Iceland

Background

Icelandic history at a glance

Iceland has a long history in union with Denmark. The country first passed to Denmark from Norway in the late 14th century and did not fully gain its independency until 1944. The 18th century was characterized by famines and natural disasters and deacreasing population figures, much due to to poor harvests, epidemics, and the oppression of the Danish government. 

Denmark kept Iceland as a dependency following the Treaty of Kiel in 1814. Inspired by the developments on mainland Europe, national consciousness grew stronger in the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1843 the worlds first legislative assembly Alþingi - dating back to 930 - was reinstated as a consultative assembly. In 1874, Iceland was granted home rule, its own constitution and control of its own finances. By 1918 it was recognized as a sovereign state under the Danish crown.

Following a referendum in 1944, the independent Republic of Iceland was established. During World War II, allied troops were stationed on Icelandic soil. The Icelandic NATO membership of 1949 and the defence treaty with the United States have been important conflict dimensions in Icelandic politics in the post-war period. Membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) was formalized in 1970.

From 1959 to 1971 Iceland was governed by a coalition of the Independence Party (IP) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The following two decades produced a range of rather short-lived coalition governments, most of which comprised two or three parties. In June 1980 Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, a non-political candidate who was favoured by left-wing groups because of her opposition to the US military airbase at Keflavík, achieved a narrow victory in the election for the office of president. She took office on August 1,1980, becoming the world’s first popularly elected female head of state. Finnbogadóttir remained in office until 1996.

Politics in the new era

Iceland is a parliamentary republic. The president acts as head of state, but has limited powers and the office is mainly ceremonial . The prime minister serves as the head of government. Executive powers are vested in the government comprising the prime minister and his/her cabinet. Legislative powers are exercised by both the government and the parliament (Alþingi ).

Icelandic politics have traditionally been dominated by three main cleavages: class, centre-periphery, and foreign policy. The result has been a party system somewhat uncharacteristic of northern Europe. Iceland thus has a strong conservative party (the Independence Party, IP), a united centre dominated by the Progressive Party (PP), and a fragmented and electorally weak left. The differences between the two largest left-wing parties, the People’s Alliance (PA) and the Social Democrats (SD), have been significant, especially in the field of foreign policy.

The left forces of Icelandic politics unified in the local elections of 1994 and together with the centrist PP deprived the IP their customary majority in the local council in Reykjavík. However, left-wing fragmentation persisted in the 1995 parliamentary elections and altogether four left-wing parties were represented in the Althing . Following the decision by Finnbogadóttir not to seek re-election as President in 1996, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a former leader of the PA, was elected president. He began a second term in office in August 2000, his candidacy being unopposed.

In the run-up to the 1999 election, four left-wing parties united in the Social Democratic Alliance (SDA). The four parties included SD, PA, the Womens Alliance, and the National Movement. The 1999 parliamentary elections thus saw four major political forces. The two main winners were the IP and the Left-Green Movement (LGM), a splinter of PA. PP lost some ground in the election, but the main loser was the newly formed SDA (the Alliance). Whereas the four parties combined polled 37.7 percent of the vote in 1995, the Alliance managed only 26.8 percent in the 1999 election. Even when combining its votes with those obtained by LGM, it was clear that the political left lost ground. In the 2003 elections, the left regained some of its lost support: SDA obtained 31 percent of the votes and combined with LGM they polled altogether 39.8 percent. Also the Liberal Party (LP), established in 1998, made important gains. IP received its worst outcome since 1987 but the IP-PP coalition government retained its majority in the Alþingi .

The IP party leader Davíð Oddsson is the longest serving prime minister of Iceland. After 13 years in office, he resigned from the position in 2004 in favour of Halldór Ásgrímsson, the leader of the coalition party. In June 2006, Ásgrímsson announced his resignation as prime minister, and was succeeded by party fellow Geir H. Haarde. In the 2007 general elections, the opposition parties won an overall majority of the popular vote, but the IP-PP coalition government of Prime Minister Haarde nonetheless survived by the narrowest of margins, hanging on to a one-seat majority in the Althing . Haarde's Independence Party improved its standing with respect to the 2003 parliamentary election, but the Progressives had their worst general election result ever and slipped to fourth place.

Iceland's main opposition party, the SDA also lost ground in the election, but the LGM polled strongly, becoming the country's third largest party. Finally, support for the LP remained stable. Following the close election outcome, the IP-PP coalition chose to discontinue their coalition agreement, and the Independence Party subsequently reached an agreement with the Alliance to form a coalition government headed by Prime Minister Haarde.

Sources

Hardarsson, Ólafur Th., and Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson (2001). "The 1999 parliamentary election in Iceland." Electoral Studies , Vol. 20: 325-339.

Hardarsson, Ólafur Th., and Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson (2004). "Iceland." European Journal of Political Research , Vol 43: 1024-1029.