Iceland

   
 

Executive Summary

Government crisis followed by coalition collapse. Scandal leads to government breakdown.
Election brings fragmented parties
In January 2017, ten weeks after the October 2016 parliamentary elections, a three-party coalition government was formed. The most successful party in the elections, the Independence Party (21 seats), led a coalition with Regeneration (seven seats) and Bright Future (four seats). This meant that the government coalition held only 32 out of 63 parliamentary seats, a bare minimum for a parliamentary majority. Since Regeneration was more or less a liberal breakout from the Independence Party and Bright Future defined themselves as a centrist liberal party, this coalition government can be regarded as a right-wing government. This coalition was formed following a long government crisis with several false starts and failed attempts to build a new coalition government. After only eight months in power, this coalition collapsed when Bright Future announced that they were ending their coalition with the Independence Party. In a two-sentence statement, posted on the official Facebook page of Bright Future, the party explained: “The leadership of Bright Future has decided to end cooperation with the government of (Prime Minister) Bjarni Benediktsson. The reason for the split is a serious breach of trust within the government.” Here, they were referring to news, which had broken earlier that evening, that the prime minister’s father had provided a recommendation letter of “restored honor” for a man convicted of having raped his stepdaughter almost daily for 12 years. Benediktsson, despite having been informed about this by the minister of justice in July 2017, kept this matter to himself until a parliamentary committee compelled the ministry to release this information to the press. A new election was announced on 28 October 2017 since no new coalition cabinet was on the cards. Parliament was dissolved and the second parliamentary election in one year took place. The election campaign had hardly started when the former prime minister, Sigmundur D. Gunnlaugsson, who had resigned in spring 2016 in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, broke away from the Progressive Party. In October 2017, he established a new political party, the Center Party (Miðflokkurinn). Various Progressive Party members left and joined the new party. This was the first time in Iceland’s history that both traditional parties, the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, were split at election time.
Gag order raises media-freedom concerns
A significant infringement of media freedom took place in October 2017, two weeks before the elections, when the Reykjavík Sheriff’s Department issued a gag order on the newspaper Stundin. The order prohibited Stundin from covering leaked documents that outlined dubious financial transactions involving the prime minister, Bjarni Benediktsson, the chairman of the Independence Party, during the 2008 financial crash. The gag order and the questions raised by the coverage of Stundin reignited a debate about the corrosive effects of money in Icelandic politics, unequal justice and the value of a free press. OSCE expressed concern about the gag order which bars Stundin and its partners at investigative journalism outfit Reykjavík Media from further reporting on the leaked documents, including emails, from the windup committee of Glitnir bank. Recent judicial verdicts in cases concerning freedoms of expression seem to make it unlikely that the gag order will be upheld by the Reykjavík District Court in early 2018 or by the Supreme Court. Yet, time will tell.
Former coalition loses electoral strength.
Political landscape shifts considerably
In the 28 October 2017 parliamentary election, the government coalition lost dramatically, losing 12 of its 32 seats and winding up with only 20 out of 63 parliamentary seats. The Independence Party lost five seats, Regeneration lost three seats and Bright Future was wiped out winning only 1.2% of votes. The Centre Party and Flokkur Fólksins (the People’s Party) won seats in parliament for the first time. The Centre Party won 11% of the vote and seven seats, and the People’s Party won 7% of the vote and four seats. The Social Democrats recovered somewhat from their heavy loss in 2016, going from 5.7% of the vote to 12.1% and from three seats to seven. The Progressive Party managed to keep their loss of support down to less than 1 percentage point and kept their eight seats from 2016, even if many party members, and one sitting member of parliament and former minister followed Gunnlaugsson to the new Centre Party. The Left-Green Movement went from 15.9% to 16.9% and remained the second largest party. Finally, the Pirate Party suffered a significant loss, falling from 14.5% in 2016 to 9.2% of the vote, losing four of their 10 seats. So, the political landscape changed significantly between 2016 and 2017. For the first time, eight parties won seats in parliament. The largest party in parliament, the Independence Party with 25% of the votes and 16 seats, has never been so small – the party’s second worst election result ever, second only to the 2009 election held immediately after the financial crash. There was neither a clear left or right swing in the elections. The right, the Independence Party and Regeneration, went from a total of 28 seats to 20 and the two left-wing parties went from 13 to 18 seats. Centrist parties gained ground, so the coalition question is almost as unclear as in 2016. However, the outgoing opposition parties, the Left-Green Movement, Progressive Party, Social Democrats and Pirate Party, obtained the smallest possible majority of 32 seats. At the time of writing, in early November 2017, they have started formal negotiations on building a government coalition, led by the chairman of the Left-Green Movement, Katrín Jakobsdóttir.
Capital controls
finally lifted
Another significant development during 2017 was the successful and almost complete removal of the capital controls imposed under IMF supervision as an emergency measure following the financial crash of 2008. Having first been delayed and then implemented in stages, the relaxation of controls was not accompanied by a depreciation of the króna or by a sudden outflow of capital. Even so, Iceland remains vulnerable to future swings in capital flows and the exchange rate of the króna, the world’s smallest free-floating sovereign currency.
Citations:
Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2016), Iceland’s New Constitution Is Not Solely a Local Concern, Challenge, 480-490.

Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2016), Constitution on Ice, in Iceland’s Financial Crisis: The Politics of Blame, Protest, and Reconstruction (2016), Routledge, London, England, ed. Valur Ingimundarson, Philipe Urlfalino, and Irma Erlingsdóttir. — Longer version available as CESifo Working Paper 5056, November 2014.

Hardarson, Ólafur Th. (2017), Icelandic Althingi election 2017: One more government defeat – and a party system in a continuing flux. In: Party Systems and Governments Observatory. 2nd November 2017.
https://whogoverns.eu/icelandic-althingi-election-2017-one-more-government-defeat-and-a-party-system-in-a-continuing-flux/

Reinhart, Carmen M., and Kenneth S. Rogoff (2009), This Time is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford.
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