Iceland’s New Dawn
The numbers are in and they are decisive. The longstanding, corporate-right forces of the Independence Party, known here as Iceland’s “Republicans”, have received a trouncing at the polls. With 100% of the vote tallied, the Social Democratic Alliance (moderate Socialist) won 29.8% of the vote (55,758 votes) and their partners the Left-Green Movement (Socialist-Green-Feminist) 21.7% (40,580 votes).
Together they will now have 20 and 14 seats in the Parliament, or Althingi, respectively; 34 out of 63 total. The new Citizen’s Movement (left-populist) received 7.2% of the vote, garnering 4 seats. The former ruling Independence Party received 44,369 votes, shockingly losing 9 seats. Their support in the country has never been this low. Their former coalition partners, the Progressive Alliance (center-Right) gained only 2 seats.
The fact that the Independence Party received less than 4000 votes over the Left-Greens signals a sea change in how Icelanders view their country and what should be done to take them out of the ruin imposed on them through 18 years of Independence Party and Progressive Alliance (mis)rule. While pre-poll surveys suggested even higher votes for the Left-Greens, this still remains a huge victory for them. Steingrimur Sigfusson, leader of the Left-Greens will probably remain as Finance Minister and his principled opposition to EU and privatization of resources will keep his voice, and party, in the forefront of all major decisions in the days ahead.
Another significant change is the rise of the Citizen’s Movement, a brand new populist based group that arose out of the “pots and pan revolution” which toppled the right wing government this past winter. This new group will now have 4 seats in Parliament bringing the number of left-populist ministers to 38 out of 63. Iceland will now have one of the most Left-oriented governments of any of the industrialized Western nations. (And special note should be made that 43% percent of the parliament are now women, including the Prime Minister.)
Is this a coup for the Left? Possibly. European Union membership is now the big issue, and unlike most of the Parliament, the Left-Greens are not in favor. Is this a big victory for the people against the moneyed interests who have ruined the world economy? Definitely. Without engaging in too much hyperbole, this next government will take office reflecting a new era of populist revolt against the policies embodied by speculative banking and investment, emblematic of the past 20 years or so in public policy around the world. Don’t let anyone tell you that 300,000+ people can’t signal a shift that might have repercussions for the US. At 1/1000th the population and a far more homogenous society than the US is, it might at first appear so. But looks can be deceiving.
Icelanders took to the streets with grit and determination following revelations that their ruined economy was driven into the ground by self-serving politicians interested more in hobnobbing with celebrities and selling off the country’s resources to the highest bidder than in advancing the people’s best interests. The people decided (in their typically reserved Icelandic manner) that enough is enough and nonviolently toppled the establishment in just a few short months. The people withheld their support, obstructed the governance of the country, and demanded completely new elections. They got all of that and more. A whopping 85.1% of eligible voters voted yesterday, an indication of Scandinavian civic-mindedness, to be sure, but also an indicator of how mobilized the people were.
Whether the new governing coalition can deliver considering the extremely difficult circumstances plaguing the world economy will not be easy to say. Some key differences within the newly certified governing coalition will make solving their problems a bit more complicated than one might at first suspect, given the uniformly positive support the broad Left has received. For example, the Left-Green Movement, unlike the Social Democrats, opposes attempts to join the European Union, which may have siphoned votes from the Independence Party which has also historically opposed the EU. Thus, the Social Democrats, who favor EU integration, will need to proceed cautiously (although the Citizen’s Movement and Progressive Party also favor EU entry). And should EU membership be advanced out of the Parliament, another election will need to be held with a nationwide referendum on EU membership taken.
While a majority in the new Parliament favor EU entry, (even some Independence Party members now support it) the country as a whole is split on this issue but Icelanders aren’t known for impulsively acting on urges (which is partly why the people were so mad at the former government) and will debate this issue carefully. There are pluses and minuses either way. Joining the EU will affect Iceland’s fishing and immigration policies, among other things, and they are in no position to demand concessions considering their precarious financial condition.
But many Icelander’s seeking long-term stability view safety in EU numbers. Either way, major decisions about social service spending, repayment of debt, ensuring unemployment benefits, and restructuring the banking system, while investigating the shenanigans which brought them into this mess in the first place, will be the first tasks ahead. Thus, Jóhanna Sigurdadóttir, the acerbic but viewed as incorruptible Prime Minister, will have her hands full.
For now however, the morning after is quiet as hangovers are nursed and a new era dawns for this republic of Vikings tenaciously clawing their way back into solvency and 21st century relevancy. One can only hope the Left in the US learns something about coalition-building and sustaining mass-based popular movements against government policies that benefit the wealthy few over the many.
Rev. JOSÉ M. TIRADO is a poet, priest and writer finishing a PhD in psychology while living in Iceland.