By Ólafur Th. Hardarson (University of Iceland)

An Althingi election in Iceland took place on October 28th 2017 – only a year after the 2016 election. In September, Bright Future decided to leave their government coalition with the conservative Independence Party, and the new right-of-centre Reform Party. Bright Future claimed that a serious breach of confidence had taken place within the majority coalition. Instead of the political parties seriously trying to form a new government, Prime Minister Benediktsson asked the President to call for fresh elections. He announced the dissolution of Althingi on Sept. 18th.
Eight parties managed to enter Althingi this time – a record number in modern Icelandic politics. Bright Future – which had MPs first elected in 2013 – lost all their members. Their standing had been very poor in the opinion polls for months. Two parties entered Althingi for the first time: the People‘s Party which first ran in 2016, and the new Centre Party, founded by former Prime Minister and leader of the Progressive Party, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. Gunnlaugsson had been forced to resign as Prime Minister in 2016, due to the Panama papers scandal. Later that year he lost his leadership post in the Progressive Party to Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, who had succeeded him as Prime Minister. Gunnlaugsson was never-the-less re-elected as a Progressive MP in 2016. Having been relatively isolated in the parliamentary party, he decided on Sept. 24th 2017 to leave the Progressives and form a new party. One sitting Progressive MP – also a government minister 2013-16 – decided to follow him to the Centre Party, and became an MP for that party in 2017. One more of the new Centre Party MPs had served as a Progressive MP 2013-16. Three out of seven Centre Party MPs in 2017 were thus previous Progressive MPs.
Increasing number of parties in Althingi indicates a party system in a continuing flux. Another indicator of a changing party system is that now the four major forces of Icelandic politics since the 1930s – the conservatives (Independence Party), the rural-based centrist Progressive Party, the Social Democrats (Social Democratic Alliance since 1999), and the left socialists (Left Greens since 1999) – now only obtained jointly 64.9% of the votes. In 2016, the traditional four obtained jointly 62.1%, and around 75% in 2013 and 1987. In all other elections since 1931, their joint share has exceeded 85% – in most cases the four received more than 90% of the votes. Net gains of parties or net volatility (Pedersen‘s index) was now 21.7%, compared to 31.1% in 2016, 37.7% in 2013, and 21.3% in 2009. Previously, this figure had only once exceeded 20% – in 1987. Net volatility in Iceland has however been relatively high compared to many other countries since 1971, most often above 10%.
Once more, the outgoing government was harshly punished in the election. Blooming economy and many positive indicators did not help. The Independence Party obtained 25.2% (-3.8%) of the vote, and lost five seats. This was the party‘s second worst result in history. Reform obtained 6.7% (-3.8%) and lost three seats. Bright Future only got 1.2% (-6%) of the votes and lost all of its four seats. The total joint loss of the government parties was thus -13.6% and the third worst loss of government parties in modern history. Since 1931, government parties have jointly only gained votes in seven elections out of 29 – but lost votes 22 times (even though in some cases not all parties in government suffered a loss). Since 1963, government parties have only jointly gained votes in one election. Since the 2008 crash, four successive governments have lost around 10% or more. The Social Democrats and the Left Greens hold the national record in this respect: They are the only government to finish a whole four year term since 2007 – and lost jointly 27.7% in the 2013 election. During their 2009-13 electoral term, the economy had however started to recover after the 2008 crash – and the left-wing government had closely followed an IMF program. The positive economic signs did not help them – and they also had many difficulties.
The Centre Party did very well, obtaining 10.9% of the votes and seven seats. This is the best result for a new party in its first election (outside the four-party format) in Icelandic modern history.
The Progressive Party got 10.7% (-0.8%) – its worst result ever. Due to disproportionality in the electoral system, they kept their eight seats, while the Social Democrats only had seven members elected with 12.1%. However, the Progressive result is generally considered a „defensive” victory – as many PP-members had followed Gunnlaugsson to the new Centre Party. According to Gallup, the Centre Party gained rather similar number of votes from the Progressives and the Independence Party, and most of their votes in 2017 came from those two parties.
The Social Democrats ended up with 12.1% (+6.4%) and gained four seats. This was however their second worst result since 1999, and slightly lower than the disastrous 2013 result of 12.9%. From 1999 to 2009 the party obtained 27-31% of the votes – and became the largest party in the 2009 election after the crash – in all other elections since 1931, the Independence Party has had most votes.
The Left Greens obtained their second best result since 1999, now obtaining 16.9% (+1%) and gaining one seat. However, during the early campaign, opinion polls had indicated that the party was supported by 20-30% of the voters. The Left Greens kept their standing as the second largest party in Althingi.
The Pirate Party obtained 9.2% (-5.3%) and lost four seats. However, they are now represented for the third time in Althingi. No party outside the traditional four have managed to survive for more than four terms, most of them for only one or two. Before the 2016 election, the Pirates had been obtaining around 1/3 of the votes for almost a year (arousing great interest in international media) – but ending up with 14.5% and becoming the third largest party in Althingi. Now they occupy 6th place.
The People‘s Party obtained 6.9% (+3.4%) and its first Althingi representation with four MPs. The party has some left populist overtones, especially calling for end of poverty, better share for the handicapped and old people in the welfare system, and a ban on inflation-indexed loans. In the beginning of the campaign, the party was accused of being anti-immigrant like the Nordic right-wing populist parties. The party however did not play that card in the campaign. Latest opinion polls before the election expected the People‘s Party to obtain 4-4.5% – and thus be below the 5% threshold needed for compensatory seats. Many observers think that the performance of its leader in a party leader debate on Public Television in the evening before polling day tipped the balance. Inga Sæland is an unconventional politician with quite a charisma. At the end of the leader debate she burst into tears, as she explained her high hopes for improvement in the conditions of the disadvantaged in society – and the extinction of poverty in Iceland.
Only 1.5% of voters did not get any representation in Althingi this time („wasted votes“). In 2013 this was the case for 11.8% of voters – causing some worries – and 5.7% in 2016. In most elections since 1931, this number has been below 5%.
Turnout in 2017 was 81.2% – a slight improvement from 79.2% in 2016. While high in international comparison, the turnout in 2016 and 2017 was the lowest in all Althingi elections since 1942.
The number of women elected to Althingi was 38.1% in 2017, compared to a record high of 47.6% in 2016. This is the lowest figure since 2007. Women representation in Althingi has been roughly linearly increasing since 1979, when it was 5%. Now the number of women differed greatly between parties: Progressive Party 62.5%, Left Greens 55%, Reform 50%, Social Democrats 43%, Pirates 33%, Independence Party 25%, People‘s Party 25%, Centre Party 14%.
In 2017, 19 of the elected MPs had not been elected to Althingi in 2016 (but quite a few had previous parliamentary experience). This amounts to 30.2% recruitment in only a year. Since the 2008 crash we have seen record recruitment figures in three elections: 52.4% in 2016, and 42.9% both in 2009 and 2013. Very few current MPs had seats in Althingi before the crash. The longest serving current member, however, has been an MP since 1983.
Now a coalition formation process is taking place. Two days after the election, the President had formal talks with all eight party leaders. At the time of writing (Nov. 1st) the President has not yet appointed a formateur to lead formal negotiations, but he is likely to do so in the next few days. Informal discussions between the parties are however taking place. Three possible majority coalitions seem most likely at this stage – while several other scenarios could also take place.
The outgoing opposition parties, Left Greens, Progressives, Social Democrats and Pirates, obtained the smallest possible majority of 32 seats. That is by many considered too small majority. A Finnish-type oversized coalition is therefore being seriously discussed at present – adding Reform, or the People‘s Party, or both – to such a coalition. Since the Second World War, only one oversized government coalition has been formed (1947-49). All other governments have been minimal winning coalitions, except for four minority governments, serving only for 3-11 months. Such a development would therefore be a radical break in Icelandic government formations.
A second possibility is a coalition of the Independence Party, the Progressive Party and the Left Greens. The Progressives seem to favour such a coalition, as well as some MPs from the Independence Party. While it is possible that the Left Greens would consider joining such a coalition, a large part of the grass-root seems to strongly oppose this possibility, especially in the capital area.
A third possibility is a coalition of the Independence Party, the Progressive Party, the Centre Party, and the People‘s Party. A major disincentive for forming such a coalition might be the strained relationship between the leaders of the Progressive Party and the Centre Party – who both have served as Prime Ministers and leaders of the Progressive Party. Besides the leader, many Progressives seem to be reluctant to take part in a coalition government with the Centre Party. Other Progressives see such a move as an attempt of conciliation between the two parties.
In 2016, the coalition process was complicated and difficult. Then a new coalition was formed after many formal negotiation rounds between the parties, that lasted for more than two months. Some observers think this might also become the case now. But history does not always repeat itself.

Photo source: