By Ólafur Th. Hardarson (University of Iceland)
Parliamentary elections took place in Iceland last Saturday, September 25th 2021. The government coalition survived with a slightly increased majority. One of the government parties, the Progressive Party, was the main winner of the election, gaining 6.6%. The party of the prime minister, the Left-Green Movement, lost 4.3%, while the third government party, the conservative Independence Party lost 0.8% The biggest loser in the election was the populist Centre Party (-5.5%).
The government victory
In light of Icelandic political history, the government victory in 2021 is remarkable. This was the 30th Althingi election since 1931. Now the government parties jointly gained 1,5% – only the 8th government gain in 90 years. Moreover, since the bank crash in 2008, all governments in Iceland have lost their majority – losing 10-28% of the votes (with the exception of the minority coalition of the SDA and the Left-Greens which was in power for three months before the 2009 snap election after the breakup of the IP-SDA coalition formed in 2007).
The current government was formed in 2017 – and is a highly unusal one, including both the party furthest to the right, the conservative IP, and the party furthest to the left, the left-socialist Left-Green Movement. Katrín Jakobsdóttir became the first left-socialist prime minister in Iceland – and the only left-socialist ever to hold such office in the Nordic countries. Many observers believed that a coalition of such ideological diversity would not survive for long. They were proven wrong. Jakobsdóttir‘s government became the first Icelandic three-party coalition that survived for a full four-years term.
In 2017, Icelandic politics had been turbulent since the 2008 crash. The IP-SDA majority government resigned in January 2009, and was followd by a SDA-LGM minority government for three months. The SDA-LGM majority government 2009-2013 had a difficult time – and was in fact a minority government in its last year, as several MPs had left the government parties, especially the Left-Greens. The government lost badly in 2013, losing 28 percentage points. The PP-IP majority government 2013-2016 had to call fresh elections before the end of the term, following the resignation of Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson, who was included in the Panama papers scandal, and cought lying to Swedish TV about his involvement. The government lost its majority. After the 2016 election, the IP formed a coalition with two new parties, Bright Future and the Reform Party. That coalition broke down within a year when Bright Future left the government, claiming that the IP prime minister Benediktsson had not informed the other party leaders in the coalition on the role of his father in a controversial „scandal“. The government lost its majority in the 2017 election.
When attempts to form a four-party centre-left coalition broke down after the 2017 election, the current government was formed. Its aim was to increase stability in politics, and to invest heavily in infrastructure, such as the health, education, welfare and communication systems – as the economy was in a good shape, having recovered from the 2008 crash.
The government has been successful on many scores. While ideological tensions have occasionally emerged, a great deal of trust between the three party leaders has been obvious.
Opinion polls show that all governments since the 2008 crash lost support early in their electoral terms. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the LGM-IP-PP government seemed to be on the same path. Support for the government was below 50%, and 40-45% for the government parties jointly. Soon after the emergence of the plague, support for the government rose to around 60%, and the joint share of the government parties slowly increased to 45-50%.
The government was generally considered to have done a good job on fighting the pandemic. Concerning anti-Covid health measures, it followed the advice of scientists who held daily briefings on TV, while the government ministers avoided the limelight. Economically, the government greatly increased spending and support to firms suffering from the crisis – in stark contrast to the austerity measures commonly taken during the financial crisis of 2008. On both fronts, the opposition parties largely were in an agreement with the government.
The fight against Covid-19 also removed many potentially divisive issues from the political agenda. Fighting the plague became the most important issue – if not the only one. Left and Right ideologies did not matter in such a fight against a common enemy. Icelanders generally agreed with the scientists and the government response.
Gains and losses of the political parties
Two of the government parties lost votes, the Left-Greens and the IP, while the PP won the biggest victory of the election. The LGM loss was expected. Many of their supporters had been angry over LGM‘s partnership with their conservative arch enemy IP, and two Left-Green MPs had left he parliamentary party during the term.
Only two opposition parties gained votes, the People‘s Party (+1.9%) and the Reform Party (+1.6%). The People‘s Party is a one-issue party, emphasising the elimination of poverty in Icelandic socitety, and a better deal for the handicapped and the elderly. While ideologically close to the centre, the party was competing with the centre-left parties for voters.
Before the election, a new party emerged, the Socialist Party. The party had taken part in the municipal elections in Reykjavík 2018, and had one member elected to the city council. The new Socialists offer full-blooded „old fashioned“ socialism – using terminology not much heard for several decades. Early opinion polls indicated that the party could obtain 6-9% in the election. Their final result was 4.1% – giving them no seats, because of the 5% threshold for adjustment seats (or equalisation seats) in the Icelandic electoral system. This result would have given the party some parliamentary representation in Norway and Sweden (4% threshold), and in Denmark (2% threshold), but not in Germany (5% threshold).
Three of the opposition parties lost votes: the Social Democratic Alliance (-2.2%), the Pirates (-0,6%) and the Centre Party (-5.5%). While this was the second worst result ever for the SDA, the Pirates continued to comfortably survive, having obtained parliamentay seats in 2013, 2016, 2017 and 2021. Only one new party has survived four elections before, the Women‘s Alliance 1983-1995.
The Centre Party lost half of its following. Former PP leader (2009-2016) and prime minister (2013-2016), Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, formed the party before the 2017 election. The party obtained 10.9% in 2017, and 7 MPs – most of the votes coming from the PP and the IP. During the term, two MPs from the People‘s Party joined the CP parliamentary group – having been expelled from their party. The Centre Party has increasingly shown populist tendencies in the last electoral term – some political scientists classify them as a nationalistic populist party.
Just before the 2016 election, the current leader of the PP, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, defeated Gunnlaugsson in a close party leader contest at the PP party convention. In the 2017 election, Gunnlaugsson‘s new Centre Party obtained more votes than the PP. In 2021, Jóhannsson was the greatest winner, Gunnlaugsson the biggest looser.
Fragmentation of the party system
The number of parties in parliament was five after the 2009 election, six after the 2013 election, seven after the 2016 election, and eight after the 2017 election. While opinion polls indicated that this number might become nine in 2021, the final result was eight parties, as the new Socialist Party did not pass the 5% threshold.
From 1931-2009, the four old (or established) parties (IP, PP, Social Democats, left socialists) jointly obtained most often 90-100% of the votes. In 2009 their joined support was 90%, in 2013 75%, in 2016 62%, in 2017 65% – and in 2021 it was 64%. Icelanders seem to have a new and very different party system – that might last.
In 1931-2016, most governments in Iceland were two-party coalitions. In the new party system, such coalitions are not possible. Most three-party coalitions would have to include the conservative IP. A centre-left coalition would need four or five parties. Icelandic parties and party leaders are still learning how to deal with this new reality.
The electoral system gives the Progessives one bonus MP
Until 1987, the Progressive Party was always over-represented in parliament, due to the elecoral system which favoured rural areas. In 1931, the PP obtained just over 1/3 of the votes and almost 60% of MPs. Since electoral reforms in 1959, the PP obtained 1-2 bonus members in all elections until 1987. In 1987, the party however accepted a change in the electoral system that would insure that the number of MPs for each party would correspond to its overall support in the country. The electoral system managed to do this in all elections from 1987 to 2009. In 2013, however, the PP obtained one bonus member (at the cost of the LGM). This has been repeated in all elections since: One bonus member for the IP in 2016 (at the cost of the LGM), for the PP in 2017 (at the cost of the SDA), and for the PP in 2021 (at the cost of the IP).
A change in the constitution in 1999 makes it possible make changes in electoral law, that would guarantee equality beetween parties – since then, such reforms do not need a constitutional change as before. This change was made in order to make necessary corrections to the electoral system easier. All parties claim that they support equality between parties. However, Althingi has not corrected the unequality that has now occurred in four elections in a row.
Breaking the 50% glass ceiling for women – but only for five hours!
When all votes had been counted on Sunday morning, it appeared that 33 women and 30 men had been elected to Althingi. For the first time ever in an established democratic system, women had broken the glass ceiling in parliament – constituting 52% of MPs. This new record was instantly major news in the media all over the world.
But the good news were not to last. Just after noon the same day, it was revealed that a recount in the Northwest constituency had changed this. The recount did not change the number of seats for the parties in the constituency, and it did not change the total number of seats for any party nationally. What changed was the allocation of adjustment seats within parties. Changing a handful of votes in one constituency led to five just „elected“ members losing their seats, while five of their party colleagues entered Alþingi instead. Three of those who left were women, replaced by men. Thus, in the end there were 33 men in the new Althingi, but „only“ 30 women.
In recent years, Iceland has been number one in most international rankings on gender equality generally. It would have been nice to be the first established democracy to elect a parliament with a majority of women. But 48% is not all that bad. Iceland regained the European record of women representation – which had been held by Sweden with 47% since 2018.
The number of women in the parliamentary parties: SDA (67%), Left-Greens (63%), Reform Party (60%), Pirates (50%), PP (46%), IP (44%), People‘s Party (33%), Centre Party (0%).
Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir is by far the most popular politician in Iceland. Surveys before the election showed that more than 40% of all voters prefer her as prime minister in the next electoral term, while only 10-12% of respondents supported her party. Among IP and PP voters, support for Katrín as prime minister was greater than the support for their respective party leaders, Bjarni Benediktsson and Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson.
It is most likely that the current government will continue. The three party leaders have already started informal negotiations. Katrín Jakobsdóttir will almost certainly continue as prime minister in such a coalition.
But there are other possibilities. IP and PP could form a three-party majority government without the LGM. They could include the People‘s Party, the Reform Party or the Centre party insted. SDA and the Pirates declared before the election that they were not willing to take part in any coalition including the IP.
A centre-left coalition would need four or five parties, including the PP. The PP is ideologically closer to the other centre-left parties, at least on many issues. In the campain, the PP emphasised for instance more spending on the welfare system, and increased taxation for the very rich. But in a system where two-party governments have been the norm (and most three-party coalitions have broken up during the electoral term), many leaders think that four- or five-party coalitions may prove to be unstable. In fact, only once has Iceland seen a four-party government, 1989-1991. A three party government was formed after the 1987 election (IP, PP, SDP), but broke down after one year. Then the PP, the SDP and the left-socialist PA formed a government. As the majority was narrow, this government (after one year in office) added a fourth party, the Citizen‘s Party, to the coalition. Co-operation within this four-party government was smooth – with no major disagreements between the parties. In 1991, the Citizens‘ Party disappeared. The other thee parties kept a narrow majority (32 seats out of 63) – but a new coalition of IP and SDP was formed instead.
Photo source: https://21votes.com/iceland-elections/