Iceland

   

Quality of Democracy

#28
Key Findings
Showing a mixed pattern of strengths and weaknesses, Iceland falls into the lower-middle ranks (rank 28) for the quality of its democracy. Its score on this measure has declined by 1.0 points relative to 2014.

Parties receive public and private funding. Some circumventions of funding limitations, such as reimbursements for election-related travel costs, have come to light. Referenda are called if the president refuses to sign bills. Government politicians have accused the state-run broadcasters of bias, largely due to the exposure of political scandals.

A proposed new constitution and voting system were supported by strong majorities in a non-binding public referendum in 2012. It was never ratified, and the government has launched a parallel process reviewing aspects of the existing constitution. The government has been secretive about releasing potentially compromising information.

Civil rights are protected. Despite robust non-discrimination laws, some gender and other discrimination persists. Legal certainty is generally robust, though the judicial appointment process has been criticized by external bodies. Abuse of office does occur, and links between politicians and banks remain a concern.

Electoral Processes

#23

How fair are procedures for registering candidates and parties?

10
 9

Legal regulations provide for a fair registration procedure for all elections; candidates and parties are not discriminated against.
 8
 7
 6


A few restrictions on election procedures discriminate against a small number of candidates and parties.
 5
 4
 3


Some unreasonable restrictions on election procedures exist that discriminate against many candidates and parties.
 2
 1

Discriminating registration procedures for elections are widespread and prevent a large number of potential candidates or parties from participating.
Candidacy Procedures
9
Most Icelandic citizens aged 18 years or over can run for parliament. Exceptions include Supreme Court justices and adult individuals convicted of a serious felony or sentenced to four months or more in custody. For local elections, with the exception of the minimum age limit, these restrictions do not apply. Citizens of other Nordic countries with three years’ consecutive residence in Iceland can stand as candidates in local elections. The registration process for candidates and parties is transparent and fair.

The minimum 5% share of the national vote required to get so-called leveling seats (jöfnunarþingsæti) in parliament was set in 2000. In addition to this 5% threshold, parties can win a seat by securing a majority of the vote within a constituency. This minimum threshold is the same as in Germany, but higher than in the other Nordic countries (Sweden and Norway 4%, Denmark 2%).

A consequence of this system is that many votes fail to directly influence the results. As many as 12% of the votes in 2013 won no parliamentary representation, as they went to candidates or parties that failed to win a constituency seat or polled less than 5% of the national vote. This was the largest share of unrepresented votes in Iceland’s modern history. A result that was due mainly to a record 15 parties running for parliament in 2013. Since 2013, this rate has declined. In the 2016 elections, parties that did not reach the 5% threshold received a combined 5.7% of the total vote. This rate further declined to only 1.6% of the total vote in the 2017 elections.

Citations:
Bengtsson, Å., Hansen, K. M., Harðarson, Ó. T., Narud, H. M. and Oscarsson, H. (2014), The Nordic Voter. Myths of exceptionalism. Essex. ECPR Press.

Lög um kosningar til Alþingis nr. 24/2000 (Law on parliamentary elections nr. 24/2000).

Lög um breytingar á lögum um kosningum til Alþingis nr. 16/2009 (Law on changes in law on parliamentary elections nr. 24/2000).

Lög um kosningar til sveitarstjórna nr. 5/1998 (Law on local elections nr. 5/1998).

To what extent do candidates and parties have fair access to the media and other means of communication?

10
 9

All candidates and parties have equal opportunities of access to the media and other means of communication. All major media outlets provide a fair and balanced coverage of the range of different political positions.
 8
 7
 6


Candidates and parties have largely equal opportunities of access to the media and other means of communication. The major media outlets provide a fair and balanced coverage of different political positions.
 5
 4
 3


Candidates and parties often do not have equal opportunities of access to the media and other means of communication. While the major media outlets represent a partisan political bias, the media system as a whole provides fair coverage of different political positions.
 2
 1

Candidates and parties lack equal opportunities of access to the media and other means of communications. The major media outlets are biased in favor of certain political groups or views and discriminate against others.
Media Access
7
Formally, all parties or candidates have equal access to media. There are no restrictions based on race, gender, language, or other such demographic factors. However, parties already represented in the national parliament or in local councils have an electoral advantage over new parties or candidates. Furthermore, in the 2013 parliamentary election campaign, several media organizations systematically discriminated against small or new parties, which opinion polls had indicated were unlikely to surpass the 5% minimum vote threshold. However, the state-run media cover all major parties. During the election campaign in the autumn 2017 elections, two small parties complained about not being allowed to participate in the party leader debate on the state-run TV the night before the election day. However, both parties were seen to have very low support and neither fielded candidates in every constituency.

To what extent do all citizens have the opportunity to exercise their right of participation in national elections?

10
 9

All adult citizens can participate in national elections. All eligible voters are registered if they wish to be. There are no discriminations observable in the exercise of the right to vote. There are no disincentives to voting.
 8
 7
 6


The procedures for the registration of voters and voting are for the most part effective, impartial and nondiscriminatory. Citizens can appeal to courts if they feel being discriminated. Disincentives to voting generally do not constitute genuine obstacles.
 5
 4
 3


While the procedures for the registration of voters and voting are de jure non-discriminatory, isolated cases of discrimination occur in practice. For some citizens, disincentives to voting constitute significant obstacles.
 2
 1

The procedures for the registration of voters or voting have systemic discriminatory effects. De facto, a substantial number of adult citizens are excluded from national elections.
Voting and Registration Rights
10
Iceland’s voting procedure is unrestricted. If an individual is registered as a voter within a constituency, he or she only has to present personal identification to cast a vote. Every person 18 years or older has the right to vote.

To what extent is private and public party financing and electoral campaign financing transparent, effectively monitored and in case of infringement of rules subject to proportionate and dissuasive sanction?

10
 9

The state enforces that donations to political parties are made public and provides for independent monitoring to that respect. Effective measures to prevent evasion are effectively in place and infringements subject to effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions.
 8
 7
 6


The state enforces that donations to political parties are made public and provides for independent monitoring. Although infringements are subject to proportionate sanctions, some, although few, loopholes and options for circumvention still exist.
 5
 4
 3


The state provides that donations to political parties shall be published. Party financing is subject to some degree of independent monitoring but monitoring either proves regularly ineffective or proportionate sanctions in case of infringement do not follow.
 2
 1

The rules for party and campaign financing do not effectively enforce the obligation to make the donations public. Party and campaign financing is neither monitored independently nor, in case of infringements, subject to proportionate sanctions.
Party Financing
5
The 2006 law regulating the financing of political parties provides three types of public grants. First, an annual grant, proportional to the national vote share in the previous election, is awarded to any party or independent group with at least one member of parliament or attained at least 2.5% of the national vote in the last election. Second, an annual grant, proportional to the number of seats in parliament, is awarded to all parliamentary parties or independent groups. Third, a grant is awarded to any party or independent group, in a municipality of 500 inhabitants or more, with at least one member in the local council or attained at least 5% of the vote in the last municipal election. The law also regulates private contributions to political activity. For example, parties are not allowed to accept more than ISK 400,000 (€2,900) from any private actor, company, or individual.

The National Audit Office (Ríkisendurskoðun) monitors party and candidate finances, and publishes annual summaries that include total expenditure and income. Income must be classified by origin, identifying companies or other entities contributing to party finances before and during election periods.

Before the 2007 election campaign, political parties reached an agreement that a maximum of ISK 28 million could be spent on TV, radio, and newspaper advertisements. Moreover, there is legal limit on electoral spending. Since 2009, regulation on party finances has been under review, but no final agreement has been reached.

The law on party financing was originally drafted by a committee comprising party representatives, including the chief financial officers of the main political parties. This followed the disclosure by the National Audit Office that, among other things, fishing firms gave 10 times as much money to the Independence Party and the Progressive Party between 2008 and 2011 as to all other parties combined. The Independence Party and the Progressive Party have been and remain particularly generous toward the fishing industry. Similarly, the Special Investigation Committee disclosed that huge loans and contributions were provided by the Icelandic banks to political parties and politicians between 2006 and 2008, on a per capita scale significantly greater than in the United States.

The extent to which the rules are circumvented is not well known. Even so, a new method of circumvention came to light in 2018 when it was disclosed that some members of parliament received considerable sums of money from parliament to pay for travel costs, including travel to visit voters before elections.

Citations:
Lög um fjármál stjórnmálasamtaka og frambjóðenda og um upplýsingaskyldu þeirra, nr. 162/2006 (Law on the finances of political organizations and candidates and about their information duties nr. 162/2006).

Lög um breytingu á lögum nr. 162/2006, um fjármál stjórnmálasamtaka og frambjóðenda og um upplýsingaskyldu þeirra nr. 119 21. september 2010.

Kristinsson, G. H. (2007), Íslenska stjórnkerfið. 2. útgáfa. Reykjavík, Háskóli Íslands. (The Icelandic political system. Second edition)

Special Investigation Committee (SIC) (2010), Report of the Special Investigation Committee (SIC), report delivered to Althing, the Icelandic Parliament, on 12 April. See http://www.rna.is/eldri-nefndir/addragandi-og-orsakir-falls-islensku-bankanna-2008/skyrsla-nefndarinnar/english/. Accessed 22 December 2018.

Do citizens have the opportunity to take binding political decisions when they want to do so?

10
 9

Citizens have the effective opportunity to actively propose and take binding decisions on issues of importance to them through popular initiatives and referendums. The set of eligible issues is extensive, and includes national, regional, and local issues.
 8
 7
 6


Citizens have the effective opportunity to take binding decisions on issues of importance to them through either popular initiatives or referendums. The set of eligible issues covers at least two levels of government.
 5
 4
 3


Citizens have the effective opportunity to vote on issues of importance to them through a legally binding measure. The set of eligible issues is limited to one level of government.
 2
 1

Citizens have no effective opportunity to vote on issues of importance to them through a legally binding measure.
Popular Decision-Making
5
Since 1944, the constitutional provision granting the president of Iceland the right to veto legislation has been invoked three times and has twice led to a national referendum.

In 2012, an advisory national referendum on a new constitution was called by parliament. In the referendum, 73% voted in favor of a provision enabling 10% of the electorate to demand a national referendum. This reform would mean that referring legislation passed by parliament to a national referendum would no longer remain the prerogative of the president alone. However, parliament has yet to ratify the constitution bill or use it as a basis for a new one, even though 67% voted in favor of the bill. Proposals for further referendums (e.g., on EU membership negotiations) ring hollow when parliament has yet to respect the outcome of the constitutional referendum of 2012. In 2018, the cabinet of Jakobsdóttir – claiming that the authority for changing the constitution lies in the parliament, not the people – announced a three-year process for reviewing limited aspects of the constitution, as though the 2012 national referendum on a new constitution had not taken place. The review is supposed to cover the transfer of state powers, national referendums, natural resources and environmental protections. The outcome of this review remains to be seen.

A law on local government affairs was passed by parliament in September 2011. This law contained a new chapter called Consultancy with Citizens (Samráð við íbúa), which includes paragraphs on local referendums and citizen initiatives. Under its terms, if at least 20% of the population eligible to vote in a municipality demand a referendum, the local authorities are obliged to hold a referendum within a year. However, local councils can decide to increase this threshold to 33% of eligible voters. At the local level, therefore, significant steps have been taken to improve the opportunity for citizen impact between elections.

Citations:
Carrillo, David A. (ed.) (2018), The Icelandic Federalist Papers, Berkeley Public Policy Press 2018.

The New Icelandic Constitution: How Did It Come About? Where Is It?, Iðunn, Reykjavík, 2018.

Constitution of the Republic of Iceland No. 33, 17 June 1944.

Forsætisráðuneytið. Endurskoðun stjórnarskrár 2018-2021. https://www.stjornarradid.is/lisalib/getfile.aspx?itemid=e6329b3e-1a68-11e9-942f-005056bc4d74 Retrieved 16th October 2019.

National Referendum (Þjóðaratkvæði). http://thjodaratkvaedi.is/2010. Accessed 22 December 2018.

The Constitutional Council. http://stjornlagarad.is/english/. Accessed 22 December 2018.

Eythórsson, Grétar Thór & Arnarson, Sveinn (2012), Íslensk sveitarstjórnarmál í brennidepli. Staða sveitarstjórnarstigsins, verkefni, skipan, íbúalýðræði og áhrif efnahagshrunsins. Akureyri. Háskólinn á Akureyri.

Sveitarstjórnarlög nr. 138 28. september 2011

Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2013), “From collapse to constitution: The case of Iceland,” in Public Debt, Global Governance and Economic Dynamism, ed. Luigi Paganetto, Springer.

Access to Information

#25

To what extent are the media independent from government?

10
 9

Public and private media are independent from government influence; their independence is institutionally protected and fully respected by the incumbent government.
 8
 7
 6


The incumbent government largely respects the independence of media. However, there are occasional attempts to exert influence.
 5
 4
 3


The incumbent government seeks to ensure its political objectives indirectly by influencing the personnel policies, organizational framework or financial resources of public media, and/or the licensing regime/market access for private media.
 2
 1

Major media outlets are frequently influenced by the incumbent government promoting its partisan political objectives. To ensure pro-government media reporting, governmental actors exert direct political pressure and violate existing rules of media regulation or change them to benefit their interests.
Media Freedom
7
Until privatization in 1986, the state had a monopoly over radio and TV broadcasting. Private stations now have a significant role in the media market.

Owners of private media sometimes try to exercise influence over news coverage. The largest daily newspaper has faced accusations that its owners, a former business magnate and his wife, have unduly influenced content. They sold the paper in 2019. Meanwhile, Iceland’s second largest daily newspaper is partly owned by fishing magnates. Its chief editor is a former Icelandic prime minister and discredited governor of Iceland’s central bank. The newspaper regularly publishes content critical of fisheries policy reforms as well as Iceland’s application for EU membership. Some politicians in government have repeatedly accused state-run radio and TV (RÚV) of bias against the government in their news reporting, partly because RÚV played an important role in exposing political scandals. Despite criticism that Iceland lacks a strong, independent media, the position of those seeking to dominate the media has been considerably weakened by the advent of online social media platforms.

Citations:
Karlsson, Ragnar (2010): Íslenskur fjölmiðlamarkaður. Framboð, fjölbreytni, samkeppni og samþjöppun. (The Icelandic Media Market. Supply, diversity, competition and concern). An overview prepared for the Ministry of Education and Culture.

Statistics Iceland (Hagstofa Íslands) www.statice.is

To what extent are the media characterized by an ownership structure that ensures a pluralism of opinions?

10
 9

Diversified ownership structures characterize both the electronic and print media market, providing a well-balanced pluralism of opinions. Effective anti-monopoly policies and impartial, open public media guarantee a pluralism of opinions.
 8
 7
 6


Diversified ownership structures prevail in the electronic and print media market. Public media compensate for deficiencies or biases in private media reporting by representing a wider range of opinions.
 5
 4
 3


Oligopolistic ownership structures characterize either the electronic or the print media market. Important opinions are represented but there are no or only weak institutional guarantees against the predominance of certain opinions.
 2
 1

Oligopolistic ownership structures characterize both the electronic and the print media market. Few companies dominate the media, most programs are biased, and there is evidence that certain opinions are not published or are marginalized.
Media Pluralism
6
Media ownership in Iceland can be divided into three blocs, two private ones and one public.

There is one state-owned TV station (RÚV – Sjónvarp) and two state-owned radio channels (RÚV – Rás1 and RÚV – Rás2). There are also four private national TV channels (Stöð2, Sjónvarp Símans, Hringbraut, and N4) and two national private radio channels, separately owned. Until March 2017, the private 365 Media Corporation (365 Miðlar) owned a TV station (Stöð 2), Bylgjan radio station, and Fréttablaðið, the larger of the country’s two daily newspapers. 365 Media Corporation was the largest media actor in Iceland, and had clear connections to a business magnate and former bank owner, who sold his media holdings to another magnate in 2019.

Morgunblaðið, the second largest newspaper, has long been considered the voice of the Independence Party and is owned primarily by several fishing vessel owners. Since 2009, its chief editor has been the former prime minister and Independence Party leader. Other newspapers include DV, Stundin and Kjarninn.

Given the somewhat broader ownership of TV and radio media combined with several smaller TV broadcasters, radio stations and newspapers, media ownership in Iceland can be considered fairly pluralistic.

To what extent can citizens obtain official information?

10
 9

Legal regulations guarantee free and easy access to official information, contain few, reasonable restrictions, and there are effective mechanisms of appeal and oversight enabling citizens to access information.
 8
 7
 6


Access to official information is regulated by law. Most restrictions are justified, but access is sometimes complicated by bureaucratic procedures. Existing appeal and oversight mechanisms permit citizens to enforce their right of access.
 5
 4
 3


Access to official information is partially regulated by law, but complicated by bureaucratic procedures and some poorly justified restrictions. Existing appeal and oversight mechanisms are often ineffective.
 2
 1

Access to official information is not regulated by law; there are many restrictions of access, bureaucratic procedures and no or ineffective mechanisms of enforcement.
Access to Government Information
6
The 1997 Information Act (Upplýsingalög), revised in 2012, aims to guarantee the right of access to official information. Memoranda, working documents, and materials related to the Council of the State (Ríkisráð), cabinet, and ministerial meetings were originally exempted. In 2011, a revision to the Act on the Government of Iceland (Lög um Stjórnarráð Íslands) mandated that the agenda of cabinet meetings be presented to the media and published on the government’s website after each meeting. Paragraph nine states that the prime minister can decide, with cabinet approval, to create ministerial committees on an issue-specific basis. Following a 2015 revision, two permanent ministerial committees were established to oversee state finances and economic affairs.

Sensitive financial and personal information, as laid out in the Act on Processing and Protection of Personal Data (No. 77/2000), is not accessible unless permission is obtained from the person involved. Access to restricted information is available once the measures associated with the information are complete, after a period of 30 years for general information or 80 years for personal information (as per the National Archives Act, No. 66/1985). Information regarding the security or defense of the state, or international commercial activities, is also exempted from the act. Decisions denying access to information can be appealed to the Information Committee, whose members are appointed by the prime minister. No other government or judicial body can overrule the decisions of the Information Committee.

Despite these provisions, public access to information can be restricted. For example, the central bank refused a parliamentary committee’s request to see a transcript or hear an audio recording of a fateful telephone conversation between the prime minister and the central bank governor shortly before the 2008 economic collapse.

Governments have proved to be quite secretive about potentially compromising information. For example, an official report on Icelanders whose names appear in the Panama Papers was ready well before the October 2016 parliamentary election but was not disclosed to the public until after the election in which all three ministers whose names appeared in the Panama Papers were re-elected to their seats in parliament. There have been several other recent scandals involving information withheld from the public. One such scandal led to the collapse of the coalition government of Benediktsson in 2017. Another example is that of the opposition member of parliament who, for the last two years, has tried in vain to obtain an answer from the government to the question of who bought a large number of apartments from which the House Financing Fund had evicted the former owners between 2009 and 2019.

During 2018, an opposition member of parliament from the Pirate Party managed to compel the parliament to disclose information regarding parliament’s reimbursement of members of parliament’s expense claims (e.g., travel costs). Parliament’s failure to ratify the constitution bill, approved in the 2012 national referendum, can be viewed in the light of the bill’s provisions on transparency, freedom of information and protection of whistleblowers, reforms that many politicians continue to resist.

Citations:
The National Archives Act no. 66/1985. (Lög um Þjóðskjalasafn Íslands no. 66/1985).

Information Act (Upplysingalög). Act no. 50/1996.

Act on Processing and Protection of Personal Data. (Lög um persónuvernd og meðferð persónuupplýsinga) Act no. 77/2000.

Act on the Government of Iceland (Lög um Stjórnarráð Íslands) nr. 115 23. september 2011.

Change of Act on the Government of Iceland (Lög um Stjórnarráð Íslands) nr. 115 23. september 2011. (Lög um breytingu á lögum nr. 115/2011, um Stjórnarráð Íslands (skrifleg framlagning mála á ríkisstjórnarfundum)).

Lög um breytingu á lögum um Stjórnarráð Íslands, nr. 115/2011, með síðari breytingum (skipulag ráðuneyta og stofnana o.fl.) nr. 82 13. júlí 2015.

Civil Rights and Political Liberties

#19

To what extent does the state respect and protect civil rights and how effectively are citizens protected by courts against infringements of their rights?

10
 9

All state institutions respect and effectively protect civil rights. Citizens are effectively protected by courts against infringements of their rights. Infringements present an extreme exception.
 8
 7
 6


The state respects and protects rights, with few infringements. Courts provide protection.
 5
 4
 3


Despite formal protection, frequent infringements of civil rights occur and court protection often proves ineffective.
 2
 1

State institutions respect civil rights only formally, and civil rights are frequently violated. Court protection is not effective.
Civil Rights
7
The Icelandic state fully respects and protects civil rights, and courts effectively protect citizens. Where there is evidence of disregard for civil rights, courts generally rule against the government.

However, there are specific exceptions to this rule. Most importantly, in 2007, the United Nations Committee on Human Rights (UNCHR) issued a de facto (if not de jure) binding opinion stating that, because of its discriminatory nature, the management system of Iceland’s fisheries constituted a violation of human rights. Furthermore, the UNCHR instructed the government to change the system and to pay damages to those whose rights had been violated. The government responded by promising to pass a new constitution with a provision declaring the country’s natural resources to be the property of the nation. The UNCHR later dropped the case, saying that Iceland’s promise of a new constitution was partly sufficient. However, the parliament has not ratified the new constitution, which was approved by 67% of the voters in the 2012 national referendum. The current prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir (who took office in November 2017), has stated that steps should be taken during the current mandate period to revise the constitution. However, this would require the parliament to overrule the national referendum from 2012. What happens next remains to be seen. Two of the political parties most opposed to the constitution bill are part of the current cabinet.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has heard several petitions by Icelandic citizens recently that their civil rights have been violated. In almost all of these cases, the ECHR has ruled in favor of the petitioners, casting doubt on the ability of Icelandic courts to protect civil rights effectively. Most recently, for example, journalists who had been found guilty of libel in Iceland were declared innocent by the ECHR. Following a number of similar ECHR rulings in recent years, Icelandic courts have demonstrated an increased tendency to acquit defendants in politically motivated libel cases. Nevertheless, defendants in several recent libel cases have had to bear the cost of their legal defense, despite being acquitted. Recently, the ECHR has also ruled against Iceland in connection with controversial judicial appointments.

Citations:
Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2016), “Constitution on Ice,” in Iceland’s Financial Crisis: The Politics of Blame, Protest, and Reconstruction, eds. Valur Ingimundarson, Philipe Urlfalino, and Irma Erlingsdóttir, Routledge, London.

Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2018), “Chain of legitimacy: Constitution making in Iceland,” in Elster, J., R. Gargarella, V. Naresh, and B. E. Rasch (eds.), Constituent Assemblies. Cambridge University Press, New York, 2018.

To what extent does the state concede and protect political liberties?

10
 9

All state institutions concede and effectively protect political liberties.
 8
 7
 6


All state institutions for the most part concede and protect political liberties. There are only few infringements.
 5
 4
 3


State institutions concede political liberties but infringements occur regularly in practice.
 2
 1

Political liberties are unsatisfactory codified and frequently violated.
Political Liberties
9
The 1944 constitution contains provisions protecting the freedom of the press as well as freedoms of organization and assembly. In the October 2017 parliamentary election campaign, five parties declared support for ratifying the constitutional bill proposed by the Constitutional Council in 2011, namely the Social Democrats, the Pirate Party, the Left-Green Movement, Regeneration and Bright Future. The strongest opponent of the constitutional change has been the Independence Party, which – together with the Progressive Party, another party that is reluctant to accept the change – is part of the current cabinet coalition led by the Left-Green Movement. The future of the constitution remains uncertain.

Citations:
David A. Carrillo (ed.) (2018), The Icelandic Federalist Papers, Ch. 20, Right to Information and Freedom of Expression, Berkeley Public Policy Press.

How effectively does the state protect against different forms of discrimination?

10
 9

State institutions effectively protect against and actively prevent discrimination. Cases of discrimination are extremely rare.
 8
 7
 6


State anti-discrimination protections are moderately successful. Few cases of discrimination are observed.
 5
 4
 3


State anti-discrimination efforts show limited success. Many cases of discrimination can be observed.
 2
 1

The state does not offer effective protection against discrimination. Discrimination is widespread in the public sector and in society.
Non-discrimination
6
Iceland’s constitution states that every person should enjoy equal human rights regardless of gender, religion, opinion, national origin, race, color, property, birth or other respect. More specific provisions are to be found in the Penal Code, the Administrative Procedure Act, and the Equality Act. The Supreme Court has ruled based on those acts and the constitution. The Equality Act states that genders should be accorded equal rights in all areas of society, and that discrimination in terms of work and pay is against the law. The Center for Gender Equality monitors adherence to this law and is obliged to refer all major cases to the courts.

Although equal rights are guaranteed by law, the reality is that discrimination occasionally occurs in Iceland, especially against women, disabled persons, and migrants. In the 2012 presidential elections, blind and physically disabled voters were denied the right to have an assistant of their own choice to help them vote at polling stations. Instead, they had to vote with help from public officials working at the polling stations. Following complaints from the Organization of Disabled in Iceland (Öryrkjabandalagið), the electoral laws were adjusted to allow blind or otherwise physically disabled individuals to independently nominate their own assistant who would be sworn to secrecy. This change applied to the 2013 parliamentary elections.

The government’s non-compliance with the binding opinion of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which ruled in 2007 that the management system of Iceland’s fisheries was discriminatory, signals a less-than-full commitment to non-discrimination.

The U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities was signed on behalf of the Icelandic government in March 2007. It was not until September 2016 that the Icelandic parliament, Althingi, passed a resolution to enable the government to ratify the convention. At the time of writing in late 2019, this remains to be done.

Citations:
The Penal Code (Almenn hegningarlög no. 19/1940).

The Administrative Procedure Act (Stjórnsýslulög no. 40/1993).

The Gender Equality Act (Lög um jafna stöðu og jafnan rétt kvenna og karla no. 10/2008).

Act on changes on the Act on Parliamentary Elections (Lög um breytingu á lögum um kosningar til Alþingis nr. 24/2000 og lögum um kosningar til sveitarstjórna nr. 5/1998 (aðstoð við kosningu). Lög nr. 111 16. október 2012.

Þingsályktun um fullgildingu samnings Sameinuðu þjóðanna um réttindi fatlaðs fólks. http://www.althingi.is/altext/145/s/1693.html. Accessed 22 December 2018.

Rule of Law

#33

To what extent do government and administration act on the basis of and in accordance with legal provisions to provide legal certainty?

10
 9

Government and administration act predictably, on the basis of and in accordance with legal provisions. Legal regulations are consistent and transparent, ensuring legal certainty.
 8
 7
 6


Government and administration rarely make unpredictable decisions. Legal regulations are consistent, but leave a large scope of discretion to the government or administration.
 5
 4
 3


Government and administration sometimes make unpredictable decisions that go beyond given legal bases or do not conform to existing legal regulations. Some legal regulations are inconsistent and contradictory.
 2
 1

Government and administration often make unpredictable decisions that lack a legal basis or ignore existing legal regulations. Legal regulations are inconsistent, full of loopholes and contradict each other.
Legal Certainty
8
Icelandic state authorities and administration respect the rule of law, and their actions are generally predictable. However, there have been cases in which verdicts by Icelandic courts and government actions have been overruled on appeal by the European Court of Human Rights. There have also been examples of Supreme Court verdicts that have been overruled by the European Court of Justice. Some of these cases have dealt with journalists’ free speech rights.

A relatively recent case of a different kind has a bearing on legal certainty. The Supreme Court ruled, first in June 2010 and more recently in April 2013, that bank loans indexed to foreign currencies were in violation of a 2001 law. As such, the asset portfolios of Icelandic banks contained invalid loans. These examples demonstrate that the banks acted contrary to the law. Neither the government nor any government institution, including the central bank and the Financial Supervisory Authority, paid sufficient attention to this violation. A governor of the central bank was even among those who had drafted the 2001 legislation. Even after the Supreme Court ruled that these loans were null and void, the banks were slow to recalculate the thousands of affected loans. Individual customers have had to sue the banks in an attempt to force them to follow the law.

Alleged violations of the law by public officials are less likely to be prosecuted than allegations involving private individuals. Several recent cases involve the decisions of central bank officials during and after the 2008 financial collapse, which were not investigated or prosecuted at the time. In particular, the authorities never investigated the dubious circumstances surrounding a €500 million loan, which was lent by the central bank to Kaupthing at the height of the financial crash. The dubious nature of the loan came to light following a leaked transcript of a telephone conversation between the central bank governor and the prime minister, which was kept secret until 2017. The statute of limitations for this alleged violation took effect in early October 2018.

In late 2019, huge bribes to Namibian ministers and others paid by Iceland’s largest fishing firm, Samherji, to secure fishing rights in Namibian waters were exposed by Wikileaks. This revelation led to the immediate arrest of two ministers and four other individuals in Namibia. In contrast, the reaction of political and judicial authorities in Iceland to this scandal has been more muted than in Namibia. However, the case is still under investigation. At the time of writing, it is not clear whether the Wikileaks accusations are correct.

Citations:
Lög um vexti og verðtryggingu (Law on interest and indexation) no. 38 2001.

European Court of Justice Verdict Against Iceland (Dómur MDE í máli Erlu Hlynsdóttur gegn Íslandi), https://www.innanrikisraduneyti.is/raduneyti/starfssvid/mannrettindi/mannrettindadomstoll-evropu/nr/29388. Accessed 22 December 2018.

To what extent do independent courts control whether government and administration act in conformity with the law?

10
 9

Independent courts effectively review executive action and ensure that the government and administration act in conformity with the law.
 8
 7
 6


Independent courts usually manage to control whether the government and administration act in conformity with the law.
 5
 4
 3


Courts are independent, but often fail to ensure legal compliance.
 2
 1

Courts are biased for or against the incumbent government and lack effective control.
Judicial Review
6
Iceland’s courts are not generally subject to pressure by either the government or powerful groups and individuals. The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court to rule on whether the government and administration have conformed to the law is beyond question. According to opinion polls, confidence in the judicial system ranged between 50% and 60% before 2008. After falling to about 30% in 2011, it recovered to 39% in 2013, remained around 40% in 2014 and 2015, and climbed to 43% in 2017. Having then fallen to 36% in 2018, the rate peaked in 2019 when Gallup reported it to be 47%.

Many observers consider the courts biased, as almost all judges attended the same law school and few have attended universities abroad. Two political parties, the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, maintained control over the Ministry of Justice for 81 out of the 90 years between 1927 and 2008 – dictating judicial appointments and sowing distrust.

In 2017, a sitting Supreme Court justice sued a former justice for libel in a case that awaits a verdict by the Supreme Court. Then, in 2019, the former justice sued another sitting justice over a private land dispute. Disputes among justices do not inspire confidence and trust, least of all when they trade accusations of illegal behavior.

Citations:
https://www.gallup.is/nidurstodur/thjodarpuls/traust-til-stofnana/. Accessed 16 October 2019.

Gunnlaugsson, Jón Steinar, Með lognið í fangið – um afglöp Hæstaréttar eftir hrun (With the Stream – On the Blunders of the Supreme Court After the Crash), BP útgáfa, Reykjavík, 2017.

To what extent does the process of appointing (supreme or constitutional court) justices guarantee the independence of the judiciary?

10
 9

Justices are appointed in a cooperative appointment process with special majority requirements.
 8
 7
 6


Justices are exclusively appointed by different bodies with special majority requirements or in a cooperative selection process without special majority requirements.
 5
 4
 3


Justices are exclusively appointed by different bodies without special majority requirements.
 2
 1

All judges are appointed exclusively by a single body irrespective of other institutions.
Appointment of Justices
3
To date, all Supreme Court and district court judges have been appointed by the minister of the interior, without any involvement from or oversight by parliament or any other public agency. However, all vacancies on the Supreme Court were advertised and the appointment procedure was at least formally transparent. As part of the appointment process, a five-person evaluation committee was appointed and tasked with recommending a single applicant. A 2010 change to the Act on Courts restricted the minister’s ability to appoint any person not found to be sufficiently qualified by the committee unless such an appointment is approved by the parliament. This was meant to restrain the minister’s authority by introducing external oversight.

A new Act on Courts was passed by parliament in June 2016, authorizing the minister to ask parliament to authorize the appointment of judges other than those recommended by the evaluation committee. The act was criticized, among other things, for taking inadequate steps concerning the minister of the interior’s ability to make judicial appointments subject to significantly weaker restraints than those stipulated in the constitutional bill approved in the 2012 referendum.

In 2009, the European Union expressed concern over the recruitment procedures for judges. The Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) has also criticized the process for appointing judges in Iceland. The 2011/2012 constitutional bill proposes that judicial appointments should be approved by the president or a parliamentary majority of two-thirds.

Many appointments to the courts continue to be controversial. In many cases, the scrutiny of Supreme Court candidates seems superficial. A retired Supreme Court justice, whose own appointment was controversial, published a book in 2014 criticizing his former court colleagues for their alleged opposition to his appointment as well as for some of their verdicts that he deemed misguided. He has since directed further attacks at his former colleagues for violating rules regarding conflict of interest, among other things.

In 2017, the minister of justice appointed 15 new judges to a new intermediary court between the district court level and the Supreme Court, including four judges deemed less qualified than other available applicants according to the review committee’s assessment of the applications. Two of the applicants who were bypassed sued and were awarded damages by the Supreme Court. A third applicant has announced that he will also sue for substantial damages. The Supreme Court has ruled that the minister of justice broke the law when she bypassed the recommendations of the review committee. In March 2019, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Icelandic state was guilty of breaking the law when 15 judges were appointed to the Landsréttur (a new intermediary court).

For all but 10 years between 1927 and 2017, control of the Ministry of Justice and the authority to appoint judges alternated between the Independence Party and the Progressive Party.

Citations:
Act on Courts. (Lög um dómstóla nr. 15 25 March 1998, revised 7 June 2017).

Change of the Act on Courts. (Lög um breyting á lögum um dómstóla nr. 15 1998 með síðari breytingum (skipun dómara) nr. 45 26. maí 2010).

Gunnlaugsson, Jón Steinar (2014), Í krafti sannfæringar, Forlagið, Reykjavík.

GRECO (2013), Report on Iceland, http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/greco/evaluations/round4/ReportsRound4_en.asp. Accessed 22 December 2018.

GRECO (2015), Report on Iceland, http://www.coe.int/t/dghl/monitoring/greco/evaluations/round4/RC4/GrecoRC4(2015)3_Iceland_EN.pdf. Accessed 22 December 2018.

To what extent are public officeholders prevented from abusing their position for private interests?

10
 9

Legal, political and public integrity mechanisms effectively prevent public officeholders from abusing their positions.
 8
 7
 6


Most integrity mechanisms function effectively and provide disincentives for public officeholders willing to abuse their positions.
 5
 4
 3


Some integrity mechanisms function, but do not effectively prevent public officeholders from abusing their positions.
 2
 1

Public officeholders can exploit their offices for private gain as they see fit without fear of legal consequences or adverse publicity.
Corruption Prevention
4
Rightly or wrongly, financial corruption in politics is not viewed as a serious problem in Iceland, but in-kind corruption – such as granting favors and paying for personal goods with public funds – does clearly occur. Regulatory amendments in 2006, which introduced requirements to disclose sources of political party financing, should reduce such corruption in the future.

In very rare cases, politicians are put on trial for corruption. Iceland has no policy framework specifically addressing corruption because historically corruption has been considered a peripheral subject. However, the appointment of unqualified persons to public office, a form of in-kind corruption, even nepotism, remains a serious concern. Other, subtle forms of in-kind corruption, which are hard to quantify, also exist. Erlingsson and Kristinsson (2016) write that “corruption is rare but still clearly discernible. Less serious types of corruption, such as favoritism in public appointments and failure to disclose information, are more common than more serious forms, such as extortion, bribes and embezzlement. Nonetheless, it should be noted that a sizable minority of experts still believe corruption is common, especially in the case of favoritism and fraud.”

The collapse of the Icelandic banks in 2008 and the subsequent investigation by the Special Investigation Committee (SIC), among other bodies, highlighted the weak attitude of government and public agencies toward the banks, including weak restraints and lax supervision before 2008. Moreover, three of the four main political parties, as well as individual politicians, accepted large donations from the banks and affiliated interests. When the banks crashed, 10 out of the 63 members of parliament owed the banks the equivalent of more than €1 million each. Indeed, these personal debts ranged from €1 million to €40 million, with the average debt of the 10 members of parliament standing at €9 million. Two out of the 10 members of parliament in question still sit in parliament and the cabinet, one is the current finance minister, without having divulged whether they have settled their debts or not. Write-offs of bank debt are not made public information in Iceland. The SIC did not report on legislators that owed the banks lesser sums (e.g., €500,000). GRECO has repeatedly highlighted the need for Icelandic members of parliament to disclose all their debts beyond standard mortgage loans. In 2015, GRECO formally complained that Iceland had not responded to any of its recommendations in its 2013 report on Iceland.

In November 2011, parliament passed a law that obliges members of parliament to declare their financial interests, including salaries, means of financial support, assets, and jobs outside parliament. This information is publicly available on the parliament’s website.

According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2018, which measures business corruption, Iceland scored 76 out of 100, where a score of 100 means absolutely no corruption. Iceland is well behind the other Nordic countries with scores between 84 and 88. In an assessment of political corruption in 2012, Gallup reported that 67% of Icelandic respondents view corruption as being widespread in government compared with 14% to 15% in Sweden and Denmark. A 2018 poll from the Social Science Research Institute at the University of Iceland shows that 65% of respondents view many or nearly all Icelandic politicians as corrupt.

New information, including emails leaked from one of the failed banks, about corruption surrounding the crash of 2008 and involving a prime minister, has come to light. This information led to a gag order being imposed on the newspaper Stundin shortly before the election. The gag order was lifted in late 2018.

Citations:
Erlingsson, Gissur Ó., and Kristinsson, Gunnar H (2016), “Measuring corruption: whose perceptions should we rely on? Evidence from Iceland,” Icelandic Review of Politics and Administration, Vol. 12, Issue 2, 215-236. http://www.irpa.is/article/view/a.2016.12.2.2/pdf. Accessed 22 December 2018.

Erlingsson, Gissur Ó. (2014), CORRUPTION IN LOW CORRUPT COUNTRIES: THE CASE OF SWEDEN. Open lecture given at the University of Akureyri, Iceland 19 September 2014.

Félagsvísindastofnun Háskóla Íslands (Social Science Research Institute, University of Iceland), 2018. http://fel.hi.is/stjornmalamenn_spilling_2018. Accessed 20 December 2018.

Hagsmunaskrá Alþingismanna: https://www.althingi.is/altext/cv/is/hagsmunaskra/. Accessed 22 December 2018.

Special Investigation Committee (SIC) (2010), Report of the Special Investigation Commission (SIC), report delivered to parliament 12 April.

Rules on registration of parliamentarians financial interests. (Reglur um skráningu á fjárhagslegum hagsmunum alþingismanna og trúnaðarstörfum utan þings. Samþykkt í forsætisnefnd Alþingis 28 nóvember 2011.).

Transparency International, http://www.transparency.org/cpi2014/results and http://www.libertadciudadana.org/archivos/IPC2017/CPI%202017%20Global%20Report%20English.pdf.. Accessed 22 December 2018.

Gallup (2013), Government Corruption Viewed as Pervasive Worldwide, http://www.gallup.com/poll/165476/government-corruption-viewed-pervasive-worldwide.aspx. Accessed 22 December 2018.

Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2015), “Social Capital, Inequality, and Economic Crisis,” Challenge 58, No. 4, July, 326-342.
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