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News review: A Changed Political Scene?

News

News review: A Changed Political Scene?

On May 12, Icelanders will choose a new slate of 63 members of Althingi, Iceland’s parliament. This winter the debates between the political parties have been particularly harsh, likely because of the upcoming election. The members who support the government stress that “we have never had it so good,” while the opposition members contend, “we could have had it so much better.”

By Benedikt Jóhannesson

The elections will be the first test for Prime Minister Geir H. Haarde, who took over as chairman of the Independence Party (Sjálfstaedisflokkurinn) in October 2005. He was Minister of Finance from 1998, until he became Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2005. In a surprising turn of events, Geir H. Haarde became Prime Minister in June 2006 when Halldór Ásgrímsson abruptly resigned after the Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn) lost heavily in local elections.

According to the latest polls, the Independence party has the support of 36 to 40 percent of the electorate, up from 33 percent in the 2003 elections. This would give the party 24 to 27 members in Althingi, two to four more than it received in the last elections. Both Geir H. Haarde and the vice-chairman of the Independence Party Thorgerdur Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, Minister of Education, won convincing victories in their primaries last fall, with over 90 percent support within their party.

Jón Sigurdsson, the chairman of the Progressive Party, a coalition partner seems to be fighting an uphill battle according to opinion polls. Jón Sigurdsson was previously Director of the Central Bank and had not been active in politics when it was announced that he had accepted the post of Minister of Industry and Commerce in June 2006. This is unusual in Iceland since almost all ministers are chosen from among the members of Althingi.

After Halldór Ásgrímsson announced he would resign as head of the Progressive Party, Jón Sigurdsson said he would be willing to shoulder the responsibility. At a special convention of the Progressive Party Sigurdsson was elected party chairman. He will be running for a seat in Althingi on behalf of the Reykjavík constituency.

Gudni Ágústsson, Minister of Agriculture, vice-chairman of the Progressive Party, won a solid victory in the primary in his constituency in the south. In 2003, the Progressive Party earned around 18 percent of the vote but now stands at 10 percent, according to polls. This would seem to be bad news, but in fact it is more support than the party has received in polls for the past two years. This would give the party only six or seven members in Althingi, a 50 percent decrease since the last election.

If this were the outcome of an election, the majority of the two ruling parties would, at best, be narrow with 33 out of 63 seats in Althingi. This has certainly made the opposition somewhat optimistic, although they also have problems of their own. The coalition government has been in place since 1995, longer than any other government in Iceland. Now the three opposition parties could possibly have a majority after the election. However, only one of them is gaining support, according to polls.

The Left-Green Party (Vinstri graenir) was formed almost single-handedly in 1999 by Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, former member of the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin). In 2003, the party had five members elected to Althingi. It currently has 16 percent support, which would translate into 10 to 11 seats in Althingi. Earlier in the spring the party had almost a quarter of the electorate supporting it but since then that support has been eroding.

Environmental issues have been often discussed in the last four years. The hydroelectric power plant at Kárahnjúkar has been very controversial and there has been growing opposition to the expansion of aluminum plants throughout the country. The Left Greens seem to have gained from this, and it also seems to cater to those who might previously have supported the Progressive Party.

The Social Democratic Alliance won four seats in the last elections to Althingi. In 2003, the party made the unusual move of nominating Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir as their candidate for Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is not elected directly, and since the Alliance was not part of the majority coalition Gísladóttir did not get a seat in the cabinet. She did not get a seat in Althingi either, losing by a few votes.

At that time she had been mayor of Reykjavík for nine years, the first left-wing mayor to be reelected in Iceland’s capital. In 2005, Gísladóttir was elected chairman of the Alliance, winning two thirds of the vote against sitting chairman Össur Skarphédinsson. She became a member of Althingi in 2005 after one of her colleagues resigned.

If the opposition wins majority in the elections this spring there will be a difficult debate as to whom should become Prime Minister. Gísladóttir has previously said that it would be natural for the largest party to lead the coalition. The Gallup poll reveals a 24 to 25 percent support for the Alliance and 16 members in Althingi, a loss of four from the current term. This would significantly weaken the party.

The third opposition party, the Liberal Party (Frjálslyndi flokkurinn), has been very active this winter. In the fall some of its members began to voice opposition to the growing number of foreign workers in Iceland. This seemed to appeal to a number of voters and support for the party went up in opinion polls. However, this did not please the founder of the party, Sverrir Hermannsson, or his daughter Margrét Sverrisdóttir, who had been the party’s manager.

At the Liberal Party’s convention, Sverrisdóttir ran for vice-chairman and lost to Magnús Thór Hafsteinsson. Hafsteinsson had the support of chairman Gudjón Arnar Kristjánsson. After the convention Sverrisdóttir and a number of her supporters left the Liberal Party and said that they were contemplating forming their own party. In the latest polls the Liberal party has about 5 to 6 percent support which would give it three or four members in Althingi. After the 2003 elections the party only had four seats.

A slate comprised of senior citizens and the disabled have decided not to run for election. For a while it seemed that there might be two such parties, but they have since joined forces (Baráttusamtökin) and eventually withdrew from the race.

Environmentalists in the Iceland Movement (Íslandshreyfingin), a group led in part by TV personality Ómar Ragnarsson and writer Andri Snaer Magnason, has joined forces with Margrét Sverrisdóttir and fellow entertainer, Jakob Magnússon, band leader of Studmenn, a popular group in Iceland for more than 30 years. The movement has about three percent support in the polls and would not get any elected members to Althingi.

The landscape changes from day to day, but we can be assured that a very exciting election is ahead.

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