Iceland votes as government hangs by a thread

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Reykjavík (AFP)

Iceland votes on Saturday in an election that could see its unprecedented left-right coalition lose its majority, despite four years of stability after a decade of crises.

With a political landscape more fragmented than ever, the process of forming a new coalition could be more complicated than in the past.

Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir, whose Left-Green Movement had never led a government before, is running for a second term but the large number of parties could oppose it.

Opinion polls suggest that a record nine out of 10 parties are expected to win seats in the Althing, Iceland’s nearly 1,100-year-old parliament.

This makes it particularly difficult to predict which parties might end up forming a coalition.

“It’s a challenge for politicians but I think for democracy it is better for everyone to be at the table,” Thorsteinn Thorvaldsson, 54, told AFP on the eve of the election. .

“When I was younger it was easier, there were four parties, now we have 10. But it’s interesting,” he said.

With 33 of the 63 seats, the outgoing coalition is a mix of the Conservative Independence Party, the Center-Right Progressive Party and the Left-Green Movement.

– ‘Different opportunities’ –

Some polls suggest the current coalition will succeed in securing a very narrow majority, but others say it will fail.

“Because there are so many parties, I think there will be a lot of different opportunities to form a government,” Prime Minister Jakobsdottir told AFP in an interview this week.

This is only the second time since 2008 that a government has reached the end of its four-year mandate Odd ANDERSEN AFP / File

While she is widely popular, her party hovers around 10-12% in the polls and risks losing several seats.

During his four-year tenure, Jakobsdottir introduced a progressive income tax system, increased the social housing budget and extended parental leave for both parents.

She was also praised for her handling of the Covid crisis, with just 33 deaths in the country of 370,000.

But she also had to make concessions to keep the peace in her coalition, including a pledge to create a national park in central Iceland that is home to 32 active volcanic systems and 400 glaciers.

This is only the second time since 2008 that a government has come to the end of its four-year term on the sprawling island.

Deep public distrust of politicians amid repeated scandals sent Icelanders to the polls five times from 2007 to 2017.

– ‘Free for all’ –

The Independence Party, which has around 20-24% of the vote in the polls, is also at risk of losing seats, but is expected to remain the largest political party.

Its leader, Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, is a former prime minister from a family that has long held power on the right.

He is aiming for the post of Prime Minister.

Iceland home to 32 active volcanic systems and 400 glaciers
Iceland home to 32 active volcanic systems and 400 glaciers Jérémie RICHARD AFP

Benediktsson survived several political scandals, including being implicated in the 2016 Panama Papers leak that revealed offshore tax havens, and is running for his fifth election.

“I am optimistic, I feel supported,” he said at a campaign rally this week, insisting that his party would continue to be “the backbone of the next government”.

But five other parties followed suit, credited with 10 to 15% of the vote.

They are the Left-Green Movement, the Progressive Party, the Social Democratic Alliance, the Libertarian Pirate Party and the center-right reformist Party. A new socialist party should also do well.

“There is no clear alternative to this government. If it falls and it cannot continue, then it is simply a question of creating a new coalition for all,” said political scientist Eirikur Bergmann.

Former prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson aims for top post
Former prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson aims for top post Halldor KOLBEINS AFP / File

The first preliminary results are expected on Saturday shortly after the polls close at 10 p.m. (10 p.m. GMT), but a clear picture is unlikely to emerge until the next day.