Iceland’s Left-Greens make progress but must be wary of coalition scandals
The Icelandic Left-Greens have entered government for only the second time in their history. They aim to implement an ecosocialist policy program and rebuild trust in a political system that has been seriously undermined by scandal in recent years. In both endeavours, they must avoid getting dragged down by the parties of the centre-right they have been forced to enter coalition with. In this article, I assess how they are doing.
In November last year, the Left-Greens entered government for only the second time in their history. Running on an ecosocialist manifesto, and led by the much admired and liked Katrín Jakobsdóttir, they surged in the polls before eventually finishing second. The first placed party had been implicated by scandal and so the Left-Greens were given the right to lead coalition talks. After a more leftist 5 party coalition failed to materialise, the Left-Greens entered government with the centre right Independence and Progressive parties.
With the formation of the first Icelandic government led by the Left-Greens, hopes are high for a new kind of politics in Iceland. This is despite the experience of the last time the Left-Greens entered government. This was as a minor coalition partner to the Social Democratic Party in 2009, in the wake of the financial crisis which, thanks to an over exposed financial sector, devastated Iceland’s economy. The government, under IMF strictures, was forced to implement an austerity program which contributed to the ‘Pots and Pans’ revolution, a series of massive protests that ultimately led to the convening of a citizen’s constitutional assembly. Though the impression of leftists and greens in much of the world is that Iceland dealt with the aftermath of the financial crisis well, much to Iceland’s left, including the party members of the Left-Greens, were disappointed with the failure to reform the financial sector.
The new government has formed and inspired great hopes for the left globally, and Katrín Jakobsdóttir is seen as a refreshing and new left political leader (her old appearance in a music video with two of Iceland’s leading musicians remains popular as well), yet things are not straightforward for the Left-Greens. Iceland is difficult territory for the left. That so-called left government of 2009-13 was the only left government in Iceland’s modern history. Coupled with the Icelandic proportional electoral system (this time delivering no fewer than eight parties to parliament), compromises have to be made with right wing parties to govern.
A coalition has been formed with the centre right Independence and Progressive parties. These parties are usually aligned in policy terms, and have governed together in coalition regularly. This led the Left-Greens to prioritise policy improvements to boost spending on the welfare state, including in health and education. This is shrewd partly because the Progressive Party favours higher spending to close a funding gap between urban and rural areas that hurts it’s rural electoral base. Still, welfare spending increases have required sacrifices to other policy areas. The Independence Party still holds the finance, foreign and justice ministries, effectively blocking attempts to reform the financial sector, withdraw from NATO, and reduce the numbers of deportations, all of which were manifesto pledges.
These compromises have resulted in some successes. Major bills to increase healthcare and education spending have already been passed, though the effects of these policies are yet to be seen. Further policy successes include a law requiring companies to close their gender pay gap, the head of an environmental NGO was appointed head of the environment ministry and the government pledged to reach carbon neutrality by 2040.
Policy improvements will not be the only test of the Left-Greens in government. The Left-Greens are seen by many as a relatively fresh force in Icelandic politics and so have not been as badly affected by the scandals that have raged through Icelandic politics in recent years. The biggest risk that comes from the coalition with the Independence and Progressive parties is their legacy of scandal, and the Left-Greens will need to be careful not to succumb to it.
The Progressive Party was most damaged by the Panama Papers revelations which lead to the resignation of their then PM Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson (currently attempting a political comeback). The Independence Party, which led the previous government, was forced to call the snap election because their former PM (now Finance Minister) Bjarni Benediktsson and other ministers concealed from parliament that Bendiktsson’s father had sent a letter of recommendation endorsing the ‘restored honour’ (a legal/ civil standing) of a convicted paedophile. Entering a coalition with these parties was a necessity given the parliamentary arithmetic, but it risks undermining the attempt of the Left-Greens to change and rebuild trust in the Icelandic political system. These concerns, and policy differences led large numbers of Left-Green members, and two MP’s, to reject the coalition deal outright.
Shortly after the election the new government was popular, as were the Left-Greens, and this continues to the present. Coupled with the policy successes detailed earlier, it seems so far so good, with little sign of the Left-Greens being dragged down by their coalition partners. However, a recent scandal illustrates the difficult position the Left-Greens are still in. In March the Social Democratic and Pirate parties, two parties of the broader Icelandic left, moved a motion of no confidence against the Justice Minister from the Independence Party Sigríður Andersen. She had been implicated in the paedophilia scandal that brought down the previous government. Specifically she had, as the Justice Minister of the previous government, refused to disclose details of the letter of recommendation made by the former PM’s father. Additionally, she is accused of having broken the law regulating the appointment of judges and national and international law in a series of deportation decisions.
The motion of no confidence failed to pass with the PM declaring she had full confidence in the minister, but two of her MPs (the two who had previously voted against the formation of the coalition) voted for the motion and a majority of the public and an overwhelming 90% of Left-Green members think the Justice Minister should resign. What this shows is the risk the Left-Greens take by entering coalition. The Left-Greens risk becoming viewed as just another party of scandal, the dark flip-side of their desire to be viewed as a serious party of government. Yet if they don’t attempt to maintain a coalition with at least some centre right elements they will fail to achieve any of the changes to government policy which they are aiming for.
It is too early to tell whether the Left-Greens can deliver in both policy terms, and in terms of rebuilding trust in politics, but the vast public opposition to their position in this scandal is a warning not to get to clubby with the scandalised parties of the right.