From Iceland — City Hall: Theatre of the Absurd

City Hall: Theatre of the Absurd

Published February 8, 2008

City Hall: Theatre of the Absurd

All of us who are concerned for peace and triumph of reason and justice must be keenly aware how small an influence reason and honest good will exert upon events in the political field. – Albert Einstein

Since the May 2006 municipal elections, city politics in Reykjavík have closely resembled an absurdist play where Machiavelli waits for Godot. During that 20-month period, the city has had three coalition governments, each one formed under more controversy than the one it replaced. What follows is a synopsis of the plot since the 2006 elections. Be warned: this is reading for advanced scholars of political absurdity only.

Prologue – The 2006 Elections

Those who are too smart to engage in politics are punished by being governed by those who are dumber.
– Plato

Before the 2006 elections, The Independence Party made it clear that all emphasis would be placed on reclaiming the mayoral seat they had once dominated, but lost in the 1994 elections. The race for City Hall was predicted to be extremely close and according to most polls, a few votes could swing the election either way.

As the election drew to a close, however, it became obvious that voters did not care much either way. Only 77% of registered voters in Reykjavík could be bothered to participate, one of the lowest turnouts in the history of the Reykjavík municipal elections, and a frightfully low number in a country that has historically put a lot of pride in their active participation in the democratic process.

When the votes were tallied, the Independence Party had not managed to secure a majority on the City Council, with only seven members. The Social Democrats won four, The Left-Greens two and The Liberal Party and the Progressive Party one representative each.

Thus, the table was set for a round of political one-upmanship. With a working majority needing the support of eight out of fifteen City Council members, the most likely candidate to lead a coalition was The Independence Party, which only needed the support of one extra representative. The parties scrambled to secure a position of power, but the wheels set in motion the morning after the elections are still turning.

Liberals Get Duped
Politicians are the same all over. They promise to build a bridge even where there is no river.
– Nikita Khrushchev

Early on Sunday morning, the day after the election, rumours were surfacing that the Independence Party and the Liberal Party had started formal majority negotiations. This was confirmed later that day. At that time, leader of the Liberal Party, Ólafur F. Magnússon, said that he had spoken to members of the other parties earlier that day, but the Independence Party had shown much interest in preliminary discussions, and he considered that option more likely to bear fruit than a coalition of four different parties.

Before the election, the location of the Reykjavík Airport was a matter of great discord between those two parties. The Liberal Party was the only party in Reykjavík that strongly supported plans to maintain the airport in its current location in the heart of the city. Meanwhile, The Independence Party – as well as the other parties actually – had strongly opposed the airport in its current location, supporting instead plans to move the airport outside the city and use the land for development.

On Monday, the news came that all talks between the two parties had been suspended. Independence Party leader Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson had had a change of heart and was now in bed with the Progressive Party as the Mayor of Reykjavík City. This new development fuelled speculation that the initial talks between the Liberal Party and the Independence Party had been a ploy, staged to buy time while the Independence Party ironed out the wrinkles with the Progressive Party. Ólafur F. Magnússon of the Liberals, who now found himself on the outside looking in, had this to say when I spoke to him after the elections:

“It was very unpleasant to experience this from Vilhjálmsson. He contacted us early on Election Day, before the polls were even closed. His representative approached me with an offer for cooperation, and told me that any disagreement over issues could be worked out. They presented us with blueprints for a new design for the Reykjavík Airport that would have allowed the airport to remain where it is, and he assured me that we could reach an agreement over this issue. We had planned a meeting on Monday at 13:00. He never showed up for the meeting, and called me at 14:00 and told me that he was putting further talks off, since he could not see us reach an agreement over the location of the airport.”

“It turned out it was all a ploy intended to keep us out of any meaningful discussions with the other parties, while the Independence Party and the Progressive Party worked out their differences,” said Ólafur F. Magnússson. “I have to admit that I was duped.”

The First Coalition
“If two men agree on everything, you may be sure that one of them is doing the thinking.”
– Lyndon B. Johnson

The Progressive Party in Reykjavík was lead by a young upstart by the name of Björn Ingi Hrafnsson. A once proud party, and used to being a force in city politics, the Progressive Party’s support had plummeted in recent years. Although heavily criticised for spending copious amounts of money on his somewhat misguided campaign – he used a Hummer H2 as an official campaign truck – Hrafnson managed to gather 6.3% of the popular vote. Hrafnsson, by all accounts a capable spin doctor, hailed this as a ‘defensive victory’ and it was enough to propel him onto a city government coalition with The Independence Party.

Although there was some concern among the public as to whether Hrafnsson’s 6.3% support really warranted the power he was now wielding, the coalition seemed to be a harmonious affair. Björn Ingi Hrafnsson was accepted amongst Independent Party council members as one of the family, and to this day Reykjavík Independence Party leader, Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson, maintains that there was never a shadow cast on their cooperation. That is, presumably, until Hrafnsson sold them out.

Coalition Loses Steam Over Reykjavík Energy Invest
“Too bad ninety percent of the politicians give the other ten percent a bad reputation.”
– Henry Kissinger

One of the crown jewels in the city’s company portfolio is Reykjavík Energy, a publicly owned company that supplies Reykjavíkians with both electricity and geothermal hot water. It is a company of considerable expertise in the field of geothermal energy, and is often called upon to consult on international experimental projects in the field.

In March 2007, the directors of Reykjavik Energy passed a resolution allowing the investment of up to ISK 2 billion in the development of international geothermal opportunities through a new subsidiary, Reykjavik Energy Invest ehf. Then chairman of Reykjavík Energy, Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson of the Independence Party, stated that the purpose of the investment was to capitalise on the global leadership of RE in utilizing sustainable energy from geothermal sources.

In October last year, it was announced with great fanfare that Reykjavík Energy Invest would be privatized and that the company would merge with Geysir Green Energy– an investment company in the field of geothermal energy recently established by Icelandic investment company FL Group and Glitnir Bank. The merger was set to create a global leader in the field of geothermal energy with the total value of 65 billion ISK, with the sole intention of investing in sustainable geothermal energy opportunities around the world.

The decision caused a massive uproar among the public and city officials alike. As the details of the merger surfaced, and the stench of political corruption grew stronger, it became clear that this was a back-room deal cut between Icelandic investors and two members of the coalition, party leaders Björn Ingi Hrafnsson and Mayor Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson, who acted without support from the rest of the City Council, which coincidently only learned about the merger the day it was announced. The Independence Party split on the subject, with Mayor Vilhjálmsson isolated as the solo proponent of the deal. The situation created a backlash that left the coalition in shatters.

Second Coalition
Politics is supposed to be the second-oldest profession. I have come to realize that it bears a very close resemblance to the first.
– Ronald Reagan

Following the events of the REI merger, it soon became obvious that the Independence/Progressive Party coalition was non-functional. Rumours circulated that six council members from the Independence Party had reached out to other parties for cooperation without their leader, Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson.

Not willing to take his chances of being left out of the loop if the Independence Party decided to move on without him, Björn Ingi Hrafnsson was meanwhile engaged in talks of his own. Behind the scenes, Ólafur F. Magnússon had initiated discussion between the opposition parties and the Progressive party to form a new coalition, his payback for being duped in 2006.

On October 15, the press was summoned to a conference outside City Hall where the new coalition was introduced with members of the Social Democratic Alliance, The Left-Green Party, the Progressive Party and the former representative of the Liberal Party, with Dagur B. Eggertsson, leader of the Social Democrats as Mayor.

Hrafnsson’s move infuriated members of the Independence Party who felt betrayed by his actions. Questions regarding his role in the REI merger were quickly silenced when he appeared on television talk shows and declared that he had indeed made a mistake and was deeply sorry for how the REI merger was handled. But Hrafnsson was not the only member of the coalition in a curious position.

Soon after the 2006 elections, the Liberal Party split over immigration issues in Iceland. Ólafur F. Magnússson, the party leader in Reykjavík, and Margrét F. Sverrisdóttir, the second person on the ticket and a Vice City Council member, both left the party. Icelandic voting laws stipulate that political office is tied to the person voted in, not the party receiving the votes, so they were both still in office, without a party to represent.

Ólafur F. Magnússon, who was now credited as the Godfather of the new coalition for bringing everybody to the table, had at that time been on a leave of absence for nearly a year due to health reasons and his Vice-City Council member, Margrét Sverrisdóttir, had taken his place.

The new coalition, however, was well received by citizens, registering nearly 57% approval rate among Reykjavíkians, with most of the individual parties climbing in approval rates as well. But Adam was only a guest in Paradise.

102 Days
I do not believe in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. – Thomas Carlyle

In December 2007, Ólafur F. Magnússon returned from his leave of absence and resumed his position as a member of the Reykjavík City Council. By then, old plans had been set in motion to tear down two old houses on Laugavegur 4-6, to make room for a new building, as early as the beginning of January 2008. Magnússon had made his opposition to those plans very clear, and the preservation of 19th-century houses on Laugavegur had been one of his central campaigning issues, along with the Reykjavík Airport.

As the debate over Laugavegur 4-6 became heated, Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson made a last minute attempt to settle the issue peacefully. He reached an agreement with the contractors who owned the houses that would give the city two weeks to remove the houses from the lot, and put them up elsewhere. At the same time, chairman of the House Preservation Committee said the committee would likely recommend to the Minister for Education that an emergency preservation order be issued for the houses.

Not satisfied, Ólafur F. Magnússon decided to cast his lot elsewhere. 102 days after he orchestrated a new majority coalition in Reykjavík, Magnússon pulled the plug.

Third Coalition
“I will make him an offer he can’t refuse.”
– Don Corleone

Still seething from losing the mayoral chair, Vilhjálmur Vilhjálmsson was quietly waiting in the wings for an opportunity to resume power. At the first sign of trouble between Magnússon and Mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson, Vilhjálmsson stepped in and reopened the talks that he had suspended in 2006.

The revived negotiations proved to be fruitful. On January 24, Ólafur F. Magnússon was announced as the new Mayor of Reykjavík. The Independence Party no longer considered the location of the Reykjavík Airport to be a deal breaker and accepted Magnússon’s demands on the issue. The coalition agreement also stated that the city would buy the houses on Laugavegur 4-6 from the developers, who went on to clear over 250 million ISK from the deal.

Ólafur F. Magnússon proudly claimed that the coalition agreement was 70% based on his issues. The Independence Party’s reversal regarding Laugavegur 4-6 was no less noteworthy than their reversal on the airport. September 4, 2007, when the Independence Party was still a member of the first coalition, the minority proposed that the city would buy the houses, but the proposal was turned down with eight votes from the coalition majority.

For the ordinary citizen, this certainly looked as if the Independence Party had sold out its own campaign issues in exchange for power. During Magnússon’s inaugural meeting in City Council as Mayor on January 24, an estimated 200-400 Reykjavíkians showed up at City Hall to protest. Eventually, the meeting had to be postponed until demonstrators left. Polls showed that the approval rate for the new majority was at a paltry 26%, with 57% claiming that they would rather see Dagur B. Eggertsson as Mayor. A week later, the Mayor’s approval rating was measured to be at 16%.

The Fallout
“When a man assumes a public trust he should consider himself a public property.”
– Thomas Jefferson

The same day Magnússon took over the office of Mayor, Björn Ingi Hrafnsson of the Progressive Party announced his retirement from politics after a mini-scandal broke out in the press over his freespending campaign that saw Hrafnsson buy clothes for himself and aides for nearly 1 million ISK from the party’s war chest.

Mayor Magnússon had his own problems with the press. After refusing to answer questions about his year-long leave of absence, he was finally forced to admit that his health problems were mental, although he did not wish to elaborate. His lack of forthcoming did little to change the public’s trust in him.

Meanwhile, quiet voices of dissent seeped out of the Independence Party core. Apparently, talks with Magnússon had been initiated by two men – Vilhjálmsson and his ally, City Council member Kjartan Magnússon – and settled in one hour. The rest of the party did not necessarily share their enthusiasm, particularly over the airport.

Magnússon, once more, had his own set of problems. He had entered and finished the negotiations without consulting Margrét Sverrisdóttir, his Vice-City Council member, who had no intention of going along with Magnússon’s plan. She remained steadfastly loyal to the previous coalition; leaving Magnússon in a position where he can no longer call in his deputy, say for a leave of absence, since the coalition is, in fact, no longer in majority.

What Have we Learned?
A political convention is just not a place where you come away with any trace of faith in human nature.
– Murray Kempton

After three coalition majorities in Reykjavík in the last 20 months, one thing has become painfully obvious: Politics is not about issues; it is about power. The general public feels betrayed by politicians who don’t hesitate to go back on their word for a little more suction. Maybe the 23% who stayed home on Election Day had it right. There is no point in voting. It only encourages them.

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