The election on Saturday could be historical in more than one way. The left-wing parties that form the current coalition government won a clear majority. Both parties strengthened their position in Althingi, Iceland’s parliament.
This would seem to be a clear indicator that the two parties would continue their cooperation into the new term.
However, there are some issues on which they disagree profoundly. This was not a big problem in the caretaker government that was formed in February. Now the parties have to agree on a plan for reconstructing the economy and, in some ways, Icelandic society. Here real differences arise.
The Social Democratic Alliance of Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir placed application to the EU at the forefront of their campaign. The prime minister clearly said that an application for membership must be sent to Brussels in June.
Time is of the essence here because in July Sweden will take over leadership of the EU for six months. They have promised swift action on the matter. Nobody disputes that this helped the Social Democrats greatly in their campaign.
The Left-Green Movement, on the other hand, has clearly said that no such action is possible this summer. Party leader, Steingrímur J. Sigfússson, has answered the question on membership application with a resounding: no!
All things held equal, this would probably lead the coalition to agree on some fuzzy language on the matter, saying that it would be looked into in various committees, informal inquiries sent to Brussels, and that at some time in the distant future the issue might come up again. Many thought they saw signs of such talk in answers that the prime minister gave on the eve of the election.
However, all things are not equal. All indications suggest that there is a clear parliamentary majority for immediate application. The Progressive Party has declared that Iceland should apply for membership. The party has nine members in Althingi, adding two in the election yesterday.
A new group in Althingi, the Civic Movement, also wants to apply for membership. They have four new members in parliament. This means that the parties support application have a total of 33 members in Althingi (20 in the Social Democratic Alliance, 9 in the Progressive Party and 4 in the Citizen’s Movement).
The opposition parties, the Independence Party which suffered its worst loss and has 16 seats, lost nine, and the Left-Green Movement with 14 seats (gained five), a total of 30.
The Left-Greens took a very harsh stand against membership, especially at the end of the campaign. Polls had indicated that the party was likely to receive close to 30 percent, making it the largest party, which would have given party leader Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, a strong claim for the leadership role in the coalition.
This seemed to strengthen his resolve not to give in on the issue. The outcome seems to indicate that the party lost at least five percent support in the final days of the campaign.
Still, there are some members of the newly elected slate of the Left-Greens that seem likely to support a membership application, including Reykjavík City Councilmember Svandís Svavarsdóttir and economist Lilja Mósesdóttir.
The Independence Party was severely “punished” at the election polls. The party had been in power for 18 years before the crash in October. It has been accused of inaction, corruption and making wrong decisions in the past, especially on privatization.
The party chose a new leader a few weeks before the election, but did not seem to be able to shake the image of being unduly influenced by big corporations that had given freely to the party a few days before the laws on political contributions changed.
At the recent party convention the Independence party reiterated its previous stand against EU membership. This has alienated the party from some of its traditional supporters, since many leaders in the business community have expressed the opinion that it is vital for Iceland to apply for membership, so that the recent freefall of the króna can be stopped and that the international community regains its faith in Iceland.
In the campaign, party leadership softened opposition against Europe by declaring that Iceland should adopt up the euro unilaterally, with the support of the IMF. While many doubted that the plan is feasible, it shows that the party no longer sees Iceland’s future with the króna. There had been some talk of taking up the US dollar or Norwegian króna, but both seem to have been put aside.
Many of the members of Althingi elected on behalf of the Independence Party also seem unlikely to vote against an application being sent to the EU. Probably between seven and nine members of the Independence party slate would vote for the application.
This means that a measure for sending an applying for EU membership to Brussels in June seems likely to receive the following support
The Social Democratic Alliance: 20 out of 20 The Progressive Party: nine out of nine The Civic Movement: four out of four The Left-Green Movement: two out of 14 The Independence Party: eight out of 16
Total members of Althingi: 43 out of 63
This seems to indicate that there is a clear majority for immediate action on the matter. Politicians have shown remarkable ability to forget their promises the day after the election.
However, it seems likely that if the Social Democratic Alliance does not demand immediate action on the matter, that it might face serious internal problems. Many newly elected members stated before the election that they would support no government that does not start the EU application process immediately.Click here to read more about Iceland and the EU.