Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

The results of the local elections – and the anti-“others” discourse in Iceland

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The Progressive Party staged a remarkable turn-around in Reykjavík, apparently because the top candidate spoke out against a planned mosque. Anti-immigrant discourse has so far not been part of the Icelandic political debate. The question is if this is now changing or if this topic will die out as quickly as flared up

After rush towards new parties in elections 2009 and 2010 the four old parties – or the “Four-Party” as Icelanders call them – got a solid outcome in the elections Saturday May 31. The Independence Party is still far from its glory of earlier decades, which ended in 2009, but the party leadership can sigh in relief that the party did make gains. The Progressive Party did not do as well but achieved nothing less than a miracle in Reykjavík: after opinion polls showing 0 seat, as has been the case since 2006 it won two seats, apparently because it questioned a planned mosque in Reykjavík.

The local elections only has an indirect effect on the government but the two coalition parties – the Progressives and the Independent Party can both interpret the outcome positively in spite of dismal polls lately: the Progressives will no doubt feel they are good at gauging the popular mood; the Independence Party might feel reassured that its bleakest hour are now firmly behind.

The social democrats gained votes and can feel mildly reassured of its outcome. It did not do quite as well in Reykjavík as opinion polls had indicated but it is the largest Reykjavík party. Its top candidate Dagur B. Eggertsson, who has de facto steered the Reykjavík Council under mayor Jón Gnarr, is likely to form a majority with Bright Future. That party ran for parliament last year, picking up some of its candidates from Jón Gnarr’s now defunct Best Party, though only a fraction of the Best Party popularity in Reykjavík. Left Green lost around the country but won a seat in Reykjavík and might very well be part of an Eggertsson led council.

The unexpected election topic in Reykjavík: a mosque

The issue of a plot of Reykjavík land for a mosque only flared up in the last few days, apparently almost by accident. The Progressives’ leading lady in Reykjavík Sveinbjörg B. Sveinbjörnsdóttir – who took the first seat a few weeks ago when the number one resigned in face of dismal opining polls – started airing her doubt about the planned mosque. She denies she took this up on her own accord but only responded to questions when meeting with voters.

Sveinbjörnsdóttir got a heavy beating from some in her own party for airing what some felt were intolerant views: the number five on the list disengaged from the party, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson minister of foreign affairs spoke strongly against her views. Interestingly, prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson kept quiet about the issue and only spoken of his unease over the strong reaction Sveinbjörnsdóttir elicited from those who did not agree with her.

According to Icelandic law, faith communities can get a land free to build a house of worship. Needless to say, this law stems from the time when the Icelandic Lutheran community – almost entirely under the state church – was the only faith organisation building houses of worship. The Reykjavík council had given a plot of land to a Muslim community. The rumbling among the voters has been why this community should get land for free, if it should be in some other place, if the land was unreasonably big, that mosques were known to harbour terrorism and extremism and so forth.

The fact that Sveinbjörnsdóttir echoed the concern of many voters seems to have created a surge for the Progressives only over the last few days. Also it seems to have made a difference that the Progressives are in favour of keeping the Reykjavík airport whereas other parties want it moved in order to free up building land. Consequently, the party now has two members on the Reykjavík council, after having had none since 2006 – the most surprising outcome of the local elections.

Racism and intolerant views has had no following in Icelandic politics – so far

So far, racism and intolerant views towards foreigners or new foreign faith communities has had little public following in Iceland. And not entirely for lack of trying. One new party, which ran in the parliamentary elections last year preached some far right views, both on markets and foreigners but to no avail: this party got nowhere.

Earlier, the Progressives had dallied with anti-foreign view, but the same: there was no response from voters and by election time last year the party had abandoned these views. Anti-foreigners far right views simply did not seem to attract any interest. Until the issue of the mosque rose to the surface.

Immigrants in Iceland

Number of foreigners in Iceland has jumped up over the last decade. Immigrants came first to work in the fishing industry, later in the service industry. Apart from the fishing industry, hospitals and restaurants run on an immigrant workforce.

At the beginning of 2013 9.1% of the inhabitants in Iceland were immigrants. By far the largest foreign community in Iceland is the Polish community, ca. 9.400, in a country of 326.000 inhabitants, meaning the 3% of the inhabitants are Polish/of Polish origin. The highest ratio of immigrants vs Icelanders is in Western Iceland but two out of every three immigrants live in Reykjavík. Unemployment among the Polish community is 15% compared to 4% for born and bred Icelanders. The Poles have much revived the Catholic community in Iceland.

There are two Muslim communities in Iceland with a total of 645 members. An application for a plot of land to build a mosque was put forward already in 2000 and has been sloshing around in the system ever since. In the meantime, the Russian Orthodox community and the pagan community (Ásatrú, based on what is thought to have been the faith of the Vikings) got plots of land in 2007 and a Thai Temple was granted land in 2009.

The application for a mosque has surfaced in the Icelandic debate now and then but never with any particular fervour – until now.

If this indicates a surge of right wing anti-immigrant politics in Iceland remains to be seen. Judged from how these policies have fared so far it seems unlikely – but it is also possible, as often happens with these issues, that debate now might have granted these views a certain “legitimacy,” which others may feel they can now exploit: being anti-Muslim might pave the way for a further “them and us” discourse in Icelandic politics though there is nothing to indicate it except this flare around the mosque not yet built.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

June 1st, 2014 at 5:02 pm

Posted in Iceland

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