Politics as performance art by Quentin Bates

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A week ago more than twenty thousand people came together in Reykjavík’s Austurvöllur square and did their best to tell the government what they thought of it. Unsurprisingly, the the government didn’t take a lot of notice in a bizarre series of events that has all the hallmarks of a Keystone Kops movie, but with politicians instead of policemen. Or maybe this was politics played out as some kind of performance art. It’s hard to tell.

Incidentally, since the demonstrations took place, there have been the usual round of internet memes doing the rounds, telling us how popular pressure gets results and how we should all be like Iceland. Er, no… If only it were like that.

To start with, the videoclip of prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson having the surprise question about his offshore holdings sprung on him by a Swedish news team, and his subsequent display of how not to respond, was greeted with worldwide hilarity. He’s undoubtedly (for the moment) the world’s second most famous Icelander, after Björk.

Not that Sigmundur Davíð was the only prominent figure found to have squirrelled away cash somewhere offshore. Two other members of his own government are in there as well, not to mention a whole bunch of slippery political customers around the world.

The came the peaceful demo on Austurvöllur square. At nine the following morning, Iceland’s prime minister absolutely wasn’t considering stepping down. By the middle of the day he was at the President’s residence (the President having hot-footed it home from whatever overseas trip he was on), asking to dissolve Parliament, a move that would conveniently pre-empt the vote of no confidence in his government that was brewing. The President told him not to be so childish (although it was probably worded more delicately than that) and sent him packing back to Reykjavík with Parliament still intact – as Sigmundur Davíð had neglected to mention to his colleagues that he was asking the boss to let him shut the shop.

That afternoon, the prime minister was gone, something of a volte face for a man determined to stay in the job only a few hours earlier. Then, with the minister of fisheries brought in to take over, it turned out that Sigmundur Davíð wasn’t stepping down after all, just taking a break from the job. Then he really was gone. Or is he? Oddly, he’s still an MP.

All the while, the other kingpin in the government, finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson, was abroad and had conveniently managed to (supposedly) miss his flight home, leaving his coalition partner to face the music alone. By the time Bjarni was back in Iceland, Sigmundur Davíð had been replaced by fisheries minister Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson and a quick reshuffle of the government’s Progressive Party ministers was taking place as they all swapped chairs.

In fact, very little has changed, regardless of what the Facebook memes may say. The same government is still in power. The ineffectual Sigmundur Davíð, a strange man-child with a penchant for urban planning, has gone but his Independence Party homeboys are still in charge. This includes the two ministers also implicated by the Panama Papers in having offshore dosh who are still in their posts, one of them being the finance minister. Yes, really.

Incidentally, that’s the same minister who was also outed last year as having an Ashley Madison login.

So the government is still there, and its sole concession to the mass of angry plebs outside the Parliament building (yes, the protests continue) is to pledge to hold early general elections this autumn – as long as the opposition don’t disrupt the government’s important work. Of course, the present government didn’t do anything of that nature when they were in opposition, surely?

Nobody seriously believes autumn elections are remotely likely actually to take place. To begin with, there have been plenty of broken promises already, and there general belief is that this government intends to cling on to power for as long as it can. At least, the feeling is that intends to hang in there until legislation giving the minister (yep, him again) of finance discretion to sell the state-owned banks has gone through, after which he’s confidently expected to flog off the remaining family silver to a cousin or someone he was at school with before the ink is even dry on the new laws.

Once that towering achievement is behind them, the feeling is that they’ll be happy to ride off into the sunset, probably with a single collective finger raised at the protesting plebs on Austurvöllur square.

All the while the privileged elite who currently run the country continue to look after their own. Oh, and you remember that other internet meme about Iceland being the country that jailed the bad bankers? Well, three of them were let out last week from the comfy open prison were they had been enjoying a featherbedded existence, after an Independence Party MP (yes, the same bunch) proposed and got through legislation that cleared the way for the trio to be let out early.

It’s no surprise that the protests continue. Watch this space. Public anger continues to swell and it’s anybody’s guess how long it’ll be before this political performance art reaches new levels of madness as fact continues to outweird fiction at every turn.

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