Reykjavik, Iceland – Iceland heads to the polls on Saturday with 10 parties on the ballot and amid a dark shadow of corruption. Here is everything you need to know:
In a word – corruption. Iceland is holding parliamentary elections for the second time in just under a year after the government collapsed in September, following a scandal by the governing Independence Party.
This follows close on the heels of the collapse of the government a year prior in 2016 when Iceland’s then Prime Minister, Sigmundur Davio Gunnlaugsson of the Progressive Party, was the first political casualty from the fallout of the Panama Papers after it was revealed that he had been keeping a secret offshore bank account.
Tackling corruption in government is again a leading force in the elections, as it was last year.
“Trust in the parliament and the system as a whole continues to be the deciding factor,” says Oktavia Hrund Jonsdottir, who is running for the Pirate Party in East Reykjavik, “without it efforts to form government will be difficult.”
But it is unclear how public outrage at the latest scandal will translate at the voting booth. Most Icelandic voters are concerned with quality of life issues, particularly healthcare and the cost of housing.
Tourism is booming in Iceland, but the windfall has driven up the cost of living, and young Icelanders in Reykjavik can’t afford to buy a home.
Political corruption, including the blatant failure of parliament to ratify the new post-crash constitution, has trumped economic recovery in the minds of many voters
The distribution of natural resources, particularly fishing rights for the country’s mainstay – cod – is also an important issue, as is ratifying the new constitution that was written five years ago, but remains to be adopted.
“Political corruption, including the blatant failure of parliament to ratify the new post-crash constitution, has trumped economic recovery in the minds of many voters,” says Thorvaldur Gylfason, Professor of Economics at the University of Iceland.
“The strong opposition of the Independence Party to the new constitution, mainly to please its paymasters among the oligarchs in the fishing industry but also, more generally, to preserve the status quo across the board, frustrates many of their traditional voters.
“The Independence Party has become the face of Iceland’s political corruption.”
If the Independence Party loses this election, it will likely be viewed as a referendum on corruption. In this charged international political climate where every election is seen as a referendum on Trumpism, many will be watching which way Iceland goes.
Strategically positioned between Europe and North America at the edge of the Arctic Circle, for a country of only 324,000 people with no army, Iceland often plays an outsized role on the world stage.
Iceland led the global economic collapse in 2008. It was a refuge for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange where he spent time working on WikiLeaks. It is a country that has seen several major corruption scandals in the past decade, including ties to Trump Soho through investments by the FL Group.
Iceland is also the oldest parliamentary system, dating back more than 1,000 years. The country is a world leader in women’s rights, boasting the highest status of women of any country according to the World Economic Forum’s gender gap index, and has the largest percentage of women in parliament of any country without a quota system – 48 percent.
The country has a strong environmental movement, running almost entirely on renewable energy, and a strong direct democracy movement. The constitution was re-written by crowdsourcing input from the public, and the young populist Pirate Party party has 15 percent of parliamentary seats.
In September the Bright Future party pulled out of a centre-right coalition government, forcing snap elections, after it was revealed that Benedikt Sveinsson, the father of the Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, had written to the Ministry of the Interior a letter of support to “restore the honour” of a convicted pedophile.
The entire affair, kept out of public sight, was uncovered by members of the Pirate Party and the Left-Greens after another controversial “restoring the honour” in a sexual abuse case gained public attention.
Iceland’s Parliament, called the Althing, is comprised of 63 representatives who are elected from six provinces by proportional representation. Voting is done by paper ballot, avoiding the pitfalls of potential electronic vote hacking and fraud that the United States is now contending with. The election is set for Saturday, but voting has been open for several weeks in various locations.
The president of Iceland, Guoni Johannesson, who is elected in a separate voting process, gives the mandate to form a government typically to the party with the most votes. The centre-right Independence Party has led the Parliament for a great majority of the past 73 years that the country has been independent.
That’s the question many voters keep asking themselves.
“It’s what people are familiar with”, or “it’s how their parents voted”, is how most people explain the steady support for the Independence Party.
During the run-up to last year’s parliamentary elections, international interest was piqued by the possibility that the Pirate Party would take over after they started polling far ahead of the pack. But the Pirates ended up finishing third behind the Independence Party and the Left-Greens, with 10 parliamentary seats.
President Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson gave the mandate first to the Independence Party, then to the Left-Greens, then to the Pirates. All were unsuccessful in forming a coalition government. After three months, the Independence Party finally put together a coalition with the Bright Future and Reform parties.
Icelanders often say everyone in Iceland is an artist or poet, and during this election cycle it feels like almost everyone is running for office. There are dozens of small parties across the country, and new ones form every year. There are 10 parties on the ballot for Saturday.
The question many Icelanders are asking themselves is not who will win, but who they should even vote for. And, of course, there are apps to help. One app, provided by RUV, the state TV channel, allows users to select answers to a series of questions about the issues, and then the app ranks which party the user most closely aligns with. The app has had more than 100,000 views.
Those expected to pick up most seats in parliament are the Left-Greens, the Independence Party, the Progressive Party, the newly formed Midflokkurinn or Middle Party formed by former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davio Gunnlaugsson – who left the Progressive Party and is now promising to buy a leading bank and hand out shares to everyone – and the Pirate Party.
Public sentiment for change has propelled the Left-Greens, led by Katrin Jakobsdottir, into a strong early lead. But in recent polls, the Independence Party has come back with a slight lead. It is unlikely a single party will win an outright majority on Saturday, which will probably mean another coalition government, and perhaps months of political wrangling to get there.
Whoever takes power will have a lot to contend with. Because of the snap elections, there is no budget yet for 2018, and a number of groups are planning to strike in reaction to the massive 40 percent pay rise that was handed down to MPs and government bureaucrats following last years elections.