man – one vote’ in Iceland. If all votes counted equally in the elections, the coalition would have received 30 M.P.s based on the number of votes they received, while the opposition would have received 33. If this election revealed anything, it is the need for electoral legislation reform in this country. A government majority that is not supported by a majority of the people in a popular election can hardly be considered a government of the people.
An hour before this issue was shipped to printing on Thursday, May 17; the coalition parties had come to their senses after five taking five days to consider their alternatives and announced their decision to part ways. In a government with a majority of one, every single member of the government coalition effectively holds a veto power on any legislation, which makes it very unstable. Leader of the Independence Party and Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde said: “We are not interested in being in government, just to be in government. A one vote majority is simply not secure enough.”
Haarde announced that he would probably initiate talks with the Social Democratic Party to form a new coalition. Whether those negotiations will be fruitful remains to be seen. If the two parties will manage to reach an agreement on cooperation, that government would be supported by 63.4% of the nation. Perhaps there is a chance for democracy after all.