By Ólafur Th. Hardarson (University of Iceland)
On October 29th 2016, an early election took place in Iceland. This was a result of the revelation of the Panama Papers last spring, which in April lead to the resignation of Progressive Party Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson – his walking out of a TV interview when asked about his wife’s off-shore company had been broadcast on TV stations all over the world. While he was replaced as Prime Minister by his deputy leader, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, and the same government continued, the leaders of the Independence Party and the Progressive Party gave in to mass protest, and promised election in the fall, instead of spring 2017, as planned.
Before the 2016 Althingi election, the world press informed us that a revolution might be in the making: The Pirate Party might become the biggest parliamentary party, and even form a coalition government. This was not to happen. For more than a year, the Pirates were obtaining over 30% in the opinion polls – and were indeed the biggest party. However, their following declined in the last months before the election. Polls just before election day indicated 18-21% for the Pirates. The result was 14.5% – compared to 5.1% in 2013. Pirates now obtained more votes than any party outside the established four had ever done. They became the third biggest parliamentary party. Not a revolution. But the overall results indicated major changes in the Icelandic party system.
Since the formation of the party system 1916-30, four major parties have dominated Icelandic politics: the conservative Independence party (founded 1929), the agrarian Progressive Party, the social democrats (Social Democratic Party 1916-99, Social Democratic Alliance from 1999), and left socialists (Communist Party 1930-42, United Socialist Party 1942-56, People’s Alliance 1956-99, Left Greens since 1999). In most elections since 1931, those four jointly obtained over 90% of the votes, with major exceptions in 1987 and 2013, when their joint share was around 75%. Now this figure was down to 62%. Reminds us of the famous earthquake election in Denmark 1973.
The coalition government of the Independence Party and the Progressive Party lost its majority. Jointly, the government parties lost 10.6 percentage points, obtaining 40.5% of the vote – their second worst result ever. For decades, those two parties polled 2/3 of the vote. However, their fortunes were mixed this time: the Independence Party gained 2.3%, obtaining 29% of the vote, and was the biggest party – but the result was the fourth worst in party history. Since the bank crash in 2008, Icelandic voters have tended to punish at least some government parties harshly: The Independence Party had its worst result ever in 2009, in 2013 the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left Greens lost half of their following, and now it was the turn of the Progressive Party.
The Progressive Party and the old Social Democratic Party were founded in 1916, thus celebrating their centenary this year. They obtained nasty birthday gifts from Icelandic voters: the worst results in 100 years. The Progressives were down to 11.5 – the Social Democratic Alliance down to 5.7%.
The Left Greens now obtained 15.9%, gaining 5% since 2013 – and became the second biggest party in parliament. This result is roughly the mean support for the United Socialist Party and the People´s Alliance 1942-1995. The Icelandic left socialists used to be one of the strongest left socialist parties in Europe, while the social democrats traditionally were among the weakest in their European party family. However, the Social Democratic Alliance had obtained 27-31% in four elections from 1999 to 2009 – becoming the biggest party in 2009.
Parties outside the traditional four now got more votes than ever before (38%). The Pirates obtained more votes than any such party has done previously. The Pirates did not win because of the international pirate ideology – they managed to tap the great distrust in political parties and political institutions that we have seen in the post-2008 crash years. While Iceland has made a remarkable economic recovery in the last eight years, political trust has not been re-gained; anti-establishment feelings are still very strong. The Pirates now focused on a new constitution, increased direct democracy, transparency in government, anti-corruption measures, and a creation of new Icelandic political culture, closer to Scandinavian consensus politics – the style of Icelandic politics has traditionally been more confrontational, as is the case in Britain and the US. In many ways, the Pirates are similar to the Best Party that won 1/3 of the vote in the 2010 local election in Reykjavík – a party lead by Jón Gnarr, Iceland’s most popular comedian at the time, who subsequently became Mayor of Reykjavík 2010-14 in a coalition with the Social Democrats. Both the Best Party and the Pirates have been centre parties on the left-right continuum, socially liberal, tolerant towards foreigners and immigration, and emphasising more conciliatory political culture. Those Icelandic anti-establishment parties thus distinguish themselves clearly from the extreme right, anti-foreigner, xenophobic populist parties in Western and Northern Europe (and the US) – and also from the radical left anti-establishment parties in Southern Europe.
A new party, Regeneration (Viðreisn), made most gains in the election, obtaining 10.5% at its first attempt. This is a new centre-right pro-EU party, advocating radical changes in agricultural, fisheries, and currency policies. Many of its leading candidates are former members of the Independence Party; one of their new MPs is a former deputy leader of the Independence Party and a former government minister. Viðreisn is actually the name of an Independence Party-Social Democratic government coalition from 1959-71 – that greatly liberalized the Icelandic economy at the time, and joined EFTA and acceded to GATT.
Another centre party, Bright Future, lost slightly compared to 2013, but as during most of the electoral term opinion polls had indicated that the party would lose all representation in Althingi, this was at least a successful come-back. In the current coalition formation talks, Bright Future and Regeneration have teamed up, and jointly talk to other party leaders.
Electoral volatility was high. Total net gains of all parties (Pedersen’s index, including all parties – also minor ones – contesting in 2013 and/or 2016) were 31.1, compared to 37.7 in 2013, and 21.3 in 2009. All three net volatility figures are very high compared to most previous Icelandic elections.
The Icelandic coalition game has traditionally been an open one: in principle everybody can work with everybody – there have not been party blocks Scandinavian style. However, before this election, the Pirates, Left Greens, Bright Future, and the Social Democrats, declared that they had a lot in common policy-wise and would attempt to form a government coalition if they obtained a majority in the election. They did not. Having consulted all party leaders, the newly elected president, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, gave the leader of the Independence Party, Bjarni Benediktsson, a mandate to try to form a new coalition. That might be tricky. Since 1991, coalition formations after elections have been quick, and always produced two-party majority governments. Now, such a government is not possible, so a majority coalition would need 3-5 parties. Before 1991, coalition formation talks usually lasted one or two months, even longer.
In Iceland, there is no tradition of minority governments. After this election, however, the Pirates offered to give support to a minority coalition of the Left Greens, Regeneration and Bright Future. If the Social Democrats also supported such minority government – which would be very likely – it would have majority support in parliament. While this possibility is not likely to take place, such a government would be a radical change in Icelandic politics.
Women did their best parliamentary election ever, obtaining 48% of the seats. Women’s share in parliament has been slowly rising since 1979, when only 5% of MPs were female.
Recruitment of MPs was the highest since at least 1931. 52.4% of the new MPs had not been elected in the 2013 election – however some of them have parliamentary experience. In 2009 and 2013 we also saw record recruitment – in both elections almost 45% of MPs were new members. Very few of the current MPs had a seat in Althingi before the 2008 crash.
The 2016 election in Iceland was not a revolution. But in many ways, the changes taking place were the most radical since the foundation of the current party system.
Photo source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/29/iceland-election-voting-begins-with-opposition-parties-ahead-in-polls-pirate-party