Iceland’s Parliament is home to eight political parties, three of which are considered populist. This trio holds around thirty percent of the total seats, which often translates into considerable political influence. As it is, populism in the country largely revolves around an anti-establishment and anti-elite agenda, rather than anti-immigration and xenophobia. Time and opportunities may pave the way for populist parties to achieve even more political prominence in the future.
Located in the North Atlantic, Iceland is a unitary parliamentary republic and the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The 2008 global financial crisis bankrupted the country’s entire banking system; in the decade since Iceland has become home to a wide range of populist parties and politicians vowing to challenge the country’s political establishment and institutions and to carry out a major redistribution of resources. Discursively constructed by parties such as the Progressive Party (PP) and the Pirate Party (Pi) – Píratar – Icelandic populism today is a symbol of an anti-establishment insurgency against the perceived corruption of the country’s political elite.
Often defined as the land of ice and fire, Iceland has repeatedly been voted the most peaceful and safest country in the world (Global Peace Index, 2020). In addition to low crime rates, a healthy populace, and an egalitarian social landscape, this island country is a successful example of a well-functioning welfare state that offers a high degree of economic equality and security to its citizens while simultaneously having a liberal market economy that is capable of adapting to changing global conditions.
This modern-day utopia, however, has a troubled past. From the Middle Ages to the invasion of Denmark by Germany in 1940, Iceland remained under Danish rule, albeit to varying extents. In response to German aggression during World War II, hundreds of British troops invaded Iceland on May 10, 1940. Over a year later on July 7, 1941, control of the island was handed to the United States. Icelanders voted in 1944 to cut all ties with Denmark, which was followed by the proclamation of The Republic of Iceland. In the same year, the country joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), marking the beginning of its full inclusion into the Western Bloc and the construction of its present-day stable democracy.
Despite its well-functioning democratic institutions with a good record of upholding political rights and civil liberties, modern Iceland has long been a hub for populist parties fueled by strident nationalism. However, none of these parties carved out a permanent space in the political landscape until the financial crisis of 2008, when all three of Iceland’s major commercial banks collapsed in late 2008 (Bardoloi, 2018). The collapse of its banking system overturned the financial industry and thus paved the way for tough austerity measures by the left-wing government post-2009. Populist politicians, perhaps unsurprisingly, have been buoyed by the waves of crisis, quickly gaining ground in the face of increasing unemployment rates, cuts to the welfare state, and a significant loss of income for many Icelanders.
There are currently six (6) populist parties in Iceland. Of these, the Progressive Party (PP), is perhaps the most obvious benefactor of the post-crisis upheaval. Founded in 1916, the PP is actually an established agrarian party. For decades, it enjoyed electoral support ranging between 18 and 30 percent of the vote with visible fluctuations. Overall support for the party had steadily decreased leading up to the 2008 crisis. Gaining almost 10% at the polls in 2009, the PP received 24.4 percent of total votes in the 2013 general election, becoming the country’s second-largest party.
The main ideological driver of the PP is agrarianism. It thus enjoys a stronger base of support in the countryside. The 2008 financial crisis paved the way for a complete renewal of the party’s personnel cadres, including its leadership, who in turn have led the party in a more populist direction. The PP is therefore considered to be one of the few parties in Europe that turned from being an established mainstream party to a nationalist right-wing populist organization. Today the party possesses almost all the major features that are often associated with contemporary populist political parties. The party executives are quite skeptical towards the European Union (EU), albeit without explicit hard-core opposition to the EU and European integration. The party’s effectiveness relies on the charismatic leadership style, charm, and persuasiveness of its leader Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson. Party executives often appeal to the emotions of what they call the “true people,” using rhetoric that pits these “real” Icelanders against “the establishment elites” (Bergmann, 2015). In other words, the PP is increasingly becoming a classic populist party, one that attempts to protect ordinary households from the negative impact of “foreign forces” and domestic left-leaning elites (Bergmann).
The Pirate Party (Pi) – Píratar – is another populist party worthy of mention. Founded in 2012, Pi entered Parliament for the first time following the 2013 election; the party secured three seats. Although it is still nascent, Pi already secured a viable political space with its populist rhetoric against the ruling elites who, according to Birgitta Jónsdóttir, one of the founders, are “a handful of mafia-style families” (John, 2016). Pi is therefore considered an anti-establishment insurgent organization, one formed in response to the perceived corruption of Iceland’s political elite.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Pi’s executives often come to public attention with an anti-establishment rhetoric. Jónsdóttir wrote in a column in 2015 that “the élite or 1%, who are at war with the rest of us, make use of the incredibly complex systems they have created to maintain their power” (Jonsdottir, 2015). The party’s election manifesto vows to terminate the country’s political establishment’s institutions, adopt a new constitution, change the government’s structure, redistribute wealth, and eradicate corruption (Pirate Election Manifesto, 2016). Pi has also a skeptical view of the EU and its policies. However, it does not oppose possible accession if Icelanders would vote in favor of EU membership.
Pi significantly overperformed in the 2016 election: the party’s vote total reached a record 14.48 percent. In the 2017 election held a year later, Pi’s share of the vote fell to 9.2 percent, making it the sixth-largest party in Parliament.
In terms of civil and political liberties, Iceland is a free country (Freedom House, 2019). Liberties are strongly respected, and Icelandic voters enjoy regular and competitive multiparty elections. The country often dominates the ranks of the world’s best-performing democracies. It scores highly in many categories such as personal freedom, same-sex relationships, and religious liberties (The Human Freedom Index, 2019). Iceland today is one of the most culturally liberal and LGBT-friendly countries in the world. Same-sex couples have enjoyed full adoption rights since 2006. In June 2010, the Icelandic Parliament voted to legalize same-sex marriage (Borbely, 2020). Then-Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir married her partner Jónína Leósdóttir, becoming the first same-sex couples to officially marry in the country (CTV, 2010). Additionally, issues like xenophobia and discrimination are far less prominent in Iceland than in other major European countries. Although it is a non-EU member state, the country is well integrated into the EU via the European Economic Area and the Schengen Agreement.
The other side of the coin, however, often sullies this dreamy image of the country. As of 2020, the Icelandic Parliament is home to eight political parties, three of which are considered populist. This trio holds around thirty percent of the seats, which often translates into considerable political influence. Populism in the country largely revolves around an anti-establishment and anti-elite agenda, rather than anti-immigration and xenophobia. Time and opportunities may pave the way for populist parties to achieve even more political prominence in the future.
July 28, 2020.
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 The Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn); The Pirate Party (Píratar); People’s Front of Iceland (Alþýðufylkingin); The Icelandic National Front (Íslenska þjóðfylkingin); The Centre Party (Miðflokkurinn); The People’s Alliance (Alþýðubandalagið).