24th Mar 2018


Iceland's not-so-quiet revolution

  • Protests were once limited to the fringe element. Not any more. (Photo: Art Bicnick)

If the predictions are to be believed, a key player in Iceland's next government will be a movement whose main platform is a campaign for internet freedom, capping a total transformation of the country's political system over just three years.

The Pirate Party – which also wants a new constitution and more direct democracy – seems likely to get around 20 percent of the vote in Saturday's (29 October) general election under the leadership of poet and activist Birgitta Jonsdottir. And two other recently formed parties are predicted to account for another 15-17 percent.

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The shift has been swift and dramatic.

Iceland's four main parties have usually accounted for 90 percent of the vote in general elections. In 2013, their share fell to 75 percent. On Saturday, they face a completely new reality. According to polls, they will get just 55 percent.

All in all, a record 12 parties are in the running, up from five or six. Seven are expected to get representation, also a record It's safe to say that the times are changing.

Financial crash fallout

There are three main reasons for this swift change. The first, and most obvious one, is the financial meltdown of 2008.

When the economy crashed alongside the over-hyped and much inflated Icelandic banking system, public trust in core institutions, and especially its political structure, plummeted.

Despite a swift, and almost miraculous economic upturn during the last two governments – one a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Left-Greens, the other a coalition of the Independence Party and the Progressive Party – Icelanders' faith belief in the political system has not increased.

In December last year only 11 percent said they trusted the Parliament.

No more gatekeepers

The second reason is the information and technology revolutions that we are living through.

With the internet, smartphones and social media everybody that was willing became a part of the debate, which before was something that primarily belonged to a exclusive club of elites.

The gatekeepers that controlled the debate for decades did not control it any more. Everyone could participate and like-minded people could organise through social media platforms.

Icelanders began turning up in the thousands to protest in front of the Althingi when something was not to their liking.

And the protesters where not just radicals wanting to revolutionise the way Iceland is run. They were people from all layers of society that were fed up with nepotism, corruption and decision-making processes that did not include asking the people what they thought.

A prime ministerial scandal

Thirdly, there was the Panama papers scandal. It is the reason Icelanders are voting in October and not in April, when the current term was supposed to run out.

The papers revealed that 600 Icelanders had owned around 800 offshore companies that Panamanian legal firm Mossack Fonseca had set up for them.

The decisive factor was that the leaders of the government were amongst those named.

Prime minister David Gunnlaugsson, from the Progressive Party, owned a company that had millions of euros of assets registered in the British Virgin Island.

He had not disclosed that he had owned the company in question, or that the company was a creditor in the estate of the failed Icelandic banks, which the government was working on resolving.

Furthermore, Gunnlaugsson lied in an interview when asked about the firm. He resigned on 6 April.

Both the leader and deputy leader of the Independence Party where also in the Panama Papers.

So the most likely outcome of the general election next weekend is that a four party centre-left government, that includes the Pirate Party, will come into power in Iceland.

But if the last few years have taught us anything it is that things can change quite dramatically in a very short period of time. Especially on the Icelandic political stage.

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The Left Green Movement was leading in polls until very recently - but now surveys suggest the Independence Party, historically Iceland's largest, will remain the lead party in government following Saturday's elections.

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