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ICELAND: Change – But How Much? – in the Wake of Elections

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, May 26 2007 (IPS) - There has been a change in the make-up of Iceland’s ruling coalition after the recent parliamentary elections, which bodes for a new approach to health, education and farm policy. But how much change is in store regarding the environment, energy production and the Iraq war remains unclear.

New government ministers were only recently appointed and met Thursday for the first time, following the May 12 elections.

The right-wing Independence Party (IP) and Progressive Party (PP) coalition has been replaced by the IP and the centre-left Social Democratic Alliance (SDA).

Although together the IP and PP retained 32 seats out of 63 following the May 12 elections, support for the PP had plummeted and its politicians did not feel confident enough to take part in the ruling coalition. The total number of seats they held fell from 12 to seven.

How much will things change? The SDA say the new coalition will bring changes in health, welfare, education and agriculture issues. But many people are wondering what position the new coalition will take on the environment, the Iraq war and the European Union, as the two parties are at odds on these issues.

In the campaign, the SDA had stated that one of the first things it would do as ruling party would be to remove Iceland from U.S. President George W. Bush’s “Coalition of the Willing”, the countries that have contributed military power to the war in Iraq. The SDA and the Left-Green Movement (LGM) have frequently said that Iceland should pull out because the vast majority of the population are against the war. The decision to be part of it was taken by representatives of the IP and PP.

But all that has happened to date is a declaration by the new majority in which it says it deplores the war in Iraq.

The environment was a big issue during the election campaign, with the opposition parties being especially vocal in their criticism of the building of large-scale industrial complexes such as aluminium smelters and in the development of new power plants, especially hydropower stations.

Soon after the elections, but before the new ruling coalition had been announced, the non-governmental organisation Framtidarlandid (The Future Country) sent out a resolution concerning environmental issues, which said that the discontent of Icelanders about policies on large-scale industry played a large part in the poor showing by the PP, while environmentalists supported the LGM and a new right-green party, the Iceland Movement.

“The results must be interpreted as a call to a policy change whereby reconciliation with people and the environment takes priority,” said Framtidarlandid.

Two new aluminium smelters are in the works, one at Helguvik in southwest Iceland and the other at Bakki in the northeast. No firm decision has been made about these yet, but preparations for Helguvik are further ahead as an environmental impact assessment has just been completed, discussions are under way about energy supplies from geothermal sources. Construction could start by the end of the year.

Construction at Bakki, however, is not expected to start prior to 2010.

The SDA will head the environment ministry for the next four years, so changes could be expected. But Kolbrun Halldorsdottir from the LGM is sceptical: “It appears that both the Helguvik and Bakki aluminium plants will go ahead, and the prime minister [Geir Haarde] has said that the government will not intervene in discussions about expansion of aluminium smelters; it is up to the companies themselves to decide that.”

Which means that there will basically be no change in policy towards aluminium plants and the like.

Another controversial issue is the building of three hydroelectric plants on the Thjorsa River, which has been vehemently opposed by local farmers as well as the leftist parties. The original plan was to use these plants for fuelling an expansion of the Straumsvik aluminium smelter, but local residents voted it in a referendum so the development of the hydroelectric plants was put on hold until a buyer for the electricity could be found.

Asked about her view on this, Halldorsdottir said, “The SDA have not mentioned these plants at all, so they may well go ahead.”

Nine candidates from the LGM were elected, making the party the third biggest after the SDA. Do they see their role as easier in the future, with the SDA in the coalition, instead of two right-wing parties? “No, but the boundaries will be clearer. Now the opposition parties will act as one,” said Steingrimur J. Sigurdsson, chair of the LGM.

“The SDA are giving in to the Independent Party on many issues, including large-scale industry and Iraq, but also health and welfare issues. In many ways the new ruling coalition will be no better than the old, and could resemble a Blair-Thatcher neo-liberal government,” he added.

The new coalition should be stronger on women’s issues, such as removing wage inequality between the sexes, as two of the new ministers were originally members of the Women’s List and the SDA was very vocal on women’s issues during the election campaign.

But, as Halldorsdottir pointed out, “It’s all very well to say they’ll work towards wage equality, but the previous majority said that too. Unfortunately, the SDA give no details on how or when they’ll do this.” Women make up almost 32 percent of the new parliament.

 
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