The opinion polls were right in Iceland: the centre-left government went down to just the heavy defeat in Saturday’s election that was predicted. The new government will be a centre-right coalition between the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, and the former’s leader, Bjarni Benediktsson, will be the new prime minister.

The two parties that formed the outgoing government, the Social Democrats and the Left-Greens, lost more than half their seats: they will have only 16 seats between them (nine and seven respectively), down from 34 at the last election. The Independence Party and  Progressive Party will each have 19 seats in the 63-seat parliament, or Althing. Two new parties, Bright Future and the Pirate Party, also cleared the threshold for representation, winning six and three seats respectively.

(I can’t find an official results page – it should be somewhere on this website – but various media sources agree on the figures: see Iceland Review, the Reykjavík Grapevine or the BBC. Wikipedia, not surprisingly, is the most comprehensive.)

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So a centre-left government with a good economic record in troubled financial times, led by the country’s first female prime minister, loses in a landslide to a centre-right opposition promising it can work economic magic. I’m sure that won’t remind readers of anything.

Iceland, of course, has had a much worse time of things in the crisis than Australia has. But that just makes it all the more remarkable that the electorate has turned to the parties that were in power when things turned bad. While the result is being billed as a vote against austerity, it’s unlikely that it will give much comfort to the centre-left parties elsewhere on the continent who regard that position as their natural turf.

Voting mostly isn’t about rewarding or punishing parties for what they’ve done, it’s about what voters want for the future. In this case it looks as it Icelanders turned to the left when things needed fixing and, once the task was more or less accomplished, returned to their natural allegiance (the Independence Party has been in government for almost 60 years of its 84-year history). Ungrateful no doubt, but not necessarily irrational.

And to be fair, the new government’s mandate is somewhat less sweeping than it might appear. Its two parties won only 51.1% of the vote between them, but because the opposing vote was spread across thirteen other parties – most of which failed to reach the 5% threshold – they won 60% of the seats. Even the fairest of electoral systems (and Iceland’s is among the best) can’t do much about that.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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