Iceland: Early Parliamentary Elections and a New Government

The recent parliamentary elections in Iceland have produced an increasingly fragmented political landscape, and a new government made up out of an unlikely left-right coalition of political opposites.

 

The Independence Party – Decline without Fall? Early parliamentary elections took place in

on 28 October following the collapse of the three-party coalition headed by Bjarni Benediktson (born 1970), the Prime Minister and leader of the centre-right Independence Party. The crisis arose after it emerged that Benediktson’s father had, as part of an established Icelandic legal process, written a letter calling for the ‘restoration of honour’’ to a convicted sex offender. The subsequent allegation that Independence Party members of the government had sought to stage a cover-up this fact prompted the Better Future Party to withdraw from the coalition and trigger the new parliamentary elections. The previous parliamentary elections had taken pace only a year earlier, in October 2016, following the resignation of Sigmundr David Gunlaugson, Prime Minister and Progressive Party leader, after he was named in the Panama papers financial leak. Sigmundr David Gunlaugson had headed the Progressive-Independence coalition government since it ousted the centre-left Social Democratic Alliance led administrationin in the April 2013 elections.

 

The Independence Party entered the October 2017 election race against this background of long-running governmental instability and political scandal. It was widely expected that they would suffer electorally losing support to their centre-left opponents. On polling day the Independence Party gained 25.2% of the vote and 16 parliamentary seats. This represented a fall of 3.8% compared to 2016 and the loss of 5 parliamentary seats.  In spite of these losses, however, the Independence Party remained the largest parliamentary group. The seats lost by the Independence Party also went to new parties on the Icelandic politic scene rather than their established centre-left opponents. The relative durability of the Independence Party’s support, in adverse circumstances, may be attributed to its traditionally strong electoral support base and the positive economic environment currently existing in Iceland. Following the economic crisis of 2008 Iceland has seen a sustained economic recovery with a boom in established economic sectors such as tourisms and diversification into new areas including renewable energy and information technology. Iceland’s economic recovery began under the centre-left coalition government from 2009-2013, but continued under subsequent governments of which the Independence Party was a constituent.

 

The Left Green Movement- Campaigning Without Advancing: The Left Green Movement led by Katrin Jacobsdottir (born 1976), the former Education Minister from 2009-2013, was founded in 1999 as a radical alternative to the centre-left Social Democrats, but had subsequently developed into the main political option on the left of the political spectrum in Iceland. Campaigning on a change agenda and with a popular young leader the Left Green Movement was widely expected to make strong gains in the 2017 elections. Opinion polls undertaken during the election campaign put support for the Left Green Movement in the range of 20 to 28%. On polling day the Left Green Movement secured 16.9% of the vote and 11 parliamentary seats.  This meant that the Left Green Movement had seen only a modest increase in support, of 1% of the vote and 1 parliamentary seat, These results confirmed the Left Green Movement’s position as the leading left-wing party, but left them trailing behind their centre-right rivals in the Independence Party.   

 

The Social Democrats – Bouncing Back: The Social Democratic Alliance led by Logi Mar Einarsson (born 1964) gained 12.1% of the vote and 7 seats in the October 2017 elections. The pro-European Social Democratic Alliance had previously been the largest left-oriented Icelandic political party. In the April 2009 elections the Social Democratic Alliance gained 29.8% of the vote and 20 seats. Johanna Sigurdardottir (born 1942), the Social Democratic Alliance leader, went on to become Prime Minister of the left-wing coalition government. In subsequent elections, however, support for the Social Democratic Alliance went into free-fall. In the 2013 election their vote fell to 12.9% and 9 seats. In 2016 this dwindled further to 5.7% and 3 seats, In this context the 2017 results would appear to mark a modest revival in the fortunes of the Social Democrats and an indication that they remain a significant factor on the political scene.

 

The Progressive Party – Surviving in Spite of Divisions: The Progressive Party led by Sigurdur Ingi Johannson (born 1962), who had been Prime Minister from April 3016 to January 2017, gained 10.7% of the vote and 8 parliamentary seats. These result showed the Progressive Party broadly maintaining its position with the same number of seats as in the 2016 and only a small 0.8% decrease in its vote share. This represented a considerable achievement in view of the fact that in September 2017 at the start of the election campaign Sigmundr David Gunnlaugsson, the party’s former leader, had, in a potentially highly damaging move split off from the Progressives to form his own political party. The election result left the Progressive Party occupying a powerful position as an acceptable coalition partner for both the Independence Party and the Left Green Movement.

 

The Centre Party and the People’s Party – New Players on the Political Stage: These elections saw the arrival of two new political parties in the Icelandic parliament: the Centre Party and the People’s Party. The rhetoric and policies of both of these parties have a strongly populist orientation. The votes and seats lost by the Independence Party in this election were largely lost to these political newcomers rather than their established opponents. The Centre Party was formed by Sigmundr David Gunnlaugsson (born 1975) following his pre-election departure from the Progressive Party. On polling day the Centre Party gained 10.9% of the vote and 7 seats, This put the Centre Party slightly ahead of the Progressive Party in terms of votes but with 1 less parliamentary seat. The People’s Party led by Inga Saeland (born 1959), a lawyer and former X-Factor contestant, focuses primarily on campaigning for improved conditions for the poor and disabled, along with occasional attacks on refugees and immigrants. In the October 2016 elections the People’s Party, which had been founded earlier that year, gained 3.54% of the vote and failed to clear the electoral threshold. Opinion surveys undertaken in the run-up to the October 2017 elections showed the People’s Party polling on around 10%. On election day the People’s Party secured 6.9% of the vote and 4 parliamentary seats.

 

The Restoration Party: Still in the Game: The Restoration Party, led during the election by Benedikt Johannesson (born 1955), Finance Minister in the 2016-2017 government, was founded in May 2016 by a pro-EU grouping within the Independence Party. In the October 2016 elections the Restoration Party gained 10.9% of the vote and 7 parliamentary seats. The Restoration Party was part of the coalition government from 2016-2017. In the October 2017 elections the Restoration Party lost seats, but maintained a parliamentary presence. They secured 6.5% and 4 MPs. These losses by the Restoration Party appear to be part of a wider movement in these elections away from pro-EU parties. After the elections Benedikt Johannesson resigned as party leader and was replaced by Jorgerdur Katrin Gunnarsdottir (born 1965), who had previously been Vice-Chairman of the Independence Party and Minister for Education, Culture, and Science.     

 

The Pirate Party = Taking on Water: The Pirate Party was founded in November 2012 by Birgitta Jonsdottir (born 1967), an activist and poet, as an anti-establishment party with an emphasis on direct democracy and on-line and off-line transparency. It had links to Pirate parties with similar agendas in other European countries. In the April 2013 elections the Pirate Party entered parliament with 5.1% of the vote and 3 MPs. In the October 2016 elections, with attention focussed on revelations from the Panama papers, support for the Pirate Party surged. The Pirate Party gained 14.49% of the vote and 10 parliamentary seats. After these elections it briefly appeared that the Pirate Party would emerge as the leading party in a new left-oriented coalition government. The Pirate Party, however, proved unable to make the necessary compromises and the initiative for forming a new government passed back to the Independence Party. The Pirate Party was led into the October 2017 by Halldora Mogensen (born 1979) who had been elected as an MP in the previous year. In these elections support for the Pirate Party declined. They gained 9.2% of the vote and 6 parliamentary seats. The Pirate Party, although still maintaining a significant party presence, had lost a section of their support to newly arrived insurgent parties.

 

The Bright Future Party – Does it Have a Future? The liberal and pro-EU Bright Future party led by Ottar Proppe (born 1968), the Health Minister and a former rock musician, had precipitated the October 2017 elections when it walked out of the coalition government. Bright Future did not, however, profit from the elections which it had brought about. It gained only 1.2% of the vote, and lost all of the 4 seats that it had previously held. Following this poor election performance Ottar Proppe resigned and his place was taken by Bjort Olafsdottir (born 1983), the former Environment and Natural Resources Minister. She will face the difficult task of reviving Bright Future’s political fortunes now that it has been reduced to extra-parliamentary status.

 

The Process of Post-Election Coalition Building: In the immediate aftermath of the elections Bjarni Benedikton stated that as leader of the largest parliamentary party he was ready to take responsibility for the construction of a new Independence Party led coalition government. On 2 November, however, Gudni Johannesson (born 1968), the Icelandic President, gave Katrin Jacobsdottir, the leader of the Left-Green Movement a mandate to form the new government. Katrin Jacobsdottir initiated inter-party discussions between her Left Green Movement, the Social Democratic Alliance, the Pirate Party, and the Progressive Party. The talks, however, soon broke down reportedly over the Progressive Party’s contention that with the support of only 32 MPs in the 63 seat parliament the proposed coalition’s majority would be too narrow to be viable. The focus of negotiations then shifted to securing a coalition deal between the Left Green Movement, the Independence Party and the Progressives. The decision by the Independence Party leadership to negotiate with the Left Green Movement received broad support from the party membership. Within the Left Green Movement there was by contrast significant opposition to working with the Independence Party. Two Left Green MPs, Andres Ingi Jonsson (born 1979) and Rosa Bjork Brynjolfsdottir (born 1975) declared that they would not support any agreement that was made with the Independence Party. On 28 November, however, Katrin Jacobsdottir met with Gudni Johannesson to inform him that negotiations with the Independence and Progressive Parties had been successfully concluded. He responded by formally giving her the mandate to form a government on the basis of this agreement.

 

The New Left-Right Government – A Formula for Stability or Instability? The new Icelandic government, which was presented to the public on 30 November, is headed by Katrin Jacobsdottir as Prime Minister with the Left Green Movement also taking responsibility for the ministries of Environment and Health. Bjarni Benediktson became Minister for Finance and the Independence Party, as the largest parliamentary grouping, was also assigned the ministries of Foreign Affairs, Justice, Fishing and Agriculture, and Industry, Innovation and Tourism. The Progressive Party were allocated the ministries of Transport, Education, and Welfare, and Local Government. The leaders of the coalition parties have suggested that the broad nature of the left-right coalition will allow them to restore a degree of coherence and unity to the governance of Iceland which has been notably lacking in recent years. This contention may seem to be counter-intuitive. The fact that the coalition brings together political and ideological opposites may instead be a source of instability. There does, however, at this stage appear to be significant will amongst the participants to make this unlikely coalition work. Katrin Jacobsdottir is a popular figure with appeal to voters across the political spectrum. Bjarni Benediktson was also, in his comments during the presentation of new government notably inclusive emphasising that; ‘all Icelanders will enjoy the benefits of this agreement both with regard to social and general prosperity.’ It should also be borne in mind that the broad ideological similarity of the coalitions which took office after the elections in 2013 and 2016 provided no guarantee of their stability. The new heterogeneous coalition government may therefore, against the odds, prove to be unexpectedly durable.

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