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Iceland Mag

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From the editor: What's going on in Icelandic politics?

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • Summer is returning to Iceland This week Icelanders have been enjoying the first days of summer, with temperatures topping 20°C (68°F). Photo/GVA

Things in Iceland seem to be going extremely well, as this week‘s news indicate. The economy is booming with unemployment at record lows, and Icelanders who had emigrated to live in the other Nordic Countries are returning home. Icelandic society seems to be working well. And the boom in the tourism industry shows little signs of abating. Record number of new flight routes have been announced for the coming winter and Reykjavík will see a record number of cruise ships this summer.

Historically unpopular government
So why do Icelanders reject the government of Bjarni Benediktsson, the Prime Minister of Iceland? A poll released this week shows that the support for his right-wing coalition is in free-fall. The junior coalition party members in the government are being wiped out in opinion polls.

Read more: Support for ruling right-wing coalition government continues to slip, left makes solid gains

Under normal conditions one might assume the government would be thanked for providing a windfall, and that Bjarni would be a popular Prime Minister. Governing during times of economic prosperity is usually a source of popularity, not widespread unpopularity.

Underlying problems
The problem is many Icelanders are not participating in this windfall. While the tourism sector booms, people working in traditional sectors like fisheries are hard pressed, and despite the fact that poverty continues to drop, far too many Icelanders are still stuck in poverty

Icelanders are also angry that the government is failing to make long overdue investments in infrastructure. The protests in East Iceland earlier this spring, when locals shut down traffic on the ring road, is an example of this anger.

But Icelanders are also worried. The economy is showing clear signs of overheating. The real-estate market seems to have lost all grounding in reality, with Iceland leading the global rise in real-estate prices, and the booming tourism industry is seen as threatening Icelandic nature. Poorly behaving foreign visitors do not help dispel these fears. But while the occasional foreign visitor who misbehaves might get a lot of media attention Icelanders primarily blame the government for the problems caused by the tourism industry, for being slow to respond to its growth and for failing to provide the infrastructure necessary to accommodate large numers of visitors.

A new Socialist Party founded on May 1
There are also signs of significant political radicalization in Icelandic society. Fortunately Iceland has not seen the rise of authoritarian political movements. But since the 2008 financial crash and the 2008-9 Pots and Pans revolution Icelanders have been very open to anti-establishment parties and political movements which propose radical new ideas.

The latest sign of this that a new Socialist Party was founded on May 1. Whenever a Socialist Party is founded, it is a sign that politics are showing signs of increasing radicalization. And Icelanders seem to be easily radicalised. The mass protests following last year‘s Panama Papers revelations – 22,000 people showed up to protest in downtown Reykjavík in April 2016, forcing the government to resign, prove this.

There is, therefore, both deep political undercurrent against the government of Bjarni Benediktsson, as well as nagging suspicions about its competence. It does not help that the cloud of the Panama papers still hangs over this government.

But Icelanders are unified behind their president
But despite this underlying political anger, Icelanders also seem remarkably united: The last big political story of this week was Friday‘s poll on the popularity of the President of Iceland. Despite the Pineapple on pizza gate scandal Guðni Th. Jóhannesson enjoys a popularity. Only 2.8% view his term in office negatively. This poll is a testament to one of Icelander‘s most remarkable characteristics. They can be a remarkably unified nation, at least when they find something to unify them.

In this case a lovably quirky former history professor!

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