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ICELAND: Taking the First Turn Left

Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK, Apr 27 2009 (IPS) - Iceland’s Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Party won the majority of the seats in the Apr. 25 election, and will continue to work together for the next four years as the ruling coalition.

The two parties had formed a minority government Feb. 1 after the collapse of the previous SDA and conservative Independence Party (IP) coalition. The LGP now have 14 members in the 63-member parliament and the SDP 20.

This is the first time that Iceland has a left-wing government, and the first time in 18 years that the IP has not become part of the ruling coalition.

The IP suffered its worst defeat. “The decline in popularity appeared straight after the collapse of the banks in opinion polls taken at the time,” Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson, professor of politics at the University of Iceland told IPS. “The explanation is primarily people’s dissatisfaction with how the party handled the crisis, and they hold it responsible for the collapse as the party had been in power so long.”

Olafur Thor Hardarson also from the University of Iceland adds: “I feel that the financial crisis in the world as a whole has had the effect that support for the left has increased.”

The crisis raised other issues. After the banks collapsed, considerable discussion arose over whether Iceland would be better off within the EU, and whether the Icelandic currency should be replaced with the euro.

The SDA strongly favours EU membership. The Left-Green Party (LGP) wants a national referendum on this. The SDA wants a policy on the EU to be decided before forming the cabinet.

There is wider support now within parliament for a referendum. The Citizen’s Movement (CM), a new political party that developed out of the protests after the collapse of the Icelandic banks last October, gained four seats, getting seven percent of the vote. This is seen as a protest party for people who want to change the way the Althingi (Icelandic parliament) operates.

“We want parliamentary committees to have deadlines, so that important matters don’t get lost in the system, and we want national referendums on all major issues,” Birgitta Jonsdottir, one of the new CM members of parliament told IPS. “We want people to be able to dissolve the Althingi if it has become unpopular, so we don’t have a repeat of the last time.”

Jonsdottir says the public must decide on EU membership. “They have to be aware, for instance, that if Iceland joins the EU and if the EU decides to set up a military force of its own, Icelandic boys might be required to serve in the army. We don’t think Icelanders will be happy about that.” Iceland has no military force.

Of the other parties in the Althingi, the Progressive Party (nine members) is willing to start discussions on EU membership but the IP (16 members) says it is not in Iceland’s interests.

A record 43 percent of the new Althingi members are women. That brings Iceland to fourth place on the Inter-Parliamentary Union list of women in parliament, after Rwanda, Sweden and Cuba.

SDP and LGP leaders appear confident about working together following their period together in the caretaker government. “We had no problems, and it will be easier in a majority government,” says Helgi Hjorvar (SDP).

The new government has serious matters to confront, besides rescuing bank creditors and deciding whether to apply for EU membership. One issue that has to be sorted out soon is whether Iceland should attempt to get a continuation of the Kyoto Protocol’s Iceland Provision when the issue comes up again later this year.

The Iceland Provision was the exemption given to Iceland when the Kyoto Protocol came into effect in 2005, because of its reliance on renewable energy sources. Iceland was allowed to increase its greenhouse gas emissions by 10 percent from their 1990 level, rather than decrease emissions by at least 5 percent as most other signatories are required to.

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