Last week, the National Audit Office of Iceland published a report criticising the National Police Commissioner for having violated laws on public procurement when he purchased riot equipment from firms with close connections to his own staff and/or other police officers. The Police Commissioner had not put these purchases up to tender, as is required by law. Part of the criticism of the Audit Office focuses on how the Police Commissioner split his purchases from one firm up into smaller lots, each under five million ISK, apparently in an attempt to flout the law, which stipulates that any purchase by the government or a government agency over the amount of five million ISK must be offered to public tender. This in itself is a violation of the law.
What makes this story of classic government graft and nepotism shocking is not the fact that the government official in question is the National Police Commissioner. What makes it truly shocking is how the Police Commissioner explained his actions—and how the right wing has flocked to his defence.
The reason the Police Commissioner gave for his violation of the law was that “it was impossible to follow the letter of the law on public procurement to the utmost extent in the midst of the pots and pans revolution.” Icelandic society had plunged into “a state of chaos,” he argued, and the house of parliament was “under siege.” During these trying times the police, which was under enormous stress as it upheld the law and order by holding angry protesters back, desperately needed all kinds of riot gear. How could anyone expect him to worry about boring legal formalities?
This might sound like a reasonable excuse. Until we consider the fact that the questionable purchases took place almost a year after the protest wave of 2008–9 had peaked.
When pressed on this point, the Police Commissioner argued that the “conditions” that had formed in the winter of 2008–9, presumably the state of chaos and the siege of parliament, had not yet passed. According to this logic we are now living under some kind of permanent security threat that exempts the Police Commissioner from having to follow the law to “the utmost.”
What is perhaps most interesting is that the Icelandic right has not only bought this argument, but accuses not only those who have criticised the Police Commissioner for having broken the law, but even those in the media who have covered the story, of ‘sinister political motives’ and of ‘waging a vendetta against the police.’
Björn Bjarnason, who as Minister of Justice appointed the Police Commissioner in question, accused the National Audit Office of participating in a campaign by the current government to weaken the police, thus contributing to “increasing sense of insecurity in society, thus risking even further chaos.” Morgunblaðið (whose editor is Davíð Oddsson, former leader of the Independence Party) published an editorial dismissing the concerns of the National Audit Office. The purchases in question were ‘insignificant,’ and the amounts in question too small to warrant the “absurd propaganda campaign” being waged by some in the media. The editorial went on to warn the National Audit Office not to “participate in the games and spin of the media.” Presumably the office should not issue rulings that could in some way inform or enter the political conversation.
The radical right-wing AMX echoed these arguments, claiming any criticism of the Police Commissioner was payback from the Left Greens party MPs, who have supposedly been seething with resentment against the police ever since it “defended the house of parliament against attacks” in the winter of 2008–9.
What we are witnessing here is an interesting development in the political discourse. Not only does the police believe that it as an entity is entitled to break the law due to an imagined permanent security condition—which is bad enough—but it finds staunch allies on the political right who are willing to argue that anyone who dares question the police force’s illegal behaviour does so out of a hatred for the police and the law, and a wish to engulf society in chaos. I think anyone who values the rule of law should be deeply concerned.