This coming Saturday, Icelanders head to the polls in national elections.
The last elections, four years ago, were historic. We had just had an economic meltdown, and the previous government had collapsed. People’s fury was reflected at polls, with the Independence Party – the party that had ruled Iceland for the previous 18 years – receiving its worst result ever. A left-wing government made up of a coalition between the Social Democratic Alliance and Left-Green movement took over. Iceland had its first female prime minister, who moreover was [and is] openly gay.
To many of us, it was a foregone conclusion that this coalition would only survive for one election term. We knew they would end up massively unpopular because they had to do all the dirty work involved in cleaning up the mess of the previous shenanigans. Even so, witnessing the fact that the parties that drove this country into the ground are about to be brought back into power is a bit hard to stomach, to say the very least.
It’s pretty clear at this point that the next coalition will likely be between the Independence Party and the Progressive Party. Somewhat surprisingly, the IP is not the one leading at the polls, but rather the Progressives, who had fallen to a ridiculous low in the last elections [less than 10 percent if I remember correctly]. [Update: it was actually 14.8 percent.]
The fact that the IP is no longer all-powerful would be cause for jubilation if it weren’t for the fact that the Progressives are just as bad. They were in a coalition with the IP for a good long while prior to the meltdown and those two parties privatized the banks that went on to wreak such havoc on the nation. That was a brazen act so rife with corruption that it still boggles the mind that they got away with it [I wrote about it here]. The Progressive Party was instrumental in pushing through the construction of the Kárahnjúkavirkjun power plant, flying in the face of expert opinion that it would have serious effects for a multitude of reasons, both environmental and economic. Indeed, we are still contending with the effects. A few weeks ago it was revealed that the biosphere in one of Iceland’s most ecologically unique rivers – Lagarfljót – is now dead as a result of the Kárahnjúkavirkjun plant.
That construction project, which at the time was the largest in Icelandic history, was carried out because multinational giant Alcoa had crawled into bed with the Progressives – something that is well covered in the excellent documentary Dreamland. The construction of the plant ultimately created an economic environment that culminated in the meltdown. Key persons within the Progressive Party have also been linked to all manner of corruption, relating to fishing quotas, large-scale debt write-offs, and a plethora of other issues too lengthy to relate here.
Their current chairman, and the man likely to become Iceland’s next prime minister, is one Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson. He is 38 years old and the wealthiest MP in the Icelandic parliament, with net assets valued at ISK 600 million. His wife is a wealthy heiress valued at over ISK 1 billion. He, himself, admits that he is a member of the elite. According to a recent article in Fréttatíminn, he told an anecdote at a party congress a while back that described his closest brush with poverty. It went like this: he was at an event and an elderly man, who had ordered an ice cream for his grandchild, discovered that he had forgotten his wallet. The man therefore had to go without [the ice cream, that is]. Yep. That is Sigmundur Davíð’s closest brush with poverty, by his own admission.
Meanwhile, this is the man who has billed himself as the guardian of the underdog. His main election promise is that he will “correct household debt burdens”, i.e. offer debt relief to those who are suffering under a load of debt in the wake of the meltdown. The capital to do so he proposes to take from foreign hedge funds, to get them to repay the money they made from the economic meltdown and which is still locked inside the country due to capital controls. Sounds great in theory, right? Not so great when it comes to actually doing it, though, as a multitude of experts have pointed out. For one thing, you can’t go back and tax people [or hedge funds] after the fact. It would be easy to defend oneself in court against such folly, and even if by some remote chance the ruling was in Iceland’s favour, the proceedings themselves would delay the whole undertaking by years. And so on.
In addition, as has been pointed out repeatedly, these “debt relief” proposals are mainly designed to help high-income individuals living in the Reykjavík area, who took high loans prior to the meltdown. They get the write-offs, not the people who were prudent, who, say, put all their savings in a down payment, which has now burned up as the principal of their mortgage has increased. It’s the people who lived the high life before the collapse who stand to gain the most from this election promise.
But back to Sigmundur Davíð. His education [or lack thereof – maybe – we don’t know] has been in the news a fair bit lately. See, he maintains that he was accepted into a PhD programme at Oxford a few years ago, that he conducted research in urban planning, but never finished his dissertation. That’s what he’s said on several occasions. On other occasions he’s said something else. Plus, the years he claims he was doing research don’t line up with things he was actually doing, such as producing TV shows. Naturally a lot of people have wanted to get this small point straight, and have asked Oxford university for his records. Alas, the university won’t hand over any data concerning students without their written permission, and Sigmundur Davíð resolutely refuses to allow the Icelandic media to look into his education at Oxford.
So by now you are probably asking: WHY is this dude so popular?
There are a couple of reasons. First, there’s the glowing promise of the debt relief, outlined above. Then there’s Icesave. Remember the presidential elections last year? They were won almost exclusively on the strength of the president’s Icesave veto. Same thing here. Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson was the most vehement opponent of Icesave in the Icelandic parliament, and to many people, this translates into trustworthiness. All else notwithstanding.
The Progressives are also strongly opposed to joining the European Union, which sits well with a lot of voters. Sadly, it looks like, if this coalition comes into effect, the ongoing negotiations with the EU, which have claimed so much time, effort and expense, will be blown off entirely. Meaning the nation will not even get a chance to see the negotiated agreement, and be able to vote on it in a referendum. So much for Iceland’s widely-acclaimed direct democracy movement.
I could go on. I could, for instance, write about how Sigmundur Davíð moved his legal residence to East Iceland a few days before elections in the party so he could weasel his way into parliament [does he actually live there? NO.] I could also write about the serious corruption allegations against Sigmundur Davíð’s father, an extremely wealthy former party member who is a nasty piece of work. In the wake of the allegations he went ballistic on a blogger who blogged about them, eventually trying to bankrupt him by taking him to court. The blogger was acquitted of all charges and the father was made to pay all costs, but that didn’t stop him from accosting the blogger in question publicly last week, calling him “scum” in front of a crowd of people.
But I’m sure I don’t have to go on. You get the picture.
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