Published June 2, 2006
Welcome to Iceland. You are visiting the home of the oldest parliament in the world, of some of the oldest and most revered writing in Europe, and country of pronounced natural beauty. The tradition of democracy is so strong here, that we dedicate a good deal of our time in this tourism and lifestyle magazine to political issues and political coverage. For visitors from America and much of Europe, we can point out that Iceland has one of the highest rates of voter turn-outs for any Western country, and we can therefore claim that democracy is still going strong here.
Wait. Hold it. We can’t.
You see, this election, the one that took place five days before we went to print, had one of the lowest voter turn-outs on record. Only 77% of registered voters showed up to vote in an election that will decide, among other things, whether the Landsvirkjun power works will be privatized, thus allowing a great deal more heavy industry to come into Iceland, as, until now, the City of Reykjavík’s ownership of Landsvirkjun has been able to have some moderating effect.
Let’s see, come to think of it, those key points we see as attractions for Iceland were just undone, at least the democracy and the nature—the sagas are still safe.What is most fascinating about the recent elections, to me, were the actions of one man, Björn Ingi Hrafnsson. Possessed of an engaging smile and the intangible qualities that make up charisma, Hrafnsson dominated this year’s elections… as the least popular candidate. And in the end, his unpopular ideas got him elected and got him a great deal of power. How is this possible?
First off, he had funding. A lot of it. How much, I have absolutely no idea and will never find out, as Iceland has no laws about showing the books of political parties. Osama Bin Laden, or Alcoa, could have personally handed Hrafnsson a few million kronur, and nobody in Iceland would be the wiser. But judging by the number of times I saw Hrafnsson smiling on TV in vaguely charming commercials with the following message: He doesn’t know how to play golf, but he does know how to play politics, in which Hrafnsson looked like the Bachelorette competitor that you were really pulling for, I would say Hrafnsson had a hefty chunk of change.
But money along wouldn’t have been enough. Hrafnsson had a nation of followers, of reactionary thinkers, just as George W. Bush has had the last few years. As Hrafnsson quite correctly pointed out at his Election Day party, he “led the discourse during the campaign.” A remarkable feat, considering how low the level of intelligence was in the discourse: the man actually recommended, in a series of ads, that the city of Reykjavík should move its airport to a protected wildlife area… belonging to another town. And this was the best of his ideas.
Throughout the election, Hrafnsson, who initially stepped into the Icelandic spotlight as a proponent of Iceland’s involvement in the Iraq War, continually led the charge, and his opponents stood by, blinking like cows in the midday sun. Yes, they could correct him, but he was the one setting the agenda, he was the one going somewhere.
The whole concept hints at the difficulties of democracy, and, for me, it shows the role the media must play, and the damage that can be inflicted when the media fails to inform and question. By not stepping in and demanding clear talk about the future of Reykjavík, and Iceland, the media left the voting public uninformed. Many simply didn’t vote. Of those that did, few realized the ramifications of their choices.
The political parties themselves are to blame, too. That the Social Democrats or Leftist Greens couldn’t lift their heads and make their own points is shameful and suggests that they will be out of office for a long time, despite having policies that likely match the views of the typical Icelander a great deal more than the parties in power.
All of this reminds me of the American home of democracy, the original home, that is, Philadelphia. In the grand city of Philadelphia, there is a basketball team. And on this basketball team, there is a point guard. And this point guard is fantastic to watch. He flails fantastically, he scores often, though he misses even more often, and he has cool hair and tattoos. And he is repeatedly awarded the honour of MVP or at least All-Star when it comes to voting. And because he is charismatic, the press treats him like a star. And, according to everything you read, he is the best in the business, one of the best basketball players to ever play.
Except his team never wins. This is where the passive journalism in Iceland and America have taken countries with proud histories of democracy. With no hard numbers, with no actual knowledge, voters were forced to vote based on charisma. The parties forced us to do this. They told us, in our last issue, that there was no difference in campaign platforms, just methods, which they didn’t care to elaborate on. When you vote solely on charisma, and you report solely on charisma, things don’t always go so well.
Björn Ingi Hrafnsson ran a campaign full of nothing but air balls and turnovers, and now he will be deciding the future of Reykjavík. And that’s not particularly comforting.