In language that, in spirit, occasionally resembles the list of grievances contained in the United States’ Declaration of Independence, a group of Icelanders have been recently circulating a petition rejecting the IMF’s huge, 2.1 billion dollar financial bailout just negotiated. In a stunning move, these Icelanders are now asking the IMF to not turn over any monies to the same politicians and financial geniuses (sic) who got Iceland into this mess to begin with, and to wait until a new group takes power. It’s a radically defiant gesture, a populist one to be sure, but it is also just one of a series of such gestures now rocking this normally placid country.
Yesterday, (Nov. 22) an estimated 7-8000 people (the US equivalent to several million) gathered in what is becoming a weekly mass protest in front of the Althingi, or Parliament. As well, angry citizens stormed the police building in downtown Reykjavik to force the release of one young man held for raising a supermarket chain flag atop the Parliament building. Eggs now regularly adorn the Parliament’s windows and doorways, statues are defaced, and the demands for the government to step down are becoming increasingly forceful. And near-violent as well. Perhaps the best received line in all the speeches yesterday was passionately delivered by Katrín Oddsdottir who said, at Saturday’s gathering said, “If they don’t let us vote, we will find another way of voting-we will carry them out…” In a country this size, this is not a threat to be taken lightly.
The calls for new elections are taking an edgy fervor, with a normally quiet citizenry emboldened each week despite governmental news conferences rejecting early elections, and thin pledges to trim Parliamentarian salaries. The dominant party of the past 60 years, The Independence Party (conservative, neo-liberal) has its reputation in complete tatters. (A recent study projects that, were an election were held today, they would receive a paltry 24%, losing eight representatives in Parliament. In contrast, an election held today would propel the Left-Green Movement into power with 19 members, up from only 9 now. No wonder they don’t want to call early elections.)
The Independence Party’s former leader (and ex-Prime Minister for 12 years) David Oddsson, had been appointed head of the Central Bank of Iceland in 2007 in a sweetheart deal that now has him and a few other politicians (like current Prime Minister, Geir Haarde) facing physical threats in a decidedly uncharacteristic Icelandic display of anger. The largest opposition party, the Social Democratic Alliance (moderately socialist) is fairing a little better, though their once-vaunted standard-bearer Ingibjörg Solrun Gisladottir sits in the coalition partnership with the Independence Party. A mood of barely subdued volcanic tension is felt everywhere and Iceland ’s politicians are in serious trouble.
The one notable exception, Steingrimur J. Sigfusson, the eloquent Left-Green Movement leader, is rising dramatically in the polls. His calls for a new election are becoming so forceful that, despite a constant barrage of anti-new election PR, the ruling coalition is facing almost no support and losing rapidly what little it retains, pushing them towards that very real possibility.
Iceland , sitting literally smack in the middle of two tectonic plates, (ironically the European and North American) is now facing earth-shaking political tremors which may soon herald a completely new configuration in Icelandic politics. Let us hope the political classes on both sides of this divide also take the hint and act rapidly in their countries before they too face similar populist dissatisfaction. For if they don’t, this small North Atlantic island might spawn a tsunami that washes onto both American and European shores and cleans out the political detritus there. One can only hope…