UPDATE: In a live broadcast, Prime Minster Geir H. Harde announced he is stepping down citing 'throat' cancer. Geir will be leaving politics all together. The new head of his political party, Sjálfstæðisflokkurin, will be elected at the next party meeting - originally scheduled for next weekend but now cancelled. National elections will be held in May.
The organizer, Horður Torfason has asked protestors to stay home tonight as he afraid of violence stemming from Friday night drinking. Events in Iceland are changing so fast, it's hard to keep up.
This diary is an attempt to provide some general background on the political parties in Iceland from the perspective of a liberal American to help better understand what is happening in the small country today.
Iceland has a bitter history as a colony of Denmark having only recently established its independence in 1944. Independence from others is an important part of Icelanders. Keep this in mind as current events continue to unfold.
Iceland is about the size of Kansas with a population worldwide of approximately 350,000 Icelandic speaking people. The majority of Icelanders, close to 200,000, live in the immediate vicinity of the nation's capital, Reykjavik, on the West coast. Icelanders are well-read and have one of the highest literacy rates in the world. Generally speaking, the younger an Icelander is, the more likely they speak English which was introduced when American GIs set up the Keflavik base during WWII. Iceland is very modern with an infrastructure that in many ways surpasses that found in the United States. As an amusing side note, I'm told 60% of all Icelanders are members of Facebook.
70% of Iceland's GDP relies on the fishing industry. Just recently, rich oil fields were discovered in the far north eastern tip of its international waters. The country uses geothermal energy for most of its hot water and power. The arts are embraced - just about everyone hangs original art on the walls of their home. And if you don't yet know about it, poetry is a vital part of Icelandic life - it's almost as important as breathing.
The legislature of Iceland is known as the Alþing (All Things) and is similar to parliament. It was founded in 930 (yes, that is in fact nine thirty) at Þingvellir, the continental divide between the Americas and Europe. It was originally held as an annual outdoor assembly. Today, Alþing meets in Reykjavik at the Alþingishús (All Things House).
There are numerous political parties in Iceland but today four parties wield the most power, forming coalition governments together. Iceland doesn't waste time with sex and religion as political wedge issues - there are much more important things to worry about than who sleeps with whom.
From right to left the four major political parties are described below.
Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (D) - The Independence Party was founded on May 25, 1929 with the merger of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party. The current Prime Minister Geir H. Harde, and the former Prime Minister, Davið Oddsson, now the head of the National Bank of Iceland, are both members. For the most part, Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn has been in power for the last 20 years. Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn is similar to the Blue Dog or conservative wing of the Democratic Party in the United States.
Framsóknarflokkurinn (B) The Progressive Party was founded on December 16, 1916. This party plays a key role in forming coalitions. From about 1988 to 2008, Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn and Framsóknarflokkurinn formed a coalition government, until eventually, the Framsóknarflokkurinn came to be viewed as little more than the majority's lapdogs. They were subsequently voted out of power. Framsóknarflokkurinn is a conservative central party holding views similar to centrist members of the Democratic Party.
During their tenure as a coalition, Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn and Framsóknarflokkurinn favored the industrialization of Iceland, including the construction of aluminum smelter plants. The plants are controversial in Iceland as the energy burden to the small country is enormous and has already resulted in the construction of a huge dam (Kárahnjúka Dam) in what was once a pristine wilderness area. It's also turned out, Icelanders are not interested in working at the plants resulting in outside labor, mostly Poles, coming to work in Iceland. It is estimated that the geothermal needs of the new and pending smelter plants will eventually use the majority of the power generated in Iceland or close to 95% of all power generated. The coalition is also responsible for the privatization of many of Iceland's institutions - including banks - starting in 1996 under former Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson. On February 14, 1996 Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson established an Executive Committee on Privitisation that lies at the very heart of many of the problems Iceland faces today:
Pursuant to the above, the role of the Executive Committee on Privatisation is the following:
- To take responsibilty for the co-ordination and management of the privatisation of state enterprises, including the sale of state interests in companies. In its work, the Committee shall observe the rules of procedure on the implementation of privatisation measures approved by the Government.
- To encourage outsourcing of government operations and services and thereby transfer projects from the public to the private sector.
- To conduct a systematic survey of State assets, particularly real estate, building sites, land and farmsteads, and submit proposals on government policy reagarding the sale of such assets with the objective of reducing management and operating costs and generating revenues for the State Treasury.
To date, privatisation has benefitted a handful of well-connected political insiders and their family members. The boards of most of the companies tend to be the same people, many of whom also have contacts to prominent members of the political parties as well as the court system. One of the demands Icelanders have of their government is a thorough investigation of the banks which are said to have handed out over $100 million in salaries and bonuses during the 5 years they were held in private hands (2003-2008). By now, you should be starting to get a hint as to why Icelanders are so damn angry at their government and its failure to protect them.
Samfylkingin (S) The Social Democrats was founded in May 2000. By 2008, Samfylkingin replaced Framsóknarflokkurinn in the coalition. However, shortly after election to power, the party abandoned its campaign pledges against a group of new smelter plants and voted in favor of moving forward with construction. This move angered many in Iceland. In addition, their stubborn hold on to power during the current economic crisis has further eroded their popularity. The Samfylkingin is considered a centrist party, with policy leanings similar to those held by the more liberal members of the Democratic Party in the United States.
Vinstrihreyfingin (V) The Left-Green Movement was founded on February 6, 1999. Vinstrihreyfingin was created as an alternative to the Samfylkingin party. The popularity of Vinstrihreyfingin has increased significantly and as of January 22, captures 28% in polls. If its popularity holds through elections now expected to take place in April, they will play an integral part of a new coalition government. Vinstrihreyfingin is similar to traditional Socialist political parties found in Europe. There is no American equivalent.
The remaining undecided or other votes carry about 8% in polls.
On January 22, 2008, the state owned television network, www.ruv.is carried out two polls (Fylgið flokkanna á flakki) and broadcast results showing the current coalition had a 22 percentage point loss of popularity.
If elections were held today:
Blue - last election
Red - today
Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (D) 24.3% - current coalition
Framsóknarflokkurinn (B) 17.2%
Samfylkingin (S) 16.7% - current coalition
Vinstrihreyfingin (V) 28.5%
Do you support the government?
The current government is expected to fall, some believe within a week. Elections likely to be held in April.
This information was compiled with the help of Icelandic family members. In the next few days, I hope to post links to Icelandic blogs, websites, flickr pages, etc. to help people learn more about what's happening in Iceland.
Cross posted at ePluribus Media.