Iceland: How #PanamaPapers will help cause a political revolution

iceland

Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has resigned from his post and has been replaced with the country’s Minister for Fisheries and Agriculture Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson. The news comes after Gunnlaugsson announced his intention to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections after being embroiled in the massive Panama papers leak released earlier in the week.

In the leak, Gunnlaugsson’s wife was found to have bought a company called Wintris in 2007 to invest her family’s inheritance. Gunnlaugsson had a 50% share in the company upon entering the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, in 2009, but did not declare this. Eight months later, he sold his stake to his wife for $1 (123kr, £0.71). After becoming Prime Minister in 2013, Gunnlaugsson secured an agreement with the creditors of failed Icelandic banks following the 2009 financial crash, a deal which resulted in a large financial gain for his wife.

After initially refusing to resign, mass protests outside parliament took place and as plans for a vote of no confidence in the government were created by the opposition, the Prime Minister’s hand was forced and called for parliament to be dissolved, before later resigning from the post. Gunnlaugsson will remain an MP in the Icelandic parliament. President Olafur Ragnar Grimmson, who will retire later this year, returned from a meeting in the United States and has so far refused the request to dissolve parliament, saying that he would speak to both parties of the coalition before making a decision.

Public mood remains outraged that the government has remained, despite the Prime Minister’s resignation and a second wave of protests outside the Althing is taking place, calling for fresh elections to be held.

By calling for parliament to be dissolved, Gunnlaugsson not only condemned his party to opposition but also triggered what is set to be the biggest political revolution in Icelandic history, as the four-year old Icelandic Pirate Party look set to become the largest party.

Formed in 2012, the Pirates achieved only three seats in the last election in 2013; yet for almost a year, they have been the highest polling party in Iceland (which is the first time any party other than the centre-right Independence Party have lead the polls).

Current polls (taken before the Panama papers scandal was revealed) suggest that the Pirate Party could take 36% of the vote, achieving 25 seats in the 63 seat parliament – the current number held by all the opposition parties combined and more than the 19 held by each party in the current government coalition.

Although this number of seats is not an unprecedented result by an Icelandic party (the Independence party gained 37% of the vote and 25 seats in 2007), what is unparalleled is how this has could be reached by such a relatively new party. The Independence Party has for almost all of Iceland’s history as an independent republic been the largest party in the Althing, and the fact that this may be smashed by the Pirate Party is revolutionary.

But who exactly are the Pirates? In terms of economics, the Pirates do not sit well within the left-right spectrum. They call for improved conditions for 99% of companies in Iceland, which are small or medium-sized. In terms of welfare, they call for the minimum wage to be enshrined in statute and for the system to be made simpler. Their economic policy also links a lot with their broader aims, calling for a optimum environment for the Internet to thrive.

In their other areas of social policy, they lean left with calls to update and reduce copyright length, introduce a Portugal-like drugs policy and campaign against government interference in the regulation of the internet and intrusion into private lives. In their own words, ‘we want to make Iceland into a safe haven for the freedom of information and expression‘.

On Europe, too, they stand apart from the other parties by being neutral on the matter, saying ‘it is not the role of political parties to decide’. If elected, they plan to put to a public vote whether Iceland should resume negotiations for membership, and later if the country should join the EU.

The Pirates are very much in favour of direct democracy, and an Icelandic government under their control could likely see the introduction of online voting and a reformed Constitution based on the ideals of transparency, civil liberties and direct democracy, reforms that failed to pass in 2012 despite being approved by the Icelandic public in a referendum.

In addition, as the Pirate Party doesn’t have a formal leader, there is a question over who will actually be the next Prime Minister of Iceland. In all likelihood, it will be Birgitta Jonsdottir, the party’s spokesperson. But as the person filling that role changes every two years, that opens the possibility that Jonsdottir may step down mid-way through the parliament to make way for another Pirate Party MP. That is if the Pirates take up the role; the position of Prime Minister is currently held by a member of the Progressive Party, despite the Independent Party coming first in the election. However, as the Pirates have such a lead on the other parties, it is unlikely they will hand over the top job to a junior partner in a coalition.

As a result, it is quite possible that Iceland in 2020 could be a country with online voting, a new constitution, legal use of some or all recreational drugs, the most liberal copyright law and internet freedom in the Western world, greater government transparency than many other democracies and heading for a referendum on membership of the European Union.

If elections are called, it will not only be a defeat for Gunnlaugsson, Jóhannsson and the Progressive Party, but also for the established parties more broadly. Iceland will vote with its feet and look set to vote for radical change.

 

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