Election time by Quentin Bates

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It’s election time in Iceland, once again.

There was a Presidential election in the summer when Guðni Th. Jóhannesson was chosen as Iceland’s brand-new president. There are people in Iceland who had never known any other president than Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson who had been Bessastaðir’s incumbent for twenty years and who has finally stepped down, some way past his sell-by date in the eyes of many Icelanders.

There’s a new family at Bessastaðir these days, with a youngster of a president in his forties bringing a foreign-born (Canadian) wife and a young family with him to liven the place up. Guðni started well, attending Reykjavík’s Gay Pride festival as one of his very first official engagements.

That election was a fairly peaceful process. The next one, the Parliamentary election due to take place this month, is a less happy affair.

Iceland has been in political turmoil more or less since the financial meltdown in 2008. The centre-left administration elected following the crash made efforts to sort out the colossal mess, but riven with internal strife and the constant obstacles placed in its way by the spoilt brats of the right, out of government for the first time in a generation, it didn’t end happily.

That government supposedly went down in history as the least popular ever, right up until the election pledges of the present government started to look increasingly thin.

Then came the Wintris debacle when the Prime Minister’s involvement in offshore banking emerged and he reacted in a way that was more playground petulance than statesmanlike gravitas. He finally, and ungraciously, stepped down for his old friend the Minister of Fisheries to take over. Not long after, that same old friend stood against him as the Progressive Party’s leader and won, so it’s fair to imagine that there won’t be many Christmas cards passing between those two households this December.

It has been a politically bloody few months, not least with the Panama Papers that identified six hundred Icelanders who had been stashing their cash in places far outside the taxman’s grasp. That’s six hundred out of 350,000. By comparison, fewer than half that number of Swedish citizens were revealed in the same trove leaked documents, out of a population of something close to six million.

Not only does Iceland seem to be beating the world at tax evasion, but several cabinet ministers were also implicated. The part that’s so hard to grasp is that they’re all still in their posts as if nothing untoward had come to light.

Icelanders rage and swear at the shamelessness of the politicians who shrug off scandals that would have them out of office in a second in most countries, but somehow they always vote them back.

Will they this time? The 2008 flash of rage when Icelanders took to the streets in unheard-of popular protests isn’t there this time, but it’s more a slow-burn kind of anger, as if the disgust has been brewing quietly in the background.

It’s anyone’s guess what the outcome will be in the days following the election, but all that we can be sure of is that it’ll be another coalition of two, three or more parties.

There are no foregone conclusions. The present ruling Progressive and Independence parties are unlikely to be able to form an administration on their own. The Social Democrats are still punch-drunk after their poor performance in the 2009-13 government and subsequent internal battles. The Left-Green party has its own small but dedicated following, as well as being headed by possibly Iceland’s most respected politician (and crime fiction aficionado) Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

There are others in the mix, but the big unknown is the Pirate Party. Other European Pirate movements in Sweden and Germany seem to have fizzled out, but in Iceland they are going strong and the indications are that their present three MPs could swell to a number rivalling the Independence Party´s following.

There are huge questions surrounding them. Will they make every attempt to upset the status quo if they hold the balance of power in whatever coalition is formed? Industry and the establishment have been doing their best to discredit the Pirates, but without much of a track record in government, this is largely speculation. The certainties are than the present major parties have impressively solid track records of corruption and broken promises behind them.

So which way will Icelanders sway when polling day comes around – the established, familiar devil you know or the radical, unknown quantity of the devil you don’t?

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