Indriði H. Indriðason – The 2016 parliamentary election in Iceland

This is a guest post by Indriði H. Indriðason from the Department of Political Science at University of California, Riverside

The 2016 Icelandic parliamentary election was an early election.  The release of the Panama papers in April 2016, in which three ministers, including the Prime Ministers, were named, the Prime Minister resigned following popular protests and his replacement announced that an early election was likely to be called in the fall (for details see http://presidential-power.com/?p=4952).  In August, October 29 was finally announced as the date for the election.

The 2016 election garnered an unusual amount of attention in the international media. The main reason was the strong showing of the Pirate Party in the polls leading up to the election with the Pirates becoming a regular at the top of the polls starting in April 2015 with about 35% support and occasionally breaking the 40%.  Given the emphasis the Pirate Party, which has held three seats in parliament since 2013, on transparency and corruption, it is perhaps tempting to credit the Panama Papers with the party’s popularity.  However, while the party received its best poll results (43.6%)immediately after the papers’ release, the party’s rise in popularity began much earlier or in the first half of 2015.  Moreover, the Pirate Party’s popularity declined substantially in subsequent polls – to around 27-28%.  While the Pirates were undoubtedly the story of the election, it is still a story that has a lot of questions unanswered.  First, it is not clear what the source of the Pirates skyrocketing popularity in the first months of 2015 was.  While it is fairly clear (or at least plausible) that support for the Pirates is related to anti-establishment attitudes rooted in the financial crisis of 2008 that does not explain the timing.  Similarly, the Pirate Party’s MPs deservedly received credit for their in work in parliament but, again, it cannot explain the timing itself.  Second, as hinted at above, why did the Pirates’ popularity decline following the release of the Panama Papers?  A priori, one would have expected the Pirate Party to be poised to gain from such a scandal.  One possible explanation is that the Pirate Party’s support in the poll was in part a form of a protest vote against the established parties but with the emergence of a serious political scandal some respondents moved from simply expressing their general dissatisfaction to support parties that might be seen as more credible challengers to the government parties.

More generally, one might ask how the Pirate Party ended up with only 14.5% of the vote after having polled above 40% only half a year earlier – a spectacular loss of support by any measure.  Some of this loss – about 10 percentage points – occurred in the month after the Panama papers’ release but the party’s loses in the polls continued at a fairly steady, albeit lower, rate from that point.  One explanation is that the Pirate Party’s success inevitably attracted the attention of the established parties – before the party’s rise in popularity, the established parties could comfortably ignore the Pirates but, with its rising popularity, the established parties turned their swords against the party.  Another explanation has to do with the Pirate’s platform.  The Pirates started out essentially as a populist party, i.e., targeting the established parties for a lack of transparency and corruption and, more generally, portraying the political system as broken.  Thus, initially, its campaign was much more focused on highlighting problems than providing concrete policy proposals or solution (except maybe wanting to adopt the `new constitution’ drafted by a constitutional council in 2011).  However, as the election drew closer, the party found itself forced to respond to criticisms that it was a party without clear policies by clarifying their policy positions – it tends, however, to be much easier to identify problems than agreeing on what constitutions an appropriate solution and in adopting clearer policy positions the party may have alienated some of those sympathetic to the party.  Other factors may also have played a role.  The Pirate Party’s small parliamentary faction took the position to abstain on legislation that it was unable to study in sufficient detail and eventually came under fire for abstaining on a vote on controversial legislation on agricultural production and subsidies.  Similarly, the results of one of the party’s primaries were invalidated – while being in line with the party’s procedures it created an opportunity for the party’s opponents to cast a doubt on its commitment to democratic procedures.  Finally, the Pirate Party took the unprecedented step of trying to form a pre-electoral coalition with the other opposition party – a move that has been seen by some to have hurt the party’s electoral fortunes, and benefited the government parties, by turning the key question facing voters whether they actually wanted a government (probably) led by the Pirates.

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The fact that Pirate Party only came in third in the election – after the Independence Party and the Left-Green Movement – does not detract from the party’s achievement.  The Pirates nearly tripled their vote share from the previous election, which brought their seat share from three to ten seats.  Thus, the Pirates claimed a victory – justifiably so, although it was substantially smaller than the polls had suggested.  However, the Pirates were not the only ones to claim victory.  The Independence Party also claimed a victory, emerging as the biggest party with 29% of the vote.  While 29% of the vote was not an outstanding result for the party in a historical context it was an impressive outcome considering that the party faced a challenge from a new pro-European conservative party, Revival (Vidreisn), but the Independence Party had been divided over the issue of EU membership.  Revival won 10.5% of the vote – making it one of the best performances of a new party in Icelandic history.  Finally, the Left-Green Movement also staked a claim on being the winner of the election, coming in second with 17.9% (up from 10.9% in the previous election).  There were also notable losers. The Progressive Party – that headed the coalition with the Independence Party – experienced one of the greatest losses in Icelandic electoral history. It won 11.5% of the vote, losing over half of its vote share from the 2013 election. The Social Democratic Alliance – which was the largest party in the 2009 election with 30% of the vote – was decimated and one only 5.7% of the vote.  Overall, the 2016 election represents a major change in Icelandic party politics and may well mark the end of the traditional four-party system (Independence Party, Progressive Party, and two parties on the left).  More immediately, it is difficult to see which parties will form a coalition government together.

The parties’ claims to be the ‘winner of the election’ were, of course, closely tied to the possibility that the president might overlook the biggest party in appointing a formateur and appoint instead the leader of the party that was perceived as the winner of the election.  The fact that none of the ‘usual’ coalition had a majority in parliament has, naturally, made these considerations all the more important.  Revival, however, appears to be in prime position with the option of forming a coalition to the left or the right.  Neither is straightforward.  A coalition on the left would have to be a five party coalition – negotiating such a coalition might be challenging although the Pirates have suggested that they might consider acting as a support party in such a coalition.  It is, however, fairly certain that the Pirate Party will expect some policy concessions in exchange for its support. A coalition on the right is similarly complicate as it would involve the Independence Party and some third party in addition to Revival.  Forming a three party coalition should in principle be easier but it is complicated by the fact that the Progressive Party is somewhat unlikely third party in such a coalition for at least a couple of reasons.  First, having led the incumbent coalition, the electoral results can easily be read as a rejection of the Progressive Party and its government.  Reforming the incumbent coalition with the support of Revival – however appropriate that may sound – is unlikely to be generate a lot of good will among voters.  Second, the Progressive Party is probably the party most opposed to joining the EU (having withdrawn from the accession negotiations during its term in office).  While the Independence Party is at best (or worst, depending on one’s point of view) Euroskeptic, Revival owes its existence to the demand for a pro-European, center-right party.

When this is written little progress appears to have been made in forming a coalition.  The President of Iceland did opt to appoint the leader of the biggest party, the Independence Party, a formateur on November 2.  No formal negotiations between parties have taken place but the current formateur has met with the leader of the other parties to explore the possibilities.  One sign that forming a coalition will be difficult is that an oversized coalition of the Independence Party and the Left-Green Movement along with Revival and Bright Future (a centrist, social democratic party) appears to be one of the options being consideration – but it may also signal the desperation of the Independence Party as it has few other options.  A three-party coalition of the Independence Party, Revival, and Bright Future does have a bare majority in parliament but Bright Future, in particular, appears uncomfortable with joining what would essentially be a center-right coalition.  Thus, bringing in the Left-Green Movement would shift the balance of power within the coalition to the center.  The obvious difficulty with forming such a coalition is that it brings together parties from the opposite ends of the political spectrum – although such coalitions are not unprecedented in Icelandic politics.  But perhaps the point of entertaining the Independence Party’s advances is not forming a coalition with the Independence Party but simply to strengthen the bargaining position of the Left-Green Movement in preparation for negotiations between the parties on the left?

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