A short primer on Icelandic politics on the day of the 2016 election

A few basic facts.


First, Iceland only has ~320 000 inhabitants. Smaller societies tend to be more conservative (small c, as in hesitant to change) but they also make it easier to achieve critical mass for big changes. E.g. how Iceland went from a strict Lutheran society while my grandmother was young to today’s comparatively gay-friendly society.

How it has been

We have traditionally been dominated by a four party system:

  1. A right wing party that primarily favours the fisheries industry. (The Independence Party – Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn)
  2. An agricultural party that primarily favours rural industries and will adopt whatever policy it is that supports that. (The Progressive Party – Framsókn)
  3. A social-democratic party that wants a strong welfare system, public education, and public healthcare but generally favours market solutions outside of those sectors. (Used to be Alþýðuflokkurinn, now Samfylking and Björt Framtíð)
  4. A leftwing party that generally distrusts market solutions and wants a large public sector. (Used to be Alþýðubandalagið, now Vinstri Grænir – Left-Green)

This four party system has been kept in place by an electoral system where rural votes count more than urban votes—which is why relying on polling percentages as foreign journalists tend to do is extremely … uninformed.

This basic system has evolved and changed a bit over time.

The Progressive Party stands out because they really don’t have an ideological slant beyond ‘favouring our people’. This neutrality has put them in a position where they have been a member of most coalition governments in Iceland since independence. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anybody that they were at the centre of the Panama Papers scandal and Sigmundur Davíð, the PM who had to resign, was the leader of this party.

The window of discourse for the entirety of Icelandic politics has shifted to the right. The Independence Party went wholesale into Reaganism/Thatcherism. The Progressive Party discovered that it’s much easier to extract money and value from society using systemic market corruption than using a corrupt public sector (their old go-to).

Samfylkingin turned into a pro-Europe New Labour party. They were unlucky enough to have finally shifted to the right enough to be able to form a coalition government with the Independence Party when the crash struck and got half the blame for it. (Not entirely fair since the systemic causes of the crash were created by an earlier Independence Party – Progressive Party coalition government.)

Finally, the Left-Greens have shifted enough to the right that they are now a proper Social-Democrat party in policy and principle. They no longer are as averse to market solutions as they used to and have added a strong pro-environment lean to their policies.

These four options – or some spin on this four party system – have been all that Icelanders can choose from since independence. If your political opinions don’t fit in this grid, you’ve generally been out of luck.

The only major upset to the four party system came in the 80s/90s when the Women’s List (Kvennalistinn) got several MPs and was responsible for some fundamental improvements to gender equality in Iceland.

(Disclaimer: my mother was active in the Women’s List and was a frequent contributor to Vera, their magazine back in the day.)

How it is today

The party system has been thrown to the wind.

One of the major parties have split. Björt Framtíð is a splinter group from Samfylkingin and has, for the most part, near identical policies. For a while the polls showed both social-democratic parties to be in danger of dropping out of parliament entirely. (Iceland has the so-called 5% rule, parties with less that 5% of the vote don’t get any MPs.)

We have two new parties with a considerable in polls:

  • The Pirate Party: has run on a platform of systemic reform, transparency, and media rights.
  • Viðreisn: has run on a platform of ‘let’s be proper capitalists and use market solutions that have been well-tested and aren’t prone to capture’.

Viðreisn is actually the more interesting party as I haven’t seen its platform in a major party in other countries. They are very pro-market but aren’t really libertarian or neoliberal because they seem to think that a social sector has a big role to play in a stable society. They strongly favour market solutions but not the market solutions that libertarians usually favour: they do actual maths and read actual—well regarded—economists. They are pro-Europe, even in these odd times, because they want to know what deal they could get from a weakened EU. But they are also committed to following the public on the issue: if voters say no they say they won’t try to do a runaround (which would be political suicide in Iceland today, anyway).

The Pirate Party is interesting largely because of the size of its following here in Iceland. Movements of this kind are surfacing all over the world:

  • Proudly populist: MPs represent the people and so should respect their opinions, even if they seem foolish.
  • Reformist: things are shit, not because of the people but because the system is broken and should be fixed.
  • Not playing left-right game: their policies are from both sides of the political spectrum and they adopt any idea that they feel is good, no matter the origin.

Both of the new parties have a larger following than anybody really expected when they launched but for a good reason:

They both offer policies that are alternatives to the status quo, whose impact can generally be understood by the population, and are led by very intelligent people with a knack for explaining their ideas.

Add to that a collapse, the international humiliation of having Iceland’s endemic corruption revealed, and the ongoing crippling austerity measures, and you have a recipe for change. Together these new parties have been polled as having between 25-30% of the vote.

Things that are new to Icelandic politics

A new party coming in and leading to systemic change isn’t a new phenomenon in Icelandic politics. The Women’s List did it, for example. But there are a few things that are notably new this time around:

  • The Independence Party and Progressive Parties are isolated. While the Independence Party is largest party and has managed to escape the worst of the Panama Papers, they have been explicitly against reform of any kind. They don’t want to regulate the banking system. They don’t want to reform the electoral system. They don’t want less oligarchic, more market-oriented solutions to how we use our public resources (this annoys many on the right). They don’t want to fix public healthcare. They don’t want to fix public education. It isn’t just the corruption that isolates them: their policy platform is broadly incompatible with that of every other party. And because they are the largest party (or are likely to be) none of the other parties will get to be in a coalition government unless they give up on most of their policies.
  • The Progressive Party is rightly seen as utterly corrupt but still has a following because to some people, the right response to a broken system is to make sure the corruption favours you.
  • Viðreisn is likely to be in a deciding role. Odds are that the current coalition government (Independence Party–Progressive Party) won’t have a majority in parliament alone and won’t be able to form a government without Viðreisn. The leaders of Viðreisn have frequently mentioned their distrust of the other right wing parties who seem to ready to give up on right wing policies to favour their own base.
  • The left (or left-ish since the Pirate party isn’t left or right) has declared an intent to form a coalition government. This is the Pirate Party’s idea because they wanted the parties to tell voters what compromises they have to make to form a government before the vote actually takes place, not after.

The President

This is an election where the ‘largely’ in the ‘largely ceremonial’ role of the Icelandic president comes into play. He gets to decide who has a mandate to try to form a government and he has an unusually free hand in making that decision.

A lot will depend on what principle he will choose to guide his decision:

  • Will he give it to the largest party, the Independence Party, even if they are less likely to form a stable government?
  • Will he give it to the ‘biggest leaper’, the Pirate Party, even if they aren’t the largest?
  • Will he give the mandate explicitly to the pre-announced left-wing coalition?

The good news is that Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, our new president, is highly regarded by the population and, as it happens, is a scholar who specialises in the history of Icelandic politics and… the office of the President of Iceland. He is intimately familiar with the conventions and rules of the office and the duties he has to fulfil.

It is very likely that the fate of Icelandic politics will be in his hands tomorrow and, honestly, I couldn’t think of a better man for the job.