From Iceland — Between The Two Towers: The delicate balancing act of Óttarr Proppé

Between The Two Towers: The delicate balancing act of Óttarr Proppé

Published February 5, 2017

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Baldur Kristjánsson

Óttar Proppé is an unlikely politician. A bleach-blond, flat-capped figure dressed in 70s-style garb, he first entered the public consciousness as the frontman of the legendary Icelandic rock band HAM, and later as a backing singer in the Eurovision contender Pollapönk, and the punk outfit Rass. Something about his mannerisms, his look and and his general quirkiness indicate that he’s not from cut from the usual pinstriped cloth.

grapevine_ottarproppe_webIt’s equally hard to imagine him as a rock star. In person, Óttarr is a quiet and unassuming fellow who chooses his words carefully, often tentatively circling his point before getting there. His foray into the world of politics was almost accidental, and he attributes it to a 2010 phone call from former Reykjavík mayor and comedian Jón Gnarr. “He got this crazy idea and called me up to join in with the Best Party,” recalls Óttarr. “I’m not sure I would’ve done anything without that prompt.”

That said, Óttarr contends that he’s always been, to some degree, politically minded. “I was brought up in the punk movement and the anarchy movement of the 80s,” he says. “It was about putting your fist up to The Man, but also championing the individual’s rights in this society.”

After getting settled into his new role as a politician, he soon realised that politics was “more natural” to him than he’d previously imagined. He also realised he wanted to take a different approach than his political predecessors. This led to the formation of the Bright Future party in 2012. Bright Future began as a relatively marginalised opposition party, but after last October’s elections and weeks of coalition talks, it’s has been thrust into the spotlight as one of three parties in Iceland’s new governing coalition.

This situation has placed Óttarr the unenviable position of trying to reconcile Bright Future’s differences with Iceland’s right-wing parties—the Independence Party and the Reform Party—while, at the same time, maintaining working relations with Iceland’s leftist parties. As the ruling coalition has a majority of exactly one seat, this delicate balancing act will be crucial to Iceland’s government being able to function.

How does Óttarr plan to do this? Can the formula hold? And, as Iceland’s new Minister of Health, how will he confront the challenges he will face overseeing what is one of the most pressing issues on the minds of Icelandic voters?

What does Bright Future stand for?

I think Bright Future’s name is self-explanatory in many ways, in that Bright Future is set up to be a liberal democrat party that is looking towards the future, trying to distance itself from special interests, fighting for reforming and opening up systems and ways of working in politics. It’s a product of the crash and the reaction to the crash, not only in Iceland, but worldwide, that politics and official political power had become the realm of a select group and interests, while a lot of people were being left out. I think this is a common feeling. We’ve seen a decrease in voting in the last decades, where a lot of people feel disenfranchised; that politics have become the domain of certain types of people working through certain forms of parties that were quite richly set up. This process is not only disenfranchising, but also limiting to itself. So I think the crash itself, and the creative reaction of Icelanders to the crash—because we didn’t have the culture for an actual violent revolution—this opened up the idea that if we’re not going to burn everything down and start building from the ground, at least we can shake it all up and try to work it in different ways.

Given that Bright Future was formed with the intent of shaking things up and pushing back against special interests, do you find it difficult then to be in a coalition with a party associated with crony politics and catering to the wealthy?

In some ways, it is strange to be in power, and to be in a coalition. Bright Future was set up with a strong sense of responsibility. Not only striving for influence for the sake of having influence, or holding all the strings. That is to say: politics is not only about power, but about the responsibility of government. We discussed this within the party, that we would stand up to this responsibility of trying to form a government. So how do you do that? By negotiating, and getting an agreement with other parties that obviously have a different platform, culture and history. You say the Independence Party has a history of being associated with cronyism. But is also has a history of being the largest, most popular party amongst Icelandic voters, and they have been for a very long time. So in that way, the party has other elements.

I understand that. It’s just that when you talk about shaking things up, a new way of running Iceland, to join up with a party that is literally the status quo…

Well, that is the question, because I’d say the Independence Party is not necessarily literally the status quo. In the joint platform that we made in this government, we see a lot of liberal thinking, and a more deliberate will for a more open and consensus-based way of working in politics than we’ve seen before. And this is not only my interpretation. All three parties agree on this. So I think that’s the reason we took part in forming this government. A large majority of our party voted to go this way, with the expectation and the belief that the agreement we reached is progressive, and it is the base for the government.

That said, this agreement is the end result of eleven weeks of political talks between not only these three parties, but pretty much all parties in Parliament. We’ve been seeing a shake-up of the powers in Icelandic politics that have been quite strong since at least the late 70s; what we call here the “two towers of government”—the Left tower and the Right tower. They have fought, and most of the time, one of them has ruled and the other has been in opposition. But this election shook that up, with the Pirates, the Reform Party and Bright Future coming in quite strong. Parties formed after the crash, in response to the failure of the old cronyism of Icelandic political parties. So I think that in the end, this new government with this most traditional of Icelandic parties, the Independence Party, but at the same time two new parties, formed and informed by a lot of new political thinking, is also the result of a deeper political discussion than before, because these two traditional towers have been denied to us.

I’m sure you’re aware that Icelanders on the left have been less than satisfied with how things played out. Do you understand where they’re coming from? Do you think it’s a part of this “two towers” binary?

I think part of it is, yes, but part of it is also a dissatisfaction that there’s less change than people were hoping for after the crash. The crash made it possible to have different and very strong feelings in Icelandic politics; feelings that had almost been thought of as impolite. Especially in the years leading right up to the crash, when dissenting politics were very much frowned upon, as you may remember. So there’s been dissatisfaction with how slowly this change has been going. How constitutional reform hasn’t been realised. I can well understand this. But I think the point we’re missing is that since the crash, we’ve had two different governments; a leftist government and right-wing government. Both of them have tried to impose their strong will onto the situation, their own ideas of change, without opening up to the fact that it’s hard to reach past this sense of what is acceptable in Icelandic politics, even if you manage to get some kind of majority for it. Change needs to come from a majority, but also needs to take into account the 49% that are not in power. The minority has the right to be a part of the discussion. It has a voice that needs to be listened to. I think that’s one of the guiding lights for the politics of Bright Future—this idea of working with others, and trying not to impose our “brilliant ideas” onto others, but being conduits for what a broader consensus would look like.

That certainly makes sense, and it looks like whether you like it or not, you’ll have to work that way, having a majority of just one seat.

Exactly, and I’ve said it before that I think we actually have a chance now of working politics more across the aisle. I think the fact that there’s a thin majority makes it more necessary. I think that’s an opportunity for everybody. I’ve been in talks with everybody across the political spectrum in these last months, and everybody is thinking about this same thing. I think all parties have been talking about this, and have realised the need for this change. Doesn’t mean that it’ll happen naturally, or that everyone will agree on exactly how it is done. Obviously, everyone will have their own ideas on how to do it or how not to do it. And probably we will have to fight about how to become friends. But I think there is a possibility, and that’s what I read from the election results. That the voters were telling us to get away from the old way of doing things.

ottar-small_webMoving on to your position as Minister of Health. We all know this is a burning matter in the hearts of most Icelandic voters. What is your vision for improving the healthcare system in this country?

My vision is partly set out in the joint platform, and it is the only issue that was put forward as a priority. The voters are there, and I think all the parties are there, too. The concept that healthcare should be universal, and that private costs should be reduced, that we need an investment in the system is obvious, especially with building the new hospital. But also, we need to look at the health system holistically. We need to invest in primary care. We also need to incorporate mental health care. We need to do what the McKinsey report on the healthcare system advised, that is to look at the whole system and how it works not only to address serious illness and hospitalisation, but also be preventive and be the backbone of a healthier life for everyone. I could sit here for half an hour and tick off points that need to be addressed. But this is my bigger vision.

Why was this position important to you? Why healthcare?

For me, personally, simply because I take very seriously the idea that working in politics is a service job, and it should not be a career. Maybe I take a lot of that from having attended high school in the US, but I love this idea of government for the people, by the people; that politicians should be representatives and not have a personal agenda. So my thought has always been to take on jobs in fields where fate sends me. I also find that the nerd in me finds it’s good to immerse yourself in something that you’re not necessarily an expert in beforehand. The reason I chose health is that it’s at the forefront of what people are thinking about. It basically touches everyone, directly and indirectly.

With all the reform and changes that need to be done, especially with this emphasis on a universal and egalitarian healthcare system, where is this money going to come from?

Well, that of course is the eternal headache of the politician.

Certainly, but Iceland has some of the lowest taxes on corporations in Europe. Yet I didn’t notice any plans in the platform for raising taxes, so I presume this money is going to come from elsewhere. So is privatisation, or private management, of healthcare going to be a part of this?

Privatisation is not a driving force here. Actually quite a lot of Icelandic healthcare is already run outside the government, mostly by independent NGO-like organisations. Increased privatisation is not a deliberate agenda of this government, but at the same time, we are not against different forms of providing service. That the tax system is there to help fund government services is strongly set forth in the joint platform. So from there, our big headache is to put the money where our mouth is. That’s basically what we’ll have to be working on over the next few months.

One thing that has gotten a very positive response with regards to Bright Future is where environmentalism is concerned. I think a lot of Icelanders are used to seeing heavy industry being a fundamental part of the Icelandic economy. Do you believe that the age of heavy industry in Iceland is coming to a close?

I do. What keeps me going in Icelandic politics is I tend to be very optimistic, whether I have reason to be or not. A new field, tourism, which not so long ago was frowned upon as almost like a hobby or a side project, actually became the largest pillar of the economy. Tourism has actually proven that Icelandic nature is not only worth saving for ethical reasons, but also simply because it makes economic sense, and it’s a way of taking a longer view of things. I think we are actually starting to see a change in mindset, not only within a select group of environmentalists or academics, but everyone is open to more possibilities. There’s a lot of rethinking about environmentalism in Iceland, in part because we’re seeing how the rest of the world views Iceland. We’re seeing how climate change is affecting Iceland, so that’s also a driver there.

I’m glad you brought up tourism. It’s gotten to the point where even tourists are complaining about too many tourists. A recent three-year projection from Arion Bank showed that the number of tourists will continue to increase, but the revenue that we get for it will precipitously fall. What is this government going to do to prevent basically repeating the mistake of 2007, and having another bubble burst?

I think there are many answers to that. I think we need to take charge in trying to have more of a say in the number of tourists here. There are many ways to do this, with infrastructure, and possibly taxation. There needs to be more coordination in the whole tourism industry. These are the first issues. We actually don’t have a set policy as to how we want to see the tourism industry develop when it comes to numbers, the spread over the country, or the environmental footprint and effects on the housing market. Costa Rica has done quite interesting things when it comes to organising its tourism industry—they deliberately decided to emphasise ecotourism. I think we have a lot of great opportunities here that cannot be based on an ever-escalating number of tourists coming in, but has to be in some way managed. These are very pressing issues, and if we don’t take charge of them, they will take charge of us. You can’t manage it totally, but you can definitely help point it in the right direction.

Lastly, going forward, with all of Bright Future’s emphasis on being able to work with other people, are you optimistic that the opposition parties will work with you?

I’m always optimistic, and I am hopeful, because deep down, I think we need to work in that direction. I think we in the government parties want this very much—to work on a broader base. But then again, I realise that for us to work together, everyone has to want to do this. I think one of the major disappointments of the previous government for those of us in the opposition was that even when we wanted to work together, it wasn’t necessarily appreciated or wanted. But I am truly hopeful, because I think that’s what the voters were telling us. I think none of us politicians can afford to deny that the result of this election was not “only this” or “only that,” but it was some sort of “bit of this” and “bit of that.” I don’t want to be dramatic, but I think it would be the right thing to do.

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