Icelanders seem to be drawn to superlatives: ‘The Best Party’ has won the most seats on the Reykjavik Council in the local council election last Saturday. The new party, one of many new movements all over Iceland in this last election, is led by the comedian Jon Gnarr who rose to meteoric fame with low budget comedy programs, first on independent radio then on tv.
There are four main political parties in Iceland, the Independence Party (conservative), the Alliance (social democrats), the Progressive Party (historically related to Scandinavian centre parties and the farmers’ movement, now some sort of a liberal leanings) and the Left Green (the name is self-explanatory, the roots are the Cold War socialists and communist). Contrary to the Scandinavian countries, with their strong social democratic parties, the conservatives have been the backbone of Icelandic politics since the founding of the Icelandic republic in 1944.
The most remarkable outcome of the local election is the rise of new and independent movements and lists, unattached to the four old parties. In the four biggest constituencies the old four lost between 30 and 40%.
Quite appropriately the journalist and writer Barbara Ehrenreich has been in Iceland and was yesterday interviewed on the political talk show, Silfur Egils, where she i.a. talked about her book on the rise of positive thinking, ‘The Relentless Promotion of Primitive Thinking.’ In view of Ehrenreich message the reactions of the political leaders were rather comic: the leader of the Independent Party in Reykjavik spoke of the party’s ‘surge’ in Reykjavik to a cheering crowd just as it had become clear that the party lost a set in Reykjavik and consequently the possibility to form a majority on its own. (To those familiar with UK politics the sound of her voice reminded me of Labour’s Neil Kinnock before the party lost in 1992). Anything to cheer at?
The power base of the four traditional parties shrunk considerably in this election. No doubt, the fact that the parties have neither owned up to donations from banks and the business powers that were before the crash in 2008 nor faced their responsibility in it plays a big part. The Left Green didn’t have much stake in the boom but they have been sent in to sweep the floor clean and no sooner were they in power than they started to behave like the four other parties: very little transparency, fear of decisions and apparently not doing much to open up the business community and making sure that the old powers are driven out. That’s a great pity because the Left Green seemed to enter government loaded with political capital and trust, having been in opposition for the last decade and being lead by a politician, Steingrimur Sigfusson, who has been both consistent and vocal in his criticism of crony capitalism and bad environmental policies.
Voters not only vote to have influence and to further their own interests but also to confirm their own identity. What identity they were confirming by voting ‘The Best Party’ isn’t easy to gauge since the party programme is muddles, to say the least. It’s however clear that their identity isn’t heavily attached to the four major parties. And that should be very worrying for these four parties. Yet, it was only one politician, Dagur Eggertsson leader of the social democrats in Reykjavik, who unambiguously spelled it out yesterday that the surge of independent movements and candidates underlined the deep distrust of the four parties. The parties had to face up to it because this can’t go on, he said, if these parties are going to have a future.
After the UK election the only Labour politicians who said quite clearly that the party had lost badly were those who intend to run for the party’s leadership in September. Eggertsson was seen as a possible future leader of the party – he is eloquent and respected though apparently not very popular – but since the social democrats in Reykjavik did badly his chances might be damaged. If he now makes a point of being seen as someone who wants to reform his party he might have a chance when Johanna Sigurdardottir, the prime minister and present leader of the social democrats, steps down as everyone expects she will want to sooner rather than later. She never aspired to become a leader of this government, was about to leave politics, but was the only one in her party that had the necessary trust and respect.
If the Icelandic parties keep on touting politicians heavily connected to the boom years they will face independent parties and a major wipe out in the coming election (which doesn’t need to be held until in three years time) – there is talk now that the party leaders should think their position though no doubt no one is keen on election. But the voters have clearly shown that if the politicians of the main parties keep on being mealy mouthed about the boom years and the need to cleaning out in all corners of society the voters will jump at whatever ‘best offers’ there are – even a comedian with no clear agenda.
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