Icelanders focus on trust in third election in 4 years
REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Words like “stability” and “trust” compete for attention on campaign billboards in Iceland’s capital as politicians seek to attract voters weary of political and economic chaos in this island nation that became a symbol of the global financial crisis.
Icelanders go to the polls for the third time in four years Saturday, six weeks after the ruling coalition collapsed amid revelations that the prime minister’s father backed an effort to aid the job prospects of a convicted pedophile. Bjarni Benediktsson’s government came to power only last year after leaked documents linked his predecessor to bank accounts in offshore tax havens.
A series of scandals that began with the collapse of Iceland’s three major banks in 2008 has triggered a rapid turnover in the nation’s parliament, the Althingi, and a sense of fatigue among voters. Political analysts say the most likely outcome of the election is a coalition government led by Katrin Jakobsdottir of the Left Green Movement, who says she would emphasize stability and consensus decision-making.
“That may be the most radical approach in today’s political climate - stability,” Jakobsdottir, 41, said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Ahead of the election, voters on this wind-lashed island of 330,000 people have taken to social media to express a sense of déjà vu after new leaks focused on Benediktsson’s assets, further weakening his center-right Independence Party.
Iceland’s post-crash elections have been defined by rapidly fluctuating party support, with voters more prone to back anti-Establishment upstarts from all parts of the political spectrum.
In every election since the crash, first-time candidates have won around 40 percent of the 63 seats in parliament. The turnover rate peaked at 51 percent last year, when the Pirate Party became the third-largest in parliament on a platform promoting direct democracy and anti-corruption efforts. Polls show support for the party has dropped by almost half.
Fewer than five of the members of parliament seeking re-election this year served in the Althingi before the crash.
The rapid turnover has reduced parliament’s institutional memory, which sometimes makes it difficult to pass legislation, said Stefania Oskarsdottir, a politics professor at the University of Iceland who has researched the phenomenon.
“It’s not like every other job,” Oskarsdottir said. “With just a year between elections, some members have barely learned the ropes before being voted out.”
The youngest of the 10 parties on this year’s ballot is the unorthodox Center Party, which polls show is likely to cross the 5 percent threshold needed to qualify for parliament. Its platform calls for all Icelanders to receive shares in banks nationalized during the financial crisis.
The party’s founder is former Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, who stepped down after documents leaked as part of the so-called Panama Papers showed his wife held an account in an offshore tax haven. He says the Center Party plans to reorganize Iceland’s financial system.
“It is fundamental for our future,” he told local media.
Declared a sovereign state under the Danish crown in 1918, Iceland will celebrate a century of self-rule next year at the same time it marks 10 years since the International Monetary Fund rescued the country from a balance of payment crisis. The country also is experiencing a surge in tourism by those eager to see its pristine glaciers, fjords and waterfalls and the Northern Lights.
During the period known locally as “hrunid,” or the collapse, photos of protesters packed into the square outside parliament became some of the enduring images of the global financial crisis.
Helgi Bernodusson, the Althingi’s secretary general, said washing broken eggs off the humble, gray parliament building became a daily routine.
“It’s good to have this behind us now,” he said. “For the sake of the house.”
The question is whether Iceland’s politicians can now bring the same peace to the chamber inside.