Iceland election: Voting begins with opposition parties ahead in polls

Icelanders vote in election that may see big gains for the anti-establishment Pirate party

Iceland’s prime minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson (right) casts his ballot next to his wife Ingibjoerg Elsa Ingjaldsdottir in a polling station in Fludir, Iceland, during the snap general election, on Saturday. Photograph: Getty

Iceland’s prime minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson (right) casts his ballot next to his wife Ingibjoerg Elsa Ingjaldsdottir in a polling station in Fludir, Iceland, during the snap general election, on Saturday. Photograph: Getty

 

Voting has started in Iceland in one of the tightest elections in years, with the anti-establishment Pirate party on course to make major gains that could propel it into government for the first time.

Polls published on Friday showed the ruling centre-right coalition on about 37 per cent of the vote, while the opposition parties led by the Pirates, founded barely four years ago by a group of activists, anarchists and former hackers, stood at 47 per cent.

That could leave the small, newly-established Vidreisn - meaning reform or regeneration - party in the role of kingmaker.

While broadly pro-European and liberal, it has yet to say which way it will jump. Coalition negotiations could be long and tortuous.

Riding a wave of public anger at perceived political corruption in the wake of the 2008 financial crash and the Panama Papers scandal in April, the Pirate party campaigns for direct democracy, full government transparency, individual freedoms and the fight against corruption.

Its radical platform, which also includes decriminalising drugs, offering asylum to whistleblowers such as Edward Snowden and relaxing restrictions on the use of the bitcoin virtual currency, has the backing of 21 per cent of Icelanders, polls suggest, making it the country’s second-biggest party.

Its figurehead is Birgitta Jonsdottir, a 49-year-old MP, poet and former WikiLeaks collaborator who has said she has no ambition to be prime minister but wants to sweep away a “corrupt and dysfunctional system”.

Of the Pirates, she says: “We do not define ourselves as left or right, but rather as a party that focuses on the systems. In other words, we consider ourselves hackers - so to speak - of our current outdated systems of government.”

Part of a global anti-establishment trend typified by parties on the left such as Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain, and on the right Germany’s AfD and Britain’s Ukip, the Pirates advocate an “unlimited right” for citizens to be involved in political decision-making, proposing new legislation and deciding on it in national referendums.

If the party fares as well as polls have predicted, it aims to form a new coalition government in the country’s 63-seat parliament, the Althingi, with three other broadly leftist opposition parties, the Left-Greens, the Social Democrats and the Bright Future Movement.

“We think that these parties can co-operate very well, they have many common issues,” said Katriin Jakobsdottir, leader of the Left-Green movement. “I think it will be a very feasible governmental choice.”

The Pirates have, however, ruled out any possibility of going into government with either of the current two ruling parties, the centre-right Independence party and centrist Progressive party.

Saturday’s election was prompted by the resignation of Iceland’s prime minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who became the first major casualty of the Panama Papers in April after the leaked legal documents revealed he and his wife had millions of pounds of family money offshore.

The revelations sparked outrage and some of the largest protests Iceland has seen, forcing the government to replace Mr Gunnlaugsson with the agriculture and fisheries minister, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, and promise elections before the end of this year.

Support for Gunnlaugsson’s Progressive party has since fallen to about 8 per cent in the polls, barely a third of its score in the previous 2013 elections.

Backing especially among older voters for the Independence party, the Pirates’ rival for the position of largest party, has held up better.

Olafur Hardarson, a professor of political science at the University of Iceland, said the Pirates - who captured 5 per cent of the vote in 2013, giving them three MPs - had risen on the back of voters’ anger at the 2008 financial collapse.

“They have managed to focus on the anti-politics and anti-establishment feelings of a lot of voters that have been frustrated in Iceland since the bank crash,” Hardarson said.

Iceland has recovered economically since the 2008 crash, when the country’s three biggest banks collapsed owing 11 times the country’s GDP, Reykjavik’s stock market fell 97 per cent and the value of the krona halved.

Helped by a tourism boom - 2.4 million visitors, nearly seven times the country’s population, are expected in 2017 - economic growth is forecast to reach 4.3 per cent this year, and unemployment has fallen to just over 3 per cent.

About 245,000 Icelanders are eligible to vote in the elections. Voting ends at 10pm Irish time, with partial results due in the early hours of Sunday morning.

The Guardian