Party time

Analysis | With 12 parties vying for seats in Iceland’s Alþingi this week, power will ultimately be decided in a game of coalitions

My favourite party game: charades (File photo: Klængur Gunnarsson)

Not since 2008-9, when Iceland’s notorious banking crisis and kreppa (economic downtown) began, have national politics on the island been so tumultuous. As Iceland readies itself for parliamentary elections on October 29, probably the only point which can be agreed upon is that the vote will mark a significant shift in the country’s political landscape. Yet it remains an open question as to which direction the turn will take. All 63 of the Alþingi’s seats are up for contention, and given the current trends in national politics, it is unlikely that any single party would be able to form a new government without forming a coalition.

Undoubtedly the most significant aspect of the upcoming election was that it was not supposed to happen this year at all. The next parliamentary vote was supposed to take place in April 2017, but political events earlier this forced a change in the timetable. The decision to move up the date came after Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson of the Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn) was forced to step down as prime minister as a result of revelations in the Panama Papers that he, his wife and other members of his government had previously undisclosed overseas tax arrangements.

Fellow Progressive Party member Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson was selected as replacement PM, and, at present, a centre-right coalition of the Independence (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) an Progressive parties continues to govern. However, for a country of about 332,000 people, Iceland is not lacking in political parties representing much of the political spectrum, and a few which have been difficult to classify.

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Recent polls have been erratic in terms of which of the 12 parties contesting the election are in first place, but for the most part the two groups receiving the most support have been the Independence Party and the upstart Pirate Party (Píratar), which was only created in 2012. The Left-Greens (Vinstrihreyfingin-Grænt or ‘VG’), a social-democratic and environmentalist movement, jumped to third place in recent surveys.

The Pirate Party has developed a platform based on direct democracy, civil rights, information rights and the need for improved free-speech and privacy policies. Their foreign-policy stance is less defined, but the party has called for a direct referendum on potential Icelandic membership in the European Union, which has been a delicate and politically charged issue in the country for several years.

Considering that the core support of the Pirate Party is solidly among younger voters, in stark contrast to the Independence Party, and given their considerable differences in policy stances, a coalition between the two groups would be unlikely at best. Moreover, it was recently announced by the Pirate Party that it would eschew any co-operation with either the Independence or the Progressive parties, and would instead wish to construct an alliance of other opposition parties, likely from the centre and left.

Among the newer parties also seeking a greater presence in the next Icelandic parliament are Bright Future (Björt framtíð), a centrist, environmentalist and pro-European party, and Regeneration (Viðreisn) which was formalised in May of this year after its members broke from the Independence Party out of protest for the coalition government’s controversial choice not to hold an EU membership referendum.

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The Regeneration Party has also ruled out any power-sharing with the two coalition parties after the election. With these recent promises not to co-operate, the probability of a complicated process of coalition-building after the vote has become much higher.

The to-do list for the next government is not short, and includes many domestic or international issues. Locally, while the Icelandic economy has recovered greatly from the kreppa, further bolstered by the meteoric rise of the tourism industry, however other issues such as a persistent housing crisis, public service (including healthcare) quality, and discord in the country’s fishing industry, which may prompt a strike in November, remain concerns.

The international scene is also looking more complicated of late, with Iceland’s relations with the EU a major font for political debate, but there is also the question of how to deal with a post-Brexit United Kingdom. Lilja Alfredsdottir, the foreign minister, recently suggested that Britain might be welcomed back to the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), after the UK left that grouping in 1972.

As well, a closer security relationship with the United States, expanded trade with China after the 2013 free trade agreement, the on-going opening of the Arctic region to shipping and other economic activity, and questions about Russian military activities in the Arctic and North Atlantic are high on the agenda.

The author is a senior research fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI) in Oslo.

Originally published by The Arctic Journal. Re-published here with the permission of the author.

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