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Iceland at the polls, between “dégagisme” and economic stability

Ⓒ AFP – Halldor KOLBEINS – | Candidates take part in last televised debate before Iceland’s general elections in Reykjavik on 27 October 2017

Icelanders vote Saturday in advance of indecisive early elections, between the desire for “disengagement” and aspiration for stability in these good times for the economy of the small subarctic island.

Nine parties are in the running, from the Independence Party, the dominant conservative party since 1944, to the Left-Greens movement, which is draining some of the voters determined to end the “money” years that led to the financial crisis in 2008.

According to the latest polls published Friday by the daily Morgunbladid and television Ruv, the Independence Party of outgoing Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, would get 17 seats out of 63. Whatever his score Saturday night, Mr. Benediktsson undoubtedly enjoys the extraordinary vitality of the Icelandic economy.

Ⓒ AFP/Archives – Halldor KOLBEINS – | Outgoing Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson delivers a speech at a meeting in Garðabær, Iceland, 24 October 2017

Several parties of the “anti-establishment” camp nevertheless appear able to send him back to the opposition: the Left-Greens movement, the Social Democrats, and the Pirates would total together up to 29 mandates. Too short to reach the majority of 32 seats, but the rallying of a fourth party is possible.

“If these figures are confirmed by the election, they will be an injunction for the opposition to form a government,” said the leader of the Left-Green Movement, Katrin Jakobsdottir.

Recent history, however, has shown how far the leftist parties struggled to get along.

On the other side of the spectrum, if the Conservatives seem lonely, they could nevertheless make common cause with their former allies of the Progress Party, the Center and Renaissance liberals, credited with 16 to 17 seats in total.

“We need a boost,” said a worried Bjarni Benediktsson.

The polling stations open at 09:00 GMT and close at 22:00 GMT.

Ⓒ AFP/Archives – Laurence SAUBADU – | Althingi, the Icelandic parliament

This is the fourth legislative since the crisis that has plunged the Nordic nation into the doldrums, uncovered the small arrangements between politics and business, but also emerges a fundamental movement for a more transparent democracy.

In 2009, the Social Democrats and the Left-Greens had taken the reins of the executive after the resignation of the government led by the Independence Party, perceived as co-responsible for the crisis.

– The rise of an ambitious –

With this flop, the left presided over the drafting of a new Constitution, “by” and “for” the citizens.

But this Constitution has never been ratified and, after the austerity, voters’ aspiration for prosperity has taken precedence over the desire for reform. The right came back to the responsibilities in 2013.

This return coincided with the rise of a son of one of these wealthy families whose destiny is linked to that of the island: Bjarni Benediktsson, 47-year-old lawyer, grandnephew of a former prime minister and head of state the same party that rallies under its banner fishermen, eurosceptics and entrepreneurs.

Minister of Finance and Economy between 2013 and 2017, his name appears in 2016 in the Panama Papers as holder of an offshore account. But he stands firm and becomes Prime Minister in January 2017, succeeding Sigurdur Ingi Johannesson, who himself had succeeded Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson six months earlier, “cleared” after being also quoted in the scandal of tax havens.

After the failure of an attempt at a deal on the left, Bjarni Benediktsson managed to form a narrow majority of a seat in January.

The coalition fell after nine months after the withdrawal of a small party, the prime minister being accused of covering his father in a sordid legal mess.

– Growth, but not for all –

Despite the scandals and the hypothesis of a return of the left, the vote should once again reveal the anchorage of the Independence Party.

Eva Sveinsdottir, a 33-year-old conservative, believes that “Bjarni” and his political friends “played an important role” in preventing Iceland from succumbing to the temptation to join the European Union after the 2008 crisis.

“This explains why we are today in a much better situation than Greece,” she analyzes.

A euphemism: after 7.2% in 2016, Iceland, which has cleared its debts, still shows vigorous growth (3.4% in the second quarter), a near-residual unemployment rate, investments and tourists who break out on the island.

There will be more than two million foreign visitors this year, a windfall that also feeds the discontent of the more modest, as rents in Reykjavik soar.

“I work in a shop and my salary is not enough (…) People in the government do not understand us because they come from rich families,” complained Jarya Sukuay, 23, who will vote on the left.

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