Iceland’s politics exist in a bizarre, incestuous little world with a rulebook all of its own. The odd politics are one of the things that put the country out of step with its Nordic neighbours. While Sweden, Norway and Denmark have rock solid Social Democrat traditions that have been major forces in their politics for decades, Iceland’s governments have been dominated by a staunchly conservative tradition that appears to owe more to Margaret Thatcher than any of the Nordic region’s traditional middle-of-the-road figures.
Iceland’s political landscape is as wind-blasted and volcanic as the country’s physical landscape. Currently out of office for the first time in years after the election following the Crash, the Independence Party has been the dominant force in Icelandic government with a history that goes back to the movement pushing for independence from Denmark that was finally achieved while Denmark was occupied by Germany, and Iceland first by British and then American forces. The conservatives of the IP have been part of practically every government for the past sixty years, trading on the old-fashioned values of honesty, reliability and a perceived opposition to outlandish change that are starkly out of kilter with reality. Alongside them for years in an undignified push-me-pull-you relationship have been the Progressive Party, traditionally stalwarts of the agriculture lobby that has seen its influence fade, and the Progressives’ fortunes with it.
There’s a Social Democrat tradition as well, but with nothing like the gravity and respect that the SDs command elsewhere in the Nordic region. These days the Social Democrats are a roughly centre party, currently the dominant partner in government, along with the Left-Greens in an unhappy alliance that is bound to run aground.
The left wing of Iceland’s politics could make a chapter all to itself, a strife-ridden grouping of odd personalities that has managed to include some genuinely statesmanlike figures as well as more than a few outright fruitcakes. After twenty years in the wilderness of opposition, the Left-Greens are the junior partner in government and are still busily tearing themselves apart – threatening their own tenuous hold on power in the process. It’s as if now they’re finally in government, they’ve decided they don’t really like it after all and would prefer to be back in the relative comfort of opposition.
‘For years we’ve been waiting for just this combination to be in government, but they’ve taken over under the worst imaginable set of circumstances,’ one longtime Left-Green supporter said just after the 2008 election, knowing deep inside what was to come; a government with a thin majority, hamstrung by the opposition snapping at its heels at every turn.
Today Iceland is split on a whole raft of issues, including the thorny one of EU membership, still clouded by the IceSave furore. The Social Democrats are solidly pro-Europe and have forged ahead in applying for EU membership, unceremoniously dragging their anti-Europe Left-Green partners to the shops with them. But the others are divided on Europe. Although it’s not widely mentioned, both the Independence and the Progressive parties have pro-Europe factions that could even split them into smaller parties if push were to come to shove – something the Social Democrats are undoubtedly aware of and keen to cash in on. A fundamentally split Independence party would be a gift that could keep the SDs in power as the heavyweight element of any future coalition.
While government bickers and squabbles, with the Social Democrats and the Left-Greens doing some uneasy horsetrading, while the opposition parties take every opportunity to shoot them down at every turn, scoring political points but doing nothing towards making any genuine progress, Jón Jónsson, Iceland’s version of Joe Public, sits in limbo while prices continue to rise and his earnings drop.
Icelanders don’t tend to complain, at least, not out loud. They grumble that their elected representatives are all on the take, but when it comes to polling day, the cross generally goes next to the candidate for the party Grandad voted for. The demonstrations that effectively ended the old guard’s government in 2009 and ushered in the present coalition were a rare example of Icelanders voting with their feet.
But a welcome side-effect of the Crash and the exposure of what everyone unconsciously already knew has been a new brand of humour. Icelanders have made the long overdue discovery of satire. Spaugstofan, a weekly comedy TV show, creakingly predictable after a twenty-year run, suddenly grew a sharp satirical edge as the Crash hit, while half a dozen scurrilous websites with startlingly realistic and frequently hilarious spoof news and comment have sprung up.
Taking satire to extremes, last year’s municipal elections saw the off-the-wall Best Party appear, headed by comedian Jón Gnarr and with candidate list of largely artistic types unencumbered by political baggage. The elections pledges were magnificent. Jón Gnarr promised free towels in municipal swimming pools and a polar bear for the zoo, as well as what he termed ‘sustainable transparency’ and ‘allskonar fyrir aumingja’ roughly translated as ‘all kinds of stuff for useless people.’
Tellingly, Jón Gnarr is now mayor of Reykjavík after the Best Party took more than a third of the vote. The ‘Best factor’ is a brooding unknown for Iceland’s established politics. Taking into account the rock-bottom level of trust that Jón Jónsson has for politicians of every hue, there is every chance that a grass-roots movement such as the Best Party could make a serious dent in the other parties’ followings.
Jón Gnarr’s avowed policy of twinning Reykjavík with Moomin Valley and stunts such as appearing in drag to open Reykjavík’s Gay Pride parade have grated in some quarters, but by and large the Best Party don’t seem to be doing a significantly worse job of running the city than anyone else. When parliamentary elections come round again, Jón Jónsson’s logic could well be that political outsiders could as well run the country no worse than career politicians who have already proved they haven’t made a great job of it.