Iceland’s New Dawn

How the Mighty Have Fallen: A Trouncing for the Right, Huge Support for the Left

The numbers are in and they are decisive. The longstanding, corporate-right forces of the Independence Party, known here as Iceland ’s “Republicans”, have received a trouncing at the polls. With 100% of the vote tallied, the Social Democratic Alliance (moderate Socialist) won 29.8% of the vote (55,758 votes) and their partners the Left-Green Movement (Socialist-Green-Feminist) 21.7% (40,580 votes). Together they will now have 20 and 14 seats in the Parliament, or Althingi, respectively; 34 out of 63 total. The new Citizen’s Movement (left-populist) received 7.2% of the vote, garnering four seats. The former ruling Independence Party received 44,369 votes, shockingly losing 9 seats. Their support in the country has never been this low. Their former coalition partners, the Progressive Alliance (center-Right) gained only two seats.

The fact that the Independence Party received less than 4000 votes over the Left-Greens signals a sea change in how Icelanders view their country and what should be done to take them out of the ruin imposed on them through 18 years of Independence Party and Progressive Alliance (mis)rule. While pre-poll surveys suggested even higher votes for the Left-Greens, this still remains a huge victory for them. Steingrimur Sigfusson, leader of the Left-Greens will probably remain as Finance Minister and his principled opposition to EU and privatization of resources will keep his voice, and party, in the forefront of all major decisions in the days ahead.

Another significant change is the rise of the Citizen’s Movement, a brand new populist based group that arose out of the “pots and pan revolution” which toppled the right wing government this past winter. This new group will now have four seats in Parliament bringing the number of left-populist ministers to 38 out of 63. Iceland will now have one of the most Left-oriented governments of any of the industrialized Western nations. (And special note should be made that 43% percent of the parliament are now women, including the Prime Minister.)

Is this a coup for the Left? Possibly. European Union membership is now the big issue, and unlike most of the Parliament, the Left-Greens are not in favor. Is this a big victory for the people against the moneyed interests who have ruined the world economy? Definitely. Without engaging in too much hyperbole, this next government will take office reflecting a new era of populist revolt against the policies embodied by speculative banking and investment, emblematic of the past 20 years or so in public policy around the world. Don’t let anyone tell you that 300,000+ people can’t signal a shift that might have repercussions for the US . At 1/1000th the population and a far more homogenous society than the US is, it might at first appear so. But looks can be deceiving.

Icelanders took to the streets with grit and determination following revelations that their ruined economy was driven into the ground by self-serving politicians interested more in hobnobbing with celebrities and selling off the country’s resources to the highest bidder than in advancing the people’s best interests. The people decided (in their typically reserved Icelandic manner) that enough is enough and nonviolently toppled the establishment in just a few short months. The people withheld their support, obstructed the governance of the country, and demanded completely new elections. They got all of that and more. A whopping 85.1% of eligible voters voted yesterday, an indication of Scandinavian civic-mindedness, to be sure, but also an indicator of how mobilized the people were.

Whether the new governing coalition can deliver considering the extremely difficult circumstances plaguing the world economy will not be easy to say. Some key differences within the newly certified governing coalition will make solving their problems a bit more complicated than one might at first suspect, given the uniformly positive support the broad Left has received. For example, the Left-Green Movement, unlike the Social Democrats, opposes attempts to join the European Union, which may have siphoned votes from the Independence Party which has also historically opposed the EU. Thus, the Social Democrats, who favor EU integration, will need to proceed cautiously (although the Citizen’s Movement and Progressive Party also favor EU entry). And should EU membership be advanced out of the Parliament, another election will need to be held with a nationwide referendum on EU membership taken.

While a majority in the new Parliament favor EU entry, (even some Independence Party members now support it) the country as a whole is split on this issue but Icelanders aren’t known for impulsively acting on urges (which is partly why the people were so mad at the former government) and will debate this issue carefully. There are pluses and minuses either way. Joining the EU will affect Iceland ’s fishing and immigration policies, among other things, and they are in no position to demand concessions considering their precarious financial condition. But many Icelander’s seeking long-term stability view safety in EU numbers. Either way, major decisions about social service spending, repayment of debt, ensuring unemployment benefits, and restructuring the banking system, while investigating the shenanigans which brought them into this mess in the first place, will be the first tasks ahead. Thus, Jóhanna Sigurdadóttir, the acerbic but viewed as incorruptible Prime Minister, will have her hands full.

For now however, the morning after is quiet as hangovers are nursed and a new era dawns for this republic of Vikings tenaciously clawing their way back into solvency and 21st century relevancy. One can only hope the Left in the US learns something about coalition-building and sustaining mass-based popular movements against government policies that benefit the wealthy few over the many.

Rev. José M. Tirado is a poet, priest and writer finishing a PhD in psychology while living in Iceland. Read other articles by José.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Michael Kenny said on April 27th, 2009 at 1:54pm #

    Results like these will probably be seen all over Europe as the crisis bites.
    The interesting thing is the way so many people’s first reaction was “join the EU”! That too was not unique to Iceland. The EU has been the big winner in this crisis as people dreamed of the good, old mixed economy and instinctively turned to the EU to get it back for them. Nobody expects the US to give up is hegemony over the world economy without a fight and Fortress Europe is a necesary arm in that fight.

    On the other hand, joining the EU takes about seven or eight years. Leaving aside the internal constitutional procedures, there have to be negotiations and in Iceland’s case, that means fish. Equally, the EU will not want Iceland with its economy in a mess. There are already a few smaller Member States with problems and they will not want to “share” EU money with Iceland. So EU membership for Iceland is not a way out of the crisis but a means of preventing the same thing happeneing again in the future.

  2. Mulga Mumblebrain said on April 27th, 2009 at 5:01pm #

    We all know from bitter experience how this will really end. The Icelandic Greens, like the German Greens, will split into ‘Realists’ ie sell-outs, probably plants or opportunists who only joined the Greens for personal advancement, and ‘Fundamentalists’ as so portrayed by the Rightwing media, in fact the true Greens. To be really ‘green’ means being anti-capitalist, anti-’free market’. Anyone who says otherwise is a fraud or imbecile. Any Icelandic Government that actually attempts the Sisyphean task of extracting the country from its ruinous Ponzi pyramid of debt obligations, will be crucified by ‘the market’. There’s nothing the market loves more than making an example of those who attempt to escape its clutches. Joining the EC will make the resultant misery compulsory. Iceland’s Green/Left Government will be destroyed to teach the proles everywhere a lesson, that escape is impossible, that there still is ‘No Alternative’ to plutocratic capitalist kleptocracy. The Icelanders will just join those other ‘unpersons’, the Iraqis, Gazans, Somalis,Congolese, Zimbabweans, the poor everywhere, whose destruction serves as a lesson to encourage the others to follow orders and never, ever dare to dream of escape, and to slake, for a while, the boundless sadism of the Masters.

  3. Ron Horn said on April 27th, 2009 at 5:33pm #

    Mulga is right as usual–the Icelandic Greens will be easily co-opted just like their German counterparts, and the social democrats have no problem with the capitalist system–they just pretend to want a kinder, gentler system which is an oxymoron.

  4. Rev. José M. Tirado said on April 28th, 2009 at 3:31am #

    OK. Let´s just start from the bottom and work our way up.

    Ron:
    While I am a supporter of the SP-USA and favor a socialist system, let me ask a few historical questions. Establishment of a minimum wage, an 8 hour work day, a weekend, end of child workers, and safety standards are all ameliorations of workers conditions in a capitalist system. Do you reject those things? Giving women the right to vote, allowing the formation of unions (Wagner Act), paid sick leave and maternity leave are all benefits that workers gained under the US capitalist system. Are you against those too? What “real” world do you live in that you would reject such benefits in order to cling to some idealized pure system which will not exist outside your imagination? Our world is as it is and to work hard to making it “better” while working for the “best” is exactly what grown ups do. (Note: all those gains were brought about by the unending labors of communists, socialists, and radical labor leaders in the United States. ) My suggestion to you (and to the other kids on this site) is to quickly buy and familiarize yourselves with Buhle, Buhle, and Georgakas´”Encyclopedia of the American Left” (Revised 1998 ed.) For years it was my bedside reading when I was a union member and then president.
    “Mulga” :
    Which Icelandic Left-Green members have you spoken with lately? Are you on good terms with Steingrimur Sigfusson, the Left-Green leader? You must have some remarkably well-informed inside connections since the parody you paint reflects nothing I am familiar with here in Iceland.

    When you say, “To be really ‘green’ means being anti-capitalist, anti-’free market’. Anyone who says otherwise is a fraud or imbecile” you are speaking in absolutes and, last I checked, you are not God in possession of such great wisdom that you are able to say such things. The purity of motivation and ideals you seem to adhere to may make you feel good, but in my experience, working with other humans tends to soften those “fundamentalist” edges and make pursuit of the possible a positive thing.

    I also don´t think you understand European history well-enough to say the hyperbolic things you do. Nor do I think you understand the dynamics of politics, Icelandic governance nor the Icelandic people. My suggestion is to be more cautious. The government just got started and they will win some things and lose some things. The capitalist system is huge, worldwide, resilient, and dominating. However, resistance to it´s multifaceted nature is also resilient, and multifaceted. (Check out Ekta Parishad in India or the Brazilian Rural Landless Workers Movement) I will try to keep you and others informed about developments here as they come but maybe doing some homework (and getting out of the house more often) would make your comments more informed.
    Michael:
    Iceland is not one of the European states where disdain for “sharing” widespread. Iceland´s fish is a huge draw. But right you are that EU is quite a mixed bag. It´s policies are dominated by the bigger members and some thiings people like about it and some things they don´t. Unfortunately Iceland is no longer in any position to demand favorable terms and that´s one reason both the Left-Greens and the Independence Party are opposed to entry. However, a majority of Parliament is in favor, so there will be tough negotiations ahead.

    What happened in Iceland isn´t just about the EU, though. The bigger issue, which I tried to convey, was that the people rose up and nonviolently threw out there government–completely. They rejected a 60+ year popular dominance of the Independent Party (making them barely 25% of the votes cast) and put in place a Left-Green alliance that rejects USAmerican style banksterism and supports people-oriented social concerns instead. That is a plus. It is not utopia (for those of you unfamiliar with the Greek understanding of the word it has 2 meanings: literally meaning “no place,” it suggests 1. that no such place exists now, and 2. that none ever will) but neither was Utopia. Right now their supporters are working hard to lead the new government and what will come of EU negotiations an unknown. As well greater Scandinavian integration (with Norway, Denmark, Sweden) is a probable outsome and may become an EU substitute compromise.

    Passion is wonderful and being passionately angry about capitalist excesses and crimes useful. But passion never wins–planning does. The average Icelandic worker lives a far better life than their USAmerican counterpart and while that may not meet the (unrealistically?) high standards of the regular posters here, my guess is that should each of you have what they have here, your own perspectives might change.

  5. Ron Horn said on April 30th, 2009 at 12:06pm #

    Rev. José M. Tirado:
    I’m not sure what planet you are living on or what you are smoking, but here is what I see in my world, in my community and state:

    One out of ten families on food stamps. People losing their jobs, funding for Medicaid slashed, 25% cuts in higher education, funding for public education cuts that will result in much larger teacher-pupil ratios, people looking forward to working in their retirement years because their pensions were lost by Wallstreet hustlers, growing numbers of people living in tents on the edge of cities, etc. Meanwhile we engage in two wars with an increase in the Pentagon budget. We have the largest gulag system in the world with nearly 2 1/2 million people behind bars. Meanwhile the rich get richer and using our bailout money they export more jobs overseas to take advantage of cheap labor and low environmental standards. Our Constitution has been shredded, we are constantly under surveillance by various government agencies as we move ever closer to a police state.

    All the wonderful accomplishments you mentioned happened in the 1930s. Is your “real” world that of the 1930s?? Looks like as a former labor leader you sold out to the corporate bosses, and are now engaged in pedaling god-stuff to the working class to keep their eyes on more heavenly pursuits.

  6. Rev. José M. Tirado said on May 1st, 2009 at 2:24am #

    Ron,
    Earth…I don´t smoke anymore…and I am not a Christian, so “God” as such I neither believe in nor peddle.

    The rights I mentioned were “won” by workers and despite the mixed bag of ills you mentioned, are not affected by the direction of my questions. Whether you are being spied upon does not negate the fact that you have a weekend, does it? Or the two wars does not take away the fact tha tyou have collective bargaining agreements in place.

    As for me “selling out” on what basis do you say that? Do you know who I worked for and what union I brought into what industry that had not had a radical union in 50 years? (Hint: Warner Bros. Pictures, UE) I don´t need to justify my life to you or anyone else–I can face myself in the mirror regularly and comfortably.

    While the state of the US raises the ire and frustration of many (including me) over the many ills you describe, you still haven´t directly answered my questions, not surprisingly. Your comments reflect an avoidance of the salient issue here: your inability to speak to Iceland´s situation due to ignorance and projection.