Iceland Mag

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Iceland Mag


The struggle to keep conservatives out of power: A full chronicle of the day's political developments

By Staff

  • The eight party leaders From left to right. Upper row: Sigurður Ingi Jóhannesson of the Progress Party, Inga Sæland of the People's Party, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson of the Center Party, Katrín Jakobsdóttir of the Left Greens. Bottom row: Þorgerður Sunna of the Pirate Party, Bjjarni Benediktsson of the Independence Party, Logi Einarsson of the Social Democratic Movement and Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir of Restoration. Photo/Vísir.

Tensions are running high in Icelandic politics right now, as the political left, led by Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the chairman of the Left Greens, race against time to form a broad center-left coalition which would leave the conservative Independence Party and the populist Progress Party out of power.

Read more: Analysis: Populist parties, Talk Radio victorious in snap election

Political commentators appear to be leaning towards the conclusion that Katrín might prove unsuccessful in this quest, although there are no clear indications that Bjarni Benediktsson, the chairman of the Independence Party will be more successful in forging a conservative led center-right coalition.

Keeping corrupt politicians out of office

Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Bjarni Benediktsson

Unwelcome Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson (left), Bjarni Benediktsson (right) are seen by many on the left as unfit for office, due to the numerous scandals which have dogged them in recent years. Photo/Vísir

Keeping the Independence Party and the Center Party out of power has become one of the most important political tasks to the political left, which includes the Left Greens and Social Democrats, as well as the anti-establishment Pirate Party. The leaders of the two parties, both of whom were named in the Panama Papers, have been dogged by repeated scandals and are seen by left-of center Icelanders as well as many on the center, as unfit for office.

The October 28 elections were held in the shadow of several scandals involving Bjarni Benediktsson and his immediate family, while 22,000 people protested in downtown Reykjavík in April 2016 against Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson having used of tax havens to hide assets from the tax authorities as well as apparent conflicts of interests. Many on the left have argued that the political instability which Iceland has experienced in the past years, reoccurring mass protests and two snap elections in a year, is ultimately caused by the inability of politics to rid itself of corruption.

Left wing parties in informal negotiations

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson

Talking things over Katrín Jakobsdóttir (left) met with the President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson yesterday. Photo/Ernir

After meeting with the President of Iceland yesterday to discuss who should be handed an official mandate to form a government, Katrín Jakobsdóttir told media that she was engaged in informal talks with the leaders of the opposition parties in parliament. She asked the President to hold off on granting anyone the mandate until these talks had reached some conclusion. The leader of the Pirate Party meanwhile told the President Katrín should already be granted the mandate to form a center-left coalition.

This is no small feat, however.

Centrist Progress Party holds the key

The challenge Katrín faces is that a center-left coalition is that she must convince the agrarian centrist Progress Party as well the liberal Restoration or even potentially the small populist People‘s Party. Hammering out an agreement between these parties is no small feat.

Political commentators believe forming a left wing coalition will be an uphill battle, as many in the Progress Party are believed to be more interested in cooperating with the conservatives than with the parties of the left. Sigurður Ingi Jóhannesson, the chairman of the party is believed to be more interested in forming an across-the-aisle coalition with the Left Greens and Independence Party, where he himself would be the Prime Minister. The Left Greens are vehemently opposed to joining any government with the conservatives. 

EU membership unexpectedly an issue

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannesson, Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson
A woman with the keys to power Lilja Dögg Alfreðsdóttir (center) is believed to hold the keys to whether her party and it's chairman  Sigurður Ingi Jóhannesson (right) will work with the former chairman Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson (left) and the Conservatives, or whether the party leans left. Photo/Vísir

One of the issues which can cause friction between the political left and the Progress Party is the European Union. The Social Democrats have fought for applying for EU membership, while both the Left Greens and Pirate Party have said they would agree to a referendum on the subject.

The vice chairman of the Progress Party, Lilja Alfreðsdóttir told the National Broadcasting Service Radio 2 that the Progress Party would never agree to a referendum on joining the EU. It's unclear whether the attitude to the EU will prove a stumbling block to the parties on the left. Not least because EU membership has not been an important topic in Icelandic politics since the 2013 elections. The Social Democrats are unlikely to make it a make-or-break issue in coalition negotiations.

Polls show that a solid majority of Icelanders oppose applying for EU membership. Of those who express an opinion on the question, 55.5% are opposed to the idea of applying for membership, while 44.5% say they support the idea.

Adding liberals to broad coalition

Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir

Liberal reinforcements Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, the chairman of the liberal Restoration. Photo/Eyþór

A coalition of the opposition parties, incorporating the left as well as the centrist Progress Party would only have a one seat majority in parliament. The Left Greens have therefore been looking to expand a center-left coalition to include either the liberal Restoration or the People's Party, which is considered by most to be the more agreeable of the new populist parties.

Interviews granted by the chairman of restoration Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir suggest she is open to negotiations on a center-left government. Þorgerður Katrín told media that Katrín and the left should get a chance to talk things over before the president gave any one political leader the mandate to form a government. She added that while her party had not been included in these negotiations she would not „refuse to shoulder the responsibility if the party was approached to participate."

She added that there was no reason to assume beforehand that the parties would not be able to achieve an agreement on all key issues. Þorgerður Katrín also pointed out that the experience after last year‘s elections, when negotiations on forming a new coalition dragged on for more than two months, had taught the party leaders a lot, and that the parties would find it easier to reach an agreement this time around.

An alternative populist route 

Inga Sæland
People's Party Inga Sæland the leader of the 4 MP populist party is seen as a potential ally for a center-left coalition. Photo/Anton Brink

A second option to strengthening a center-left government would be to seek the support of the new populist People's Party. While the party has been accused of flirting with islamophobia and xenophobia some on the left feel it a more natural ally than the business-friendly Restoration. The election campaign of the People's Party focused exclusively on battling poverty and strengthening social services for the elderly and disabled.

However, the party is widely expected to be more interested in working with Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson‘s Center Party and the conservative Independence Party. This is certainly the wish of Arnþrúður Karlsdóttir, manager of the Talk Radio station Útvarp Saga, which played a key role in securing the win of the two populist parties.

Yesterday‘s news, however, seemed to indicate the two populist parties are not as unified as in their position as initially believed. Inga Sæland, of the People‘s Party, told journalists that while she finds a lot of agreement with Sigmundur Davíð‘s Center Party, there was no agreement between the parties and that she was open to working with other parties as well. At the same time Sigmundur Davíð did his best to convey the impression that the parties would present a unified front in the coming negotiations.

While the People's Party has prioritized addressing poverty the Center Party has campaigned on a nebulous promise of reorganizing the financial system and an expensive voucher privatization of one of the banks.

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