Late last night, Iceland’s coalition government – led by the Independence Party and supported by Bright Future and the Reform Party – collapsed when Bright Future opted to leave the coalition. Today, Iceland is facing the prospect of early elections, less than a year from our last round of early elections in October 2016, which were themselves sparked by a scandal that made international headlines.
Making sense of the chaos means taking a look at the key elements and players involved in this government crisis.
“Restored honour”. This is a controversial legal procedure available to those who have already served a sentence for a serious crime. People seeking restored honour may only do so after five years have passed from the end of their sentence. The procedure is typically sought by those who desire to work in a profession where a criminal record would preclude them from having a job, such as in being a lawyer or a member of parliament. Those seeking it out require, amongst other things, letters of recommendation that vouch for the character of the applicant.
Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson. This man was convicted of rape in 2004, after having raped his own stepdaughter almost daily for 12 years. He applied for restored honour and received it last August. This prompted the press and members of parliament alike to ask who had vouched for Hjalti’s character. However, the Ministry of Justice, which processes applications for restored honour, refused to release this information despite repeated requests. Ultimately, a parliamentary committee came to the conclusion that the Ministry had gone beyond the bounds of the law to keep this information a secret, compelling the Ministry to make it public.
Benedikt Sveinsson. The father of Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson. It came to light that it was in fact Benedikt who had provided a letter of recommendation for Hjalti. While Benedikt denies writing the letter himself, he did admit to signing it.
Why was this bad? Because it turns out that Minister of Justice Sigríður Andersen told Bjarni last July that his father had provided this letter, yet Bjarni concealed the matter from the general public and from his coalition partners alike. Sigríður and Bjarni also both hail from the Independence Party. In fact, it appears as though many members of the Independence Party knew about this, but again, refused to disclose this information to anyone.
Bright Future. Last autumn’s elections were incredibly contentious. Seven parties were voted in, and months were spent trying to form any kind of coalition. At long last, the Independence Party, the Reform Party and Bright Future struck a deal, forming a majority of exactly one seat. Bright Future faced harsh criticism for the move, as they have often billed themselves as a party of change and new work practices. Their association with the Independence Party did not do them any favours in terms of popular support, either; the most recent Gallup poll has them at an abysmal 3.7%, effectively taking them from four seats to exactly zero seats if elections were held today.
As such, the revelation that not only Bjarni Benediktsson but the Independence Party as a whole had effectively lied to their coalition partners proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, prompting Bright Future to announce late last night that they were leaving the coalition.
So what happens now? Every single party in the opposition is now on board with new elections (UPDATE 17:11: Bjarni has confirmed elections will be held as soon as possible). These elections might be held next month, or they might be held next spring. As municipal elections are also scheduled to be held next spring, this may prove complicated, and there appears to be strong political will to hold the elections as soon as possible. In the meantime, no party appears willing or able to hold together a ruling coalition for the Independence Party.
When elections will ultimately be held will likely be decided in the coming days.