Municipal elections are a great opportunity for immigrants to participate more in the democratic process. You don’t need to be a citizen to vote, and you, therefore, don’t need to be a citizen to run. While much of the most important legislation pertaining to immigrant rights is handled on the national level, a lot of the city-level issues that hit Icelanders hard hit immigrants even harder.
Take, for example, housing. This is a huge subject in Reykjavík right now, as many Icelanders are feeling the pinch in a lack of affordable places to live. This applies to everyone. However, immigrants are a lot more likely to rent, rather than buy, a property, and the rental market right now is prohibitively expensive. We must also remember that refugees and asylum seekers also receive a great many services from their municipalities, and there is a dire need for great improvement in this area.
Clearly, things need to change. This is why it’s encouraging to see so many immigrants running for Reykjavík City Council. Even if the parties to which they belong put little emphasis on immigrant-specific issues, our having representation can make all the difference.
All that being said, there isn’t much else that’s really different about this municipal election season in Reykjavík from years past. Once again, it’s basically down to the Social Democrats versus the Independence Party; the same binary conflict that Reykjavík has had to contend with for decades now. There’s a lot of new parties running, but either way, it looks like we’re headed for a council led by one of these two parties. Again.
Out in the countryside, things are much different. And much more interesting.
It’s a little-known fact to most new arrivals that in Iceland’s rural, sparsely-populated areas, individual candidacies are very common. This means instead of voting for political parties, people in these regions vote for individuals and their individual platforms. In any modern city in the world, this would be a radical form of direct democracy. In the Icelandic countryside, it’s business as usual.
When parties do run in rural communities, it is quite common for these parties to be specific to the community. Parties such as Ísafjörður List, Akureyri List, and others have platforms that pertain more to issues that their specific community is facing rather than some overarching ideology. It’s refreshingly unhinged from both left and right.
Wild, Wild Country
This system, however, can be taken advantage of. The most recent and fascinating example is happening right now in Árneshreppur, a region on the north coast of the Westfjörds that was home to 53 people. But then, over the course of a 10-day period, 18 more people suddenly changed their legal residence to Árneshreppur. Why? Likely because of a planned power plant at Hvalá river—most locals support it, most environmentalists oppose it.
Moving the legal address of a mass of people into a remote area in the hopes of tipping votes in favour of a particular issue definitely evokes shades of ‘Wild, Wild Country’, the Netflix documentary about the Rajneeshpuram community in rural Oregon. Things in Árneshreppur will likely play out less tragically. National authorities are investigating.
The Árneshreppur controversy is certainly grabbing headlines in Iceland, but Icelanders have also very astutely pointed out that former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, amongst numerous other parliamentarians, have also moved their legal addresses to rural districts while spending most, if not all, their time in Reykjavík. This has led many to the understandable conclusion that, once again, things that common people do that authorities crack down on can be done by the rich and powerful with impunity.
Safe, predictable Reykjavík
Here in Reykjavík, things are a lot more boring. It’s interesting that, contrary to most other western countries, things are considerably predictable in the urban area while dynamic in the rural areas.
This isn’t to say we don’t get our share of controversy in Reykjavík. Some politicians on the city level have used xenophobia as a ploy for votes, and even Reykjavík City Council didn’t come out unscathed from the Panama Papers scandal.
For the most part, though, things are fairly predictable and uneventful in Reykjavík politics. As a Baltimore native, I take this as a blessing. There’s plenty that needs changing and improving, but at least, for now, we remain a relatively sleepy seaside town in the North Atlantic. And that’s just fine.