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A Quizzical Mandate in a “Phony Democracy”

Iceland’s Crippling Elections

by JOSE M. TIRADO

With 94.8% of the votes tallied, Icelanders last night handed the governing coalition of the Social Democrat Alliance and the Left-Green Movement a crippling defeat, turning over the reins of power right back to the same coalition which wrecked the economy 5 years ago: the Independence Party and the Progressive Party. 26.7% of the electorate backed the Independence Party and 24.4% voted for the Progressives, both center-right institutions, with deep interests in the banking sector, the “sea barons,“ and the agricultural companies. (The governing coalition together barely topped 20%: the Social Democrats received only 12.9%, the Left-Greens 10.9 %.)

Several smaller parties formed this election season, mainly on the populist-left side of the aisle (though a Right-Green Party received 1.7%) and they began gathering and splitting with predictable regularity. For example, Dögun or “Dawn” received 3.1% but lost members to “Democracy Watch” (2.5%), “The Household Party (3.0%), and the “Pirate Party” (5.1%) with the latter winning 3 seats, in the 63 seat unicameral legislature. Yet, though making up almost 20% of votes cast, the total of left/reformist groups will not be reflected in any significant parliamentary power.  This now leaves the center-rightists, who already control the economy, to water down the newly created people´s constitution as they have openly pledged, and to further enrich their own small band of ship owners, bankers, and crony capitalists.

So, how did this happen?

Well, in what might look to outsiders as a decisive rejection of left-of-center ideas, the election yesterday demonstrates that when the left moves right, it will lose. Initially chosen by a populist uprising to turn the country´s catastrophic economy back on the right track (the “Pots and Pans Revolution”), the Social Democrats and Left-Greens began with fairly widespread support to prosecute the elite banksters who´d turned Iceland into a casino of speculation and wild spending. After a fitful start, some indictments were served and some easing of the burdens on working families appeared on the horizon, though taxes were raised. But former foes of EU membership in the Left-Greens began to quizzically tout joining the union as a direction the country should seek. This was already a policy of the Social Democrats and thus questionably, while in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, the reformist coalition was busy pursuing EU membership—a questionable solution never supported by most Icelanders anyway. In addition, they were seen as bailing out banks while promising to investigate and prosecute wrongdoers, dragging their feet on mortgage relief, and giving support to the same big, nature destroying aluminum smelting projects the Independence Party has always favored. Raising the already sensitized hackles of average Icelanders who only wanted some debt relief and jobs, the foundation for the coalition´s decline was set.

Gradually, as the new government adopted austerity measures typically recommended by the IMF, their popularity began to drop and a low-key wistfulness for the good old days began returning, with the public souring on the new government weekly.  “They (the reformist governing coalition of Social Democrats and Left-Greens) ‘saved’ the economy by giving more bailouts to the banks instead of helping the average family” said one friend, active in “Democracy Watch”.  “They spent too much time  stupidly considering the EU over directly challenging the existing power structures” he continued. So, as soon as they saw this opening (the independent spirit of Icelanders being pricked by fears of foreign domination) the Independence Party then capitalized on the situation with their erstwhile junior partners jostling for position to reverse the traditional coalition pairing if they won. The Progressives hammered the airwaves and newspapers with promises to erase household debt. The die was cast and Icelanders, being willing to throw the latest bums out, again, did so with a vengeance, picking the only other available group of bums to right the very same wrongs they were initially responsible for. “It´s just like a mafia” my friend added, bleary-eyed after a night of election watching with fellow travelers, “Nothing´s going to change, except that the new Constitution will die and more people will leave the country. We´ve lost doctors and other professionals to Norway and this will continue” he added.

When I mentioned that Iceland appeared more like a “crony democracy” to another friend, he responded, in clever English, “this is not crony democracy, it´s phony democracy”.

The Progressives do share at least some slightly center-left ideas with the Social Democrats but the fear now is that, having firmly promised to give relief to homeowners struggling under mountainous debt, they too are doomed to fail. And if so, this may bring about yet another political collapse, possibly even more crushing than the last. “We are a stupid people”, said a friend, “we want to believe the Progressive Party will lead the coalition and deliver on their promises, but no one wants to admit that the numbers don´t add up and that this too, is going to end badly. The whole system is fucked.”

Rev. JOSÉ M. TIRADO is a poet, priest and writer finishing a PhD in psychology while living in Iceland.