Election preview: Iceland

I mentioned the other day that assuming Labour’s Jonas Gahr Støre becomes prime minister in Norway, the five nordic countries will all have left-of-centre prime ministers. But for that to happen, Iceland’s Left-Green prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, has to survive her country’s election on Saturday.

Reader J-D correctly pointed out that although it has a left-wing prime minister, Iceland doesn’t have a left-wing government. In fact the government, in office since the end of 2017, is an odd compromise that resulted from the unusually fragmented parliament returned in the early election of October 2017.

Iceland isn’t very big; about 200,000 voters return 63 members to the single house of parliament (from six multi-member constituencies), with a 5% threshold. Nonetheless, eight different parties won seats last time. After an unsuccessful attempt to construct a four-party centre-left coalition, the three largest parties* agreed to work together: the centre-right Independence Party (18 seats), the Left-Greens (11 seats) and the centrist-agrarian Progressive Party (eight).

The government has stuck together, helped in the last 18 months by the pandemic, which has delivered the customary boost to incumbents. Opinion polls show both the Independence Party and the Progressives now back to about the same levels of support as last time (having both been well down at the beginning of last year); the Left-Greens are not doing as well – some of their voters were clearly unhappy about teaming up with the centre-right – but in the low teens they could still hold on to second place.

There’s been some shuffling of the other parties, but only the People’s Party, a populist group focused on disability rights, looks in danger of dropping below the 5% mark. On the other hand the new Socialist Party is likely to enter parliament; it is polling in the high single figures. So putting together a majority coalition is not likely to be any easier than it was last time.

It will be touch and go as to whether the current governing combination retains its majority; if it does, it seems quite possible that it will remain the best option, despite its ideological breadth. Failing that, a centre-left coalition may again be attempted: the Social Democrats, Left-Greens, Pirates and Socialists will form a substantial bloc, currently polling over 40% in aggregate. The addition of either the Progressives or the liberal Reform Party would almost certainly deliver them a majority.

That would leave the Independence Party, almost invariably the country’s largest party, out in the cold for only the second time in a generation (this post from 2013 gives some of the background). But the fall in support for the Centre Party, Iceland’s closest thing to a far-right party, makes a right-of-centre coalition hard to imagine.

Although it’s small and remote, Iceland’s politics is representative of many of the trends in Europe as a whole: the increased number of players, the rise and (maybe) fall of the far right, the more modest but sustained rise of the far left, and the crisis of the traditional centre-left, often associated with the rise of the Greens.

Those themes are to be played out on a much larger stage the following day in Germany. We’ll have a look at that tomorrow.

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* Largest, that is, in terms of seats: the Progressives were actually outvoted last time by both the Social Democrats and the Centre, but won eight seats to their seven each. The system is malapportioned to favor rural areas, and although there are at-large levelling seats there are not enough of them to fully correct for the imbalance.

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