Tag Archives: Iceland

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.


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?

Indridi H. Indridason – The presidency in Iceland

This is a guest post by Indridi H. Indridason from the University of California at Riverside

For most part of its history Iceland has functioned as a ‘regular’ parliamentary system despite having a semi-presidential constitution. For sixty years, since gaining independence in 1944, the president’s role was basically that of a figurehead and the extent of the president’s political actions was, at best, that of managing the coalition formation process. It has been suggested that the president occasionally had preferences over the outcome of the negotiations and sought to influence the coalition formation. It is, however, not clear that the president has had much of a role as a formateur in the formation of governments.

Things changed, however, with the president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson refusing to sign legislation on the ownership of the media into law in 2004.  According to the constitution, if the president declines to sign legislation into law it is referred to a referendum.  In this instance, however, the government opted to withdraw the legislation.  The question whether the president had a right to independently exercise the authority to refer legislation to a referendum was hotly contested. While the 26. clause of the constitution is clear in requiring the president’s signature being required, the debates largely focused on clauses 11 and 13 which state, respectively, that the president is not responsible for the actions of the government and the president lets the ministers exercise his power.  Whatever the intent of the authors of the constitution, the constitution was clearly sufficiently ambiguous on the role of the president for Grímsson to recognize, and grab, a politically opportune moment to redefine and expand the powers of the presidency – the government had sought to pass the legislation with little debate in Althingi against the will of the opposition parties and the legislation appeared to have limited popular support.  By 2010, when Grímsson next refused to sign legislation, there was far less debate about the constitutionality of the president’s actions – thus, intentionally or not, the Grímsson presidency has transformed the office of the president.

Recent events, however, suggest that Grímsson has embraced the more political role of the presidency.  Early April, the Panama Papers revealed that Iceland’s Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson (Progressive Party) had failed to disclose his family’s offshore accounts as well as his wife being one of the foreign creditors of the Icelandic banks that collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008. The revelation lead to massive (on an Icelandic scale) protests in front of Althingi and pressures on Gunnlaugsson and his government to resign mounted.  Support for Gunnlaugsson’s continued prime ministership within the other coalition party, the Independence Party, appears to have, understandably, declined – further increasing the pressure on Gunnlaugsson to resign.  Despite these pressures, Gunnlaugsson appears to have been determined to stay in office.  Following a meeting with the leader of the Independence Party, Gunnlaugsson requested a meeting with President Grímsson.  What exactly transpired during the meeting is not completely clear.  President Grímsson claimed PM Gunnlaugsson asked whether he would be willing to dissolve the government and call an election.  Gunnlaugsson, on the other hand, claims that he simply presented the president with what he perceived to be the only two options in the circumstances; for the government to stand united against the opposition’s no confidence motion or to resign.  What appears to be clear is that a formal request to dissolve parliament was not made and the claims made by both actors reflect their own, possibly selective but certainly entertaining, accounts of a private discussion.  President Grímsson’s, interpretation that a request for dissolution had been made appeared, for example, to rest on his observation that the Prime Minister was accompanied by ministerial staff carrying a briefcase that presumably contained a formal request.  It is also important to note that the right of the President to refuse the Prime Minister’s request to dissolve parliament is not uncontroversial – for the same reasons as the President’s ability to refer legislation to a referendum.  Thus, Grímsson’s insistence on having refused to the Prime Minister’s request could be interpreted as part of his agenda to imbue the office of the President with real political powers.

Whatever the case may be, it appears clear that PM Gunnlaugsson wanted to present the Independence Party with an ultimatum, i.e., either its members support continued cooperation in government under Gunnlaugsson leadership or Althingi will be dissolved and an election called.  At the time, the latter option may have seemed unattractive to the Independence party as two of its ministers were also implicated in the Panama Papers scandal and the party’s chances of being in government following an election may also have appeared slim.

The Progressive Party’s threat of dissolution, however, never materialized as President Grímsson informed the PM that he would not dissolve parliament and, moreover, called a press conference after the meeting to announce his decision.  The President’s refusal to left Gunnlaugsson in a very weak position and, in effect, forced him to resign – although later that day the prime minister’s offices issued a press release to the foreign press indicated that the PM was merely stepping aside temporarily.  Thus, it remains to be seen whether Gunnlaugsson plans to return as prime minister (he remains a member of parliament) and, if so, whether he will be successful in doing so.

Having flexed his political muscle, Grímsson decided to go back on his decision to not seek re-election. Possibly as he may have perceived his changes of a successful bid having improved by his role in the removal of the prime minister – even though it fell short of the demands of the protesters, most of whom would have liked to see the government removed and an election called.  But one might also question the causal relationship here, i.e., it is also possible that Grímsson flexed his political muscle because he had already decided that he wanted to run for re-election or recognized that the political fallout from the Panama Papers opened a window of opportunity for him to hang around for a bit longer. Things, however, took an interesting turn when former Prime Minister Oddsson announced his candidacy – incidentally Oddsson was Prime Minister when President Grímsson first referred legislation to a referendum, thereby forcing Oddsson to withdraw the legislation.   Shortly after Oddsson announced his candidacy, President Grímsson withdrew his candidacy – perhaps because he considered his chances of reelection reduced by the Oddsson’s candidacy or, possibly, because he considered his candidacy increasing the chance of Oddsson being elected.

While there is no longer any doubt that the president can use his powers to refer legislation to a referendum, views on the role of the president remain divided, i.e., many voters hold the view that the president should be `above’ politics.  Thus, in some sense the election is, explicitly or implicitly, about what role the president ought to play.  However, as it stands, the leading candidates don’t offer clear alternatives in this regard. From the viewpoint of a political scientist the election would have been far more interesting if Grímsson had not withdrawn his candidacy as his candidacy would clearly stood for the option representing a political president.  Instead, the two leading candidates have indicated that they would consider referring legislation to a referendum.  However, the question about the powers of the presidency is also reflected in another issue, i.e., the question of constitutional reform.

A constitutional council, charged with drafting a new constitution, was established in 2011.  A consultative referendum was held on the draft constitution, in which voters expressed substantial support for the constitution and several of its provisions (although voter turnout was very low by Icelandic standards).  However, the amendment of the constitutions was never brought to a vote in parliament but constitutional reform remains a part of the political discourse.  The two leading candidates do have opposing views on constitutional reform, which is of some significance as the role of the president is probably one of the key issues in the constitutional reform debate.  While it is not clear that the constitution drafted by the constitutional council will be the basis of future reform proposals it is worth nothing that although the draft constitution doesn’t remove the president’s ability to refer legislation to a referendum, the significance of this power is reduced significantly by other proposed amendments.  In particular, the draft constitution has a provision whereby 10% of the voters can refer legislation to a referendum.  Thus, in instances in which there is popular opposition to legislation, it is likely to be referred to referendum regardless of whether the president takes action or not.  Indeed, one might argue that the provision actually reduces the president’s powers further.  As it stands, once legislation lacking majority support among voters has been passed by Althingi – i.e., the only circumstance in which the president has the ability to decide on the fate of the legislation – the president effectively has to power to turn that legislation into law, i.e., against the will of the majority of voters. The president may also be able to leverage this ‘negative power’ into a positive one – i.e., by bargaining for unrelated legislation in exchange for his signature.  When voters can demand a referendum, this power is removed.

The question then is whether the election will be fought in terms of the future of semi-presidentialism (or the form it will take in Iceland).  That seems somewhat unlikely, the same issues were at stake in the 2012 election and the constitutional form of government received fairly little attention – and it was certainly not focused on close consideration of the political implications of expanding or constraining the powers of the president.  However, even if the campaign is not dominated by discussions of the pros and cons of semi-presidentialism, it doesn’t mean that the election will not have implications for the future of semi-presidentialism in Iceland.

Indridi H. Indridason was on the faculty at the University of Iceland from 2003 to 2007 and was the chair of the department of political science for two years. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester. His research is in the areas of comparative political institutions and applied game theory with focus on electoral systems, electoral behavior, coalition formation, and cabinet management strategies. Among his current research projects are i) the determinants of coalition bargaining outcomes including policy outcomes and portfolio allocation, ii) strategic coalitional voting, and iii) the effects of extremist parties on the policy platforms adopted by other (more moderate) parties. His recent work has been published in journals such as American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, British Journal of Political Science, Economics and Politics, and Journal of Theoretical Politics.