In 2007, the Social Democrats came to power in Iceland after 12 years of a right-wing majority coalition formed by the Independence Party and the Progressive Party. In this cabinet shift, the Social Democrats replaced the Progressives as the coalition partner of the right-wing Independence Party. Some thought this change in government composition would bring substantial changes in emphasis in Icelandic politics, while others were doubtful. The new government had been in power for 16 months when, in October 2008, the country’s three main banks collapsed within a week of one another.
With the collapse of banks comprising 85% of the banking system, Iceland plunged into the deepest and most rapidly advancing financial crisis recorded in peacetime history, the first of such magnitude in an advanced country. The government had deregulated and privatized the banking system in the late 1990s and early 2000s, allowing the banks to pass into the hands of politically well-connected individuals possessing little or no experience in modern banking. The banks proceeded to take advantage of ample supplies of low-cost capital in international markets to fuel a high degree of leverage and a rapid growth in their balance sheets, with the result that the banks quickly far outstripped the ability of the fiscal authorities and the Central Bank to stand behind them with financial guarantees. In addition, the banks’ institutional structures lagged behind developments in the banking sector elsewhere. Neither the Central Bank nor the Financial Supervisory Authority (FSA) developed the infrastructure necessary to fulfill their duties adequately, and they did not receive the necessary support from the authorities (Danielsson and Zoega, 2009). The parliament’s Special Investigation Commission (SIC) report subsequently blamed the government, the Central Bank and the FSA for negligence in the exercise of their duties before the crash, raising the prospect of legal consequences for the politicians and public officials named in the report. The report exposed deep public administration flaws that had weakened the country’s infrastructure and contributed to the crash.
After a few turbulent months, the coalition government formed in 2007 began to fall apart. The Social Democrats were dissatisfied with their coalition partner’s reluctance to replace some of the officials thought to bear partial responsibility for the crash, especially the Central Bank governor (a former prime minister) and the director of the FSA. The conflict resulted in the fall of the coalition in late January 2009, and the subsequent formation of a new minority government on February 1, 2009, this time made up of the Social Democrats and the Left Green Movement. This coalition was supported by the Progressive Party, which abstained from voting against government bills. However, an agreement was also made to hold new parliamentary elections in the spring. In the April election, the two parties on the left won a majority of the seats in parliament for the first time in history. The Social Democrats won 20 seats and the Left Green Movement 14 seats, for a total of 34 of the parliament’s 63 seats. The two parties formed a majority coalition government, led by the Social Democrats.
The new government’s economic policy centers on implementing the rescue package supported by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which was inherited from the previous government. The Nordic countries have provided financial support for the program, as Iceland’s maximum access to IMF resources falls far short of the financing gap opened up by the crash. Progress has been made under the IMF program, with capital controls acting to prevent the króna from depreciating further, as intended. However, implementation has been slow mainly because of the government’s inability, for domestic political reasons, to settle the Icesave dispute with Great Britain and Netherlands. The Nordic countries’ willingness to continue their support for the program will ultimately be contingent upon just such a settlement. Further, in mid-2009, the new government applied for membership in the European Union. EU membership has for some time been on the Social Democrats’ agenda, but the Left Greens have been and remain opposed to membership. The coalition made a deal to file an application and then submit any eventual agreement on accession terms to a national referendum. For many years before the crash, public opinion used to favor membership by a small margin. After the crisis, however, support for EU membership has weakened, casting doubt on the outcome of a referendum.
Despite some reluctance in the Left Green parliamentary group to support the terms of the Icesave agreement negotiated by the governments of Iceland, Great Britain and the Netherlands, the agreement was approved by parliament in December 2009, after several months of debate. The president of Iceland then refused to ratify the law, thereby sending the issue to a public referendum in accordance with the constitution. At the time of the March 6, 2010 referendum, a new agreement, more favorable to Iceland, was on the table. Knowing this, the electorate overwhelmingly rejected the agreement. By the close of the review period, this matter remained unresolved, partly due to elections and changes in government in Great Britain and the Netherlands in the spring of 2010.
Another important issue in Icelandic politics, in addition to the economic problems and external public debt, concerns fisheries policy. The government has announced its intention to change the fisheries management system. Opinion polls have long shown that a large majority of Iceland’s population is opposed to the catch quota system, under which boat owners have been granted fishing quotas free of charge even though the fish stocks in Icelandic waters are by law a common property resource. As the law currently stands, the quotas are transferable between boat owners and thereby between municipalities and regions. Quite apart from the implications of allowing boat owners to pocket the revenue from selling a common property, there are concerns that the quotas’ transferability has had serious consequences for some regions, including rapid depopulation since the early 1990s. The government’s intention is thus to sell a portion of the annual quotas every year rather than giving them away for free, thereby implementing a fair and market-friendly method of fisheries management advocated by many economists. However, some object that most of the quota has already been sold by boat owners who originally recieved their shares for free.
Iceland finds itself in a deep economic crisis and faces several years of serious strain. How quickly the country’s standard of living can be restored to approximate parity with the rest of the Nordic region, as measured in per capita national income in euros, remains to be seen.