Election preview: Iceland

With fewer than a third of a million people spread thinly over a volcanic island at the edge of the Arctic Ocean, Iceland is hardly at the forefront of world politics. But it has possibly the oldest parliamentary system in the world and its recent political history has been rather interesting, so it’s well worth watching as it goes to the polls tomorrow.

Iceland has four big established parties: the Independence Party (centre-right), the Progressive Party (liberal-centrist), the Social Democratic Alliance (centre-left) and the Left-Green Movement (what its name says). With some reshuffling around the last two, their roots all go back to the early twentieth century. For more than a decade the Independence Party and Progressive Party governed in coalition, but after the 2007 election the former joined the Social Democrats in a grand coalition.

That government fell apart under the stress of the financial crisis at the beginning of 2009. The result was a minority government of the Social Democrats and the Left-Greens, which went on to win a majority in early elections in April 2009. It was the first time in its history that the Independence Party had not been the largest party in parliament. The numbers were as follows:

Party Vote Seats
Social Democratic Alliance 29.8% 20
Independence Party 23.7% 16
Left-Green Alliance 21.7% 14
Progressive Party 14.8% 9
Citizens’ Movement 7.2% 4
Others 2.8% 0

 

There have been a few changes since then without altering the basic picture. The Citizens’ Movement has morphed into a new party called “Dawn”, some disaffected Left-Greens have broken away to form splinter parties, and two new parties have attracted significant support: “Bright Future”, a left-liberal pro-European party, and the Pirate Party.

Voting takes place in six multi-member constituencies (three metropolitan and three rural) by D’Hondt proportional representation, with additional levelling seats to produce a generally proportional result overall, although the rural bias slightly favors the more conservative parties. There is also some scope for voters to choose between candidates of the same party. (You can read a report on it here in exhaustive detail.)

By most measures, the government of retiring prime minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir has been pretty successful. The financial crisis has been surmounted and growth has returned; Iceland has won praise from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. But life is still a lot harder than it was in the boom years before the crash, and the opposition parties have been quite shameless – as oppositions often are – in promising that they can bring faster and more painless recovery.

Another division between the parties concerns EU membership. Iceland has long had a close relationship with the EU (including being in the Schengen zone) without actually joining. It applied for membership in 2009, but with the ending of the crisis public opinion seems to have gone cold on the idea (fishing quotas are a major issue of concern). The major opposition parties have promised to halt negotiations until they are approved by a referendum.

The failure to deliver on a promised new constitution has been another factor working against the government.

Opinion polls suggest that the opposition is headed for a comfortable victory, and that the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, who have promised to form a coalition, will have a clear majority between them. (One recent poll is here: the report is in Icelandic, but the blue column is the Independence Party, dark green is Progressive, red Social Democrat. Note the commendable practice of showing confidence intervals.)

If that happens, it will be only the latest in a long line of proofs that economic success is no guarantee of electoral reward.

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