They say you want a revolution?

Analysis | A new day has dawned on Icelandic politics. It is not the one many were waiting for

(Photo: Marc Lanteigne)

Marc Lanteigne

The dust is still settling on one of the most unique elections in Iceland’s history, but already there are more than a few surprises in the results thus far, especially in regards to the two parties, representing the old and the new in the country’s political landscape, which were leading in the polls.

The dyed-in the-wool Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn), one of the two parties in the previous centre-right governing coalition which took office in 2013, confounded many predictions (and naysayers) and actually boosted its support and its seat count. The Independence Party, led by Bjarni Benediktsson, received 29% of the vote and 21 seats in the 63-seat Alþingi. This placed the party in the best position to be given the first opportunity to form the next government.

The Pirate Party (Píratar), which was the focus of considerable international attention due to its rapid rise, newness and anti-establishment stance, fell short of popular expectations, coming in third. The Pirates may have peaked too soon, and might have suffered from a low youth turnout and voter hesitation about the depth of its policy platform, but it nonetheless more than tripled its seat count (to ten), and very much left its mark on the election and will likely continue to greatly influence the next government, even if it is not included the eventual final coalition.

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There were other winners after the vote, especially the Left-Greens (Vinstrihreyfingin – grænt framboð) which benefitted handsomely from an eleventh-hour boost in the polls to land in second place with almost 16% of the vote and 10 seats. The nascent Regeneration Party (Viðreisn) could celebrate not only winning its first-ever seats (seven) but also being poised to be a kingmaker for the next coalition government, due to its centrist policies and by standing apart from the centre-right and centre-left political constellations which were forming before the vote.

The clear also-rans were the Progressives (Framsóknarflokkurinn), the other partner in the previous coalition, which appeared to take brunt of popular anger of the Panama Papers affair earlier this year. Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, then leader of the Progressives, was forced to step down as prime minister in April in the wake of that scandal. As well, the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin-Jafnaðarmannaflokkur), posted its most unsuccessful results in its long campaign history.

Since none of the parties gained enough support to govern with a majority, another coalition will be essential to form the next government. The unprecedented four-party alliance of the left announced just before the election (Pirates, Left-Greens, the centrist Bright Future (Björt framtíð) and the Social Democrats) may not be strong enough, or stable enough, to form such a coalition without additional help.

However, a new centre-right alignment, (Independence-Progressive-Regeneration), could be more viable, but the Regeneration Party had expressed its reluctance before the voting to align with the two previous officeholders. Moreover, another coalition fronted by the Independence Party and the Progressives would be a disappointment to the many voters who were hoping for a new political direction after a difficult year of scandal and frustration with the previous Independence-Progressive bloc.

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Other configurations might be possible, even between Independence and the Pirates, (although the latter pledged that it would not seek partnership with the former), or some sort of left-right ‘grand partnership’.

On one hand, the success of the Independence Party demonstrated that was premature to declare a new political revolution in Icelandic politics. The Independence Party’s good fortunes came despite its notorious history with both the 2008 banking and financial crisis and the Panama Papers scandal this year. However, the appearance of several parties this year and the success of many of them in the polls would suggest a diversification of political views in the country and at least some erosion of the traditional party structures which have long dominated the system.

As well, early fears about a record-low voter turnout proved to be largely unfounded, as subsequent figures suggested that over 79% of eligible voters cast their ballots. The stage is now set for the coalition-building process, and a final verdict as to whether this vote represented the political watershed which many in Iceland were looking for.

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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