From Iceland — Growing Pains for the World’s Oldest Parliament

Growing Pains for the World’s Oldest Parliament

Published April 8, 2005

Growing Pains for the World’s Oldest Parliament

Sometime this year, Spaugstofan, the comedy program that is the country’s most popular television show, took on an eerie role. As it parodied the leaders of Iceland, we realized that the country’s elected representatives are a great deal more cartoonish than their parodies are. In fact, with Prime Minister Halldór Ásgrímsson seemingly taking a cue from the Bush administration and withdrawing from the press entirely (despite promises to the contrary), the parodies on Iceland’s weekly comedy show now seem like they’re running the country.

To introduce you to the political situation here: Iceland is home to the world’s oldest parliament, the Alþingi, a democratic government of landholders formed in 930 CE, with activities that were extremely well documented in the Sagas from the 13th century on. Among the many world leaders to celebrate the importance of the Alþingi, former President Clinton made a pilgrimage to Þingvellir during his visit to Iceland this summer. He claimed he had taught about Alþingi at Yale, and that the Althingi “was amazing because it managed to give just enough power to get things done, but not enough to allow for corruption.” The compliment, given at a time when the Bush administration was under heavy fire for the Abu Ghraib scandal, suggested that America could learn a lot from Iceland’s Alþingi.

This month, the Icelandic Alþingi attempted to teach America another lesson in democracy and justice by importing what it saw as a needlessly persecuted asylum seeker—in doing so, it exposed how flawed and irrelevant the Alþingi has become.

Alþingi United, Country Divided on Fischer

Granting Bobby Fischer Icelandic citizenship has not gone over well in the international media. The Boston Globe, one of many American papers to run editorials condemning the action, pointed out how many false assumptions the Icelandic government made in “lionizing” someone who will “become a blight on Icelandic society for years to come.”

The European response doesn’t look to be much better. As Róbert Marshall, president of the Icelandic Journalist Union, told me in a phone interview from the annual meeting of the European Union of Journalists in Bilbao “talking with people here, none of them understand why we did this. None of them make any distinction between [Fischer] appearing in Iceland in 1972 and the hatred of Jewish people and the unbelievable nonsense that comes out of this man. They see the whole thing as one package.”

In other words, according to American and European critics, the Alþingi painted their country as one that values anti-Semitism and tax evasion.

This would be more acceptable, were it not that, even on the day Bobby Fischer was granted citizenship with a unanimous vote in Alþingi (40 for, 2 abstaining, 21 absent), after less than 13 minutes of discussion, there was rampant grumbling in Iceland about giving Fischer citizenship at the same time that many other foreigners were facing tougher immigration laws.

While there were no official polls at the time, a Gallup Poll taken this April, eight days after the vote, suggests 40% of Iceland was opposed to granting citizenship to Fischer, with only 35% believing it was a good decision.

The Grapevine staff called all party offices on the day citizenship was awarded to ask how the Alþingi, a symbol of the effectiveness of democracies, could so inaccurately reflect public opinion.

Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, vice chairman of the Left Green Party, admitted that she may have guessed wrong on the public’s preferences. “We think we know the public opinion just by breathing in the same air as the people next to us. Maybe this is wrong… but this is a small community. We’re not very used to opinion polls.”

She went on to point out that if the Left Green Party voted against public opinion in this one case, the country was opposed to granting Fischer a special exception to the immigration laws. The Left Green party voted for Fischer under the assumption that the laws need to be changed, and that this would be a first step.

Guðrún Ögmundsdóttir, MP for the Social Democratic Party, the second largest party in Alþingi, admitted that she too might have voted against popular opinion. She openly admitted that “in some cases the parliament listens to the people, in some cases it doesn’t.” To her defense, she pointed out the surprising fact that despite her many quotes in international stories on the Bobby Fischer case, she received only one email regarding Bobby Fischer. Put simply, the public doesn’t contact her. “I don’t receive emails,” she told us. However, as with the Left Green Party, the Social Democrats’ vote on Fischer was a vote in the “hope that Iceland’s immigration policy relaxes.”

Prominent members of the Independence Party did not immediately respond to our inquiry. A spokesperson at the office headquarters, when asked why decisions frequently went against public opinion, explained, “Even though the polls show that people aren’t satisfied with some particular doings, I think… when they look back at the four years of the term they know that no one could have done better in the whole.”

“Do you mean regarding the economy?” we asked.

“The economy and other things. Things like independence,” we were told.

From the Progressive Party, a member of the coalition government, we got surprising comments. A spokesman with the office pointed out that a) the party has no stance on Fischer and b) that his “personal opinion is that the vote shouldn’t have gone through.”

Indeed the Progressive Party was the only party with members who abstained: two MPs from their party, Dagný Jónsdóttir and Birkir Jónsson, disagreed with Alþingi—though not strongly enough to vote no.

Iraq Revisited

While we were still making our rounds asking why votes were so far from public opinion, the Alþingi released another shocking announcement, one that escaped close examination in any local media. On March 30, the Foreign Affair’s Committee of Alþingi announced that it was finished investigating wrongdoing in allowing Iceland to join the Coalition of the Willing without public discussion. Opposition party members were understandably upset, but they admitted they had no recourse.

Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir laughed when we stated we didn’t understand how it was possible for the investigation to be concluded with no discussion of findings. “The ministers have been hiding from our demands that they stand in parliament and answer our questions. They don’t want to answer questions. The statements of the prime minister and foreign minister have only been that they made the decision, that they were in the position to do that, end of discussion.”

So two people can decide if a country goes to war, even if the country clearly demonstrates a wish not to enter war?

“Apparently,” Halldórsdóttir told us. She then added, “Political activists are needed in Iceland… badly.”

But there are political activists in Iceland. Over 4,000 Icelanders recently purchased an advertisement in the New York Times to protest Iceland’s membership in the Coalition of the Willing. It appeared January 21, 2005. To very little fanfare.

Why was there no reaction?

First, the ad came out almost two years after Iceland joined the Coalition of the Willing. It also went in to an American newspaper after the presidential elections had brow-beaten those protesting Iraq. If the ad could have affected anything, it was anywhere from two months to two years too late.

Another reason few people reacted to the ad is this: Iceland is a democracy, and national elections were held a month and a half after the country’s induction into the Coalition was openly admitted. If 84% of the population was opposed to the war, and if Iceland has a high voter turnout rate, how could the two parties involved in taking the country to war get re-elected?

What were New York Times readers to think when told that the country with a strong democratic tradition couldn’t come close to convincing its parliament to act in its interest?

Hans Kristjánsson, a key organizer of the advertisement, had no answer for me. Speaking the evening after the investigation into Iraq was closed, he seemed disheartened.

“The sheer majority in Alþingi thinks of itself as the ruler of the country and it doesn’t have to take any account of the minority. They seem to be less and less in contact with the people in this country and more and more isolated…With every decision they make, they seem to be distancing themselves from democracy. One can claim democracy is in peril.”

On being told that Iceland was now a despotism, I tried to lighten the mood. I asked Kristjánsson if there wasn’t one positive effect of the New York Times ad.

“Prime Minister Ásgrímsson announced there would be regular press meetings. It is now April and he hasn’t done anything. The press doesn’t seem to be knocking on his doors,” Kristjánsson told me.

The New Leaders Step Forth

Kristjánsson’s final complaint struck a chord. He was right. The prime minister and the foreign minister, the two most powerful men in Icelandic politics, had disappeared from public view. But whereas Kristjánsson sees this as defeat, I wonder if this isn’t an indicator to the contrary.

Two years ago, the complaint was that Davíð Oddsson and Halldór Ásgrímsson were everywhere, now we hear complaints that they can’t be found. To the frustration of opposition parties and protest groups, nothing now sticks to Oddsson and Ásgrímsson.

But we couldn’t help noticing… in ducking out of the way of criticism, Oddsson, Ásgrímsson and even Össur Skarphéðinsson, can’t get into the sun. (Skarphéðinsson, the chair of the largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, is viewed as guilty in the same way John Kerry is in America. He has not made enough of a stand, and he lost when he should have won.) Suddenly, with the decline of the “Big Three,” we have seen the new leaders of parliament. Bjarni Benediktsson stepped forward for the Independence Party with a prominent role in managing Bobby Fischer discussion as Chair of the General Committee of Alþingi. For the Social Democrats, Ingibjorg Sólrún Gísladóttir, former mayor of Reykjavík, has quickly surpassed Skarphéðinsson in popularity. And the Progressive Party… they seem to have fallen apart.

Last month saw the Progressive Party with a popularity of 10%, down from 18% in the last popular election. Then the party began acting highly irregularly. Members of the Progressive Party were the first to blow the whistle on Iraq, claiming they had not met to discuss the war as Ásgrímsson told the Alþingi. As mentioned earlier, they were the only party to voice concerns about importing a tax-evading anti-Semite under the auspices of political asylum. They have also challenged Althingi’s patterns on gender equality; they proposed a ban on smoking in public places. This traditionally conservative party has even pitched the idea of free pre-schools.

To the complaints of many, the Progressive Party is doing anything that will get them elected. Halldórsdóttir of the Left Green Party told us, “The Progressive Party is obviously struggling. The reason their problems are so apparent is that the guy at the top hasn’t got the talent or the character to unite his people.”

But the stunts and the new faces have been impressive. While Halldórsdóttir has complained of Ásgrímsson’s leadership, we can’t help noticing that a new group of Progressives seems to have taken over. Under the new leadership, the party is acting more and more according to popular opinion instead of across party lines.

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