From Iceland — What Can The Recent British Elections Teach Us About Icelandic Politics?

What Can The Recent British Elections Teach Us About Icelandic Politics?

Published May 27, 2015

What Can The Recent British Elections Teach Us About Icelandic Politics?
Photo by
DV/Sigtryggus Ari

Two things of note happened in the United Kingdom on May 7. One of them, as you may have heard, is that the Conservatives were re-elected, and this time with an absolute majority.

Ever since the latest recession began, the general rule in European politics has been this: Whatever you have is what you don’t want. Rather than shifting to either the left or the right, voters have tended to vote against whoever was in power. After it all went wrong in 2008, sitting governments lost power in one country after another. Iceland was no exception, with the nation voting against the centre-right ruling parties in 2009 and then voting them back in 2013. In the same manner, the British voted against the centre-left Labour Party in 2010 for the first time in over a decade.

However, the recent Conservative victory in the UK is the latest example of the trend being bucked. The conservatives have managed to hang onto power in Germany, and have been taking over in the Nordic countries too, while the Socialist Hollande must look nervously on from the Champ-Elysees.

Left, right, left…

This brings us to the second noteworthy happening: the complete destruction of the Labour Party in Scotland at the hands of the Scottish Nationalists.

After 2008, people everywhere decided that maybe this whole free market business wasn’t such a great idea and looked hopefully to the left for solutions. None were forthcoming. So while the right has been slowly clawing back its lost ground, the left has been left in complete disarray.

Nowhere has this been evident than in Iceland. After the Pots and Pans Revolution in January 2009 ejected the Independence Party (which held government along with the Social Democrats), elections were held and the country got its first two-party government of the left, starring the Social Democrats and, for the first time ever, the Left-Greens.

Even though this conflagration, headed by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, arguably managed to stave off the worst effects of the economic collapse, they soon lost credibility with the people who started looking elsewhere for solutions.

The first of these appeared in the municipal elections of 2010. Comedian Jón Gnarr formed The Best Party and, to everyone’s surprise, succeeded in becoming mayor of Reykjavík. An off-shoot party, Bright Future, ran nationwide in 2013. They failed to repeat the runaway success of the Best Party in Reykjavik, but still managed to get six of their members elected to Parliament.

Meet the new boss…

By this time, the party of the future was, surprisingly enough, the oldest political party in the country. As a centrist party that has been around since 1916, the Progressives have usually been happy to work with whoever offered them the most. Having ruled with the conservative Independence Party from 1995 to 2005, they played a major role in the privatisation of the banks that eventually led to the catastrophic financial crisis, but also benefited from not being in government when the actual collapse took place.

”However, all is not as it seems. Icelanders in general still feel deeply frustrated after the economic collapse.”

Of Iceland’s four traditional parties, the Progressives had been out of power the longest by the time the 2013 elections came around, and they had a whiff of freshness about them under their new chairman, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. More importantly, they had been vehemently opposed to paying back the British and Dutch who lost money in Icesave accounts after the banking collapse. When the European Court ruled in Iceland’s favour in the Icesave dispute in early 2013, the party was proved right (legally, at least), and the road was open to a win in the spring elections.

Sigmundur became the new prime minister, and chose as his co-regents the Independence Party. This seemed to return Iceland back to the pre-collapse status quo, as these are the parties that have usually run the place.

A ship with 50 cannons approaching

However, all is not as it seems. Icelanders in general still feel deeply frustrated after the economic collapse. Real wages have fallen, prices keep rising, people are still moving to Norway in droves and the country is beset by strikes. This is reflected in opinion polls, which suggest that the current government would win just over 30% of votes today, with the Progressive Party taking the heavier hit.

But here comes the kicker. By far the most popular party in Iceland today is the Pirate Party, which by themselves would receive around 30% of the votes, as much as both government parties combined. They currently have three MPs (out of a total of 63), and, if elections were held today, they would probably be heading the next government.

In Iceland as well as Britain, conservative parties hold the reins and the left is in a rut. But voters are much more flexible than they used to be, and it seems that the mantle of opposition is passing from the older, established parties to newer, more dynamic ones. Rather than a return to the status quo, it seems that the post-collapse era in politics just might be entering a new and exciting phase.

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