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Iceland holds second snap election in a year after scandals

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 12:45pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 October, 2017, 8:14pm

Iceland votes in a second snap election in just a year on Saturday as several scandals have caused a distrust in the political elite despite a thriving economy triggered by booming tourism.

Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson of the conservative Independence Party called the vote last month after a junior member of the three-party centre-right coalition quit the government over a legal scandal involving his father.

Saturday’s election is Iceland’s fourth since 2008. Polls published on Friday by public broadcaster RUV and the daily Morgunbladid show that the Independence Party could get 17 seats in the 63-seat parliament, the Althingi.

The main rival Left-Green Movement and its potential partners – the Social Democratic Alliance and the anti establishment Pirate Party – would together win 29 seats, too short of a 32-seat outright majority.

But with help from a fourth party, they could dethrone the centre-right and become Iceland’s second left-leaning government since its independence from Denmark in 1944.

“If these are the election results, it’s a call for the opposition to form a government,” Left-Green leader Katrin Jakobsdottir, 41, told Morgunbladid.

But the Independence could also partner with their former ally the Progressives, which would win five or six seats, the Centre Party (six seats) and the liberal Reform party (five seats).

“These numbers tell me that we need a boost,” Benediktsson, 47, told the newspaper.

“The fear is whether there will be a possibility to form a government,” said Arnar Thor Jonsson, a law professor at Reykjavik University, recalling that negotiations to form a coalition after the October 2016 election took three months.

Since the 2008 financial crisis, when Iceland’s three major banks collapsed and the country teetered on the verge of bankruptcy, it has made a spectacular recovery with robust growth of 7.2 per cent in 2016 and unemployment at an enviable 2.5 per cent.

But anger and lack of trust in the financial elite and several politicians, who were implicated in the “Panama Papers” that revealed a global tax evasion, has shaken up politics in the island nation.

A year ago, snap elections were called after prime minister at the time Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson was pressured to resign when he was named in the data leak which exposed offshore tax havens.

More than 600 Icelanders – a surprisingly high number in a country of 335,000 – were also named in the documents, including Benediktsson, who was finance minister at the time.

Despite that, Benediktsson was able to build a coalition with the centrist Bright Future and centre-right Reform Party, holding a one-seat majority in parliament before becoming the shortest-lived government in Iceland’s history.

Construction is booming: cranes cover the skies in Reykjavik’s city centre, away from Iceland’s breathtaking volcanoes and glaciers.

Independence supporters still view the party as the main force for economic stability and growth.

The Independence and the Progressive party ended Iceland’s EU membership bid in 2015 over a mackerel war with Brussels.

Eva Sveinsdottir, a 33-year-old conservative voter, said the former centre-right government’s decision to end the talks “saved Iceland after the 2008 crisis”.

“We are in a much better situation than Greece,” she said. “If we were a member they would take the fishing areas from us.”

Other voters are ready for change and are drawn to the Left-Green Movement which calls for investments in social welfare, affordable housing and tax increases for the wealthiest.

Iceland’s thriving tourism scene has caused an increase in housing prices and a shortage in available flats, many of which are rented out to tourists.

“Young people can’t find housing because it’s too expensive,” said Jarya Sukuay, a 23-year-old voter in Reykjavik. “I work in an ordinary store and my income is not enough to make ends meet ... The people in the government do not understand (working people) because they all have rich parents.”