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Friday, February 3, 2023

Iceland goes to polls as its government fights to retain majority

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Iceland votes on Saturday in an election that could see its unprecedented left-right coalition lose its majority, despite bringing four years of stability after a decade of crises.

With the political landscape more splintered than ever, the process of forming a new coalition could be more complicated than in the past.

Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, whose Left-Green Movement had never led a government before, is seeking a second mandate but a large number of parties could get in her way.

Opinion polls suggest a record nine parties out of 10 are expected to win seats in the Althing, Iceland’s almost 1,100-year-old parliament.

That makes it particularly tricky to predict which parties could end up forming a coalition.

“It is challenging for the politicians but I think for democracy it is better to have everyone at the table,” Thorsteinn Thorvaldsson, a 54-year-old voter, told AFP on the eve of the election.

“When I was younger it was simpler, there were four parties, now we have 10. But it is interesting,” he said.

With 33 of 63 seats, the outgoing coalition is a mix of the conservative Independence Party, the center-right Progressive Party, and the Left-Green Movement.

‘Different opportunities’

Some opinion polls suggest the current coalition will manage to secure a very narrow majority but others say it will fail.

“Because there are so many parties, I think there will be a lot of different opportunities to form a government,” Prime Minister Jakobsdottir told AFP in an interview this week.

While she is broadly popular, her party is hovering around 10-12 percent in the polls and risks losing several seats.

During her four-year term, Jakobsdottir has introduced a progressive income tax system, increased the social housing budget, and extended parental leave for both parents.

She has also been hailed for her handling of the Covid crisis, with just 33 deaths in the country of 370,000.

But she has also had to make concessions to keep the peace in her coalition, including a promise to create a national park in central Iceland which is home to 32 active volcano systems and 400 glaciers.

This is only the second time since 2008 that a government has made it to the end of its four-year mandate on the sprawling island.

Deep public distrust of politicians amid repeated scandals sent Icelanders to the polls five times from 2007 to 2017.


The Independence Party, which polls credit with around 20-24 percent of votes, also risks losing seats but is expected to remain the largest political party.

Its leader, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, is a former prime minister who comes from a family that has long held power on the right.

He is eyeing the post of prime minister.

Benediktsson has survived several political scandals, including being implicated in the 2016 Panama Papers leak that revealed offshore tax havens, and is standing in his fifth election.

“I’m optimistic, I feel supported,” he told a campaign rally this week, insisting his party would continue to be “the backbone of the next government”.

But there are five other parties all hot on his heels, credited with 10 to 15 percent of votes.

They are the Left-Green Movement, the Progressive Party, the Social Democratic Alliance, the libertarian Pirate Party, and the center-right Reform Party. A new Socialist Party is also expected to put in a strong showing.

“There is not a clear alternative to this government. If it falls and they can’t continue, then it’s just a free-for-all to create a new coalition,” political scientist Eirikur Bergmann said.

First early results are expected on Saturday shortly after voting stations close at 10:00 pm (2200 GMT), but a clear picture is not expected to emerge until the next day.

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