Iceland is a parliamentary democracy with a long history of upholding political rights and civil liberties. However, links between elected representatives and business interests remain a concern, as does the concentration of private media ownership. Reports of systematic exploitation of immigrant labor have escalated considerably.
- In March, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that justice minister Sigríður Andersen violated the fair-trial rights of Icelanders after ignoring a selection committee to install unqualified nominees to the Court of Appeals; one of her selections was the spouse of a lawmaker in the ruling coalition. Andersen resigned over the affair later that month.
- In May, Parliament voted to liberalize Iceland’s abortion law, allowing the procedure through the 22nd week of a pregnancy. Icelanders were generally able to undergo abortions through the 16th week before the new law, which took effect in September, was approved.
- In November, Icelandic fishing firm Samherji was implicated in bribing Namibian government officials to secure fishing rights there, after the so-called “Fishrot Files” were released. Samherji’s CEO stepped down later that month.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The president serves as a largely ceremonial chief of state, is directly elected to a four-year term, and is not subject to term limits. President Gudni Thorlacius Jóhannesson was elected in 2016, taking 39.1 percent of the vote in a field of nine candidates. The Organization for Security and Co-Operation in Europe (OSCE) deployed an assessment mission ahead of the polls, and concluded that stakeholders had a high degree of confidence in Icelandic electoral processes. However, the OSCE reaffirmed past concerns about the possibility for early voting to begin before the candidate confirmation procedures closed. The OSCE declined to monitor the poll itself, and stakeholders accepted the results.
The prime minister is head of government. The leader of the ruling party or coalition usually becomes prime minister; the legitimacy of the prime minister rests primarily on the conduct of the parliamentary polls. The current prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir of the Left-Green Movement (LGM), took office in 2017, following parliamentary elections that were viewed as credible by international observers.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The unicameral Parliament is elected for four-year terms. The 2017 election was the third parliamentary election in four years, following the dissolution of the governing coalition in the wake of a scandal involving then prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson.
An OSCE monitoring mission found the elections well administered and in line with international standards for democratic elections. The Independence Party (IP) took a plurality of seats, with 16, the second-place LGM took 11, and the Progressive Party (PP) finished third, taking 8 seats. A new coalition government comprising those parties was seated following several weeks of multiparty coalition talks.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution, the election law of 2000, and related legislation establish a clear and detailed framework for conducting elections. Electoral laws are implemented impartially by a variety of national– and regional-level authorities. However, the division of responsibilities between the relevant bodies is not always well defined.
An extensive constitutional reform process, launched by popular initiative in 2009, led to the drafting of a new constitution that, among other things, would harmonize the number of votes per seat in all constituencies. The draft was approved by referendum in 2012, but the initiative has since stalled in the legislature.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Political parties form and operate freely, and rise and fall according to political developments and the will of the public. In 2017, two new parties, the Center Party (CP) and the People’s Party, gained legislative representation.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Opposition parties have the ability to gain power through free elections, as evidenced by the LGM’s gains in 2017 and inclusion in the coalition government. However, the IP has only rarely lost its status as the largest party in Parliament, and is usually part of the ruling coalition.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||3.003 4.004|
No military, foreign, or religious entities exert undemocratic influence over voters’ choices. However, some politicians and parties are closely linked with businesses, which in turn exert significant political influence. Fisheries minister Kristján Þór Júlíusson is closely affiliated with Samherji, an Icelandic fishing company that was implicated in a scheme to bribe Namibian officials in November 2019.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||4.004 4.004|
All Icelandic citizens of adult age may vote in local and national elections. Foreigners can vote in municipal elections if they have been residents for at least five years, or three years if they are citizens of Nordic countries. The interests of women and LGBT+ people are well represented in politics. In Reykjavík´s 2018 municipal election, an unprecedented number of immigrants ran for office.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
The freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||3.003 4.004|
While Iceland maintains robust anticorruption laws, public officials and major companies have engaged in corrupt behavior. Some officials implicated in corrupt or unsavory behavior often continue to serve in government.
In 2018, Prime Minister Jakobsdóttir commissioned a report to garner recommendations for improving public confidence in the government. The report’s findings called for legislation to facilitate access to information about public institutions and protection for whistleblowers in both the public and private sectors. A report published by the Council of Europe’s Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO) later that year criticized Iceland for inadequate enforcement of conflict-of-interest rules, and urged the government to strengthen rules on accepting third-party gifts.
Despite these efforts, incidents of official corruption continued in 2019. In March, the ECHR ruled that justice minister Andersen violated Icelanders’ right to a fair trial by ignoring the recommendations of a selection committee and appointing unqualified individuals to the Court of Appeals; one nominee was the spouse of a lawmaker in the ruling IP. While Andersen initially resisted calls to resign, she did so later in March.
In November, Icelandic fishing firm Samherji was implicated in bribery after the release of the so-called “Fishrot Files;” they revealed that Samherji bribed Namibian government officials to secure fishing rights as far back as 2012. Samherji CEO Þorsteinn Már Baldvinsson resigned later that month after the files were released by WikiLeaks, but fisheries minister Júlíusson resisted calls to step down after admitting that he spoke to Baldvinsson over the allegations.
In December 2019, polling firm Maskína found that 72 percent of Icelanders viewed their country’s political system as corrupt.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||3.003 4.004|
Iceland’s Information Act, passed in 2013 to strengthen existing legislation on transparency and freedom of information, has been criticized by press freedom advocates as having weak provisions. Public officials have sought to conceal information that may be embarrassing or implicate them in wrongdoing.
In 2018, six PP and CP parliamentarians were secretly recorded making misogynistic, anti-LGBT, and ableist remarks about colleagues at a Reykjavík bar. An uproar ensued after the woman who recorded the conversation leaked it to the media. Four of the legislators involved petitioned the Reykjavík District Court to pursue charges against her for violating their privacy, but the court dismissed their claims that December.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. The autonomous Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RÚV) competes with private radio and television stations. Private media ownership is concentrated, with the media company 365 controlling most of the major private television and radio outlets, as well as the free newspaper Frettabladid, which enjoys the highest circulation in the print market.
In 2017, just prior to the election, media broke the story that former prime minister Benediktsson sold his shares in Glitnir Bank just hours before the financial crash of 2008. Soon afterward, the Reykjavík district commissioner issued an injunction against newspaper Stundin and Reykjavík Media, barring use of documents from Glitnir’s estate in media coverage. Press freedom advocates denounced the ruling, characterizing it as a move to put the interests of banks above journalists’ duty to inform the public. In early 2018, the Reykjavík District Court lifted the injunction, allowing the paper to use Glitnir documents in its reporting.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, which is generally upheld in practice. About three-quarters of Icelanders belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The state supports the church through a special tax, which citizens can choose to direct to the University of Iceland instead.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
Academic freedom is respected, and the education system is free of excessive political involvement.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
People in Iceland may freely discuss personal views on sensitive topics without fear or surveillance or retribution.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is generally upheld.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) may form, operate, and fundraise freely, and frequently inform policy discussions.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||4.004 4.004|
The labor movement is robust, with more than 80 percent of all eligible workers belonging to unions. All unions have the right to strike, with the exception of the National Police Federation. Members of the Icelandic Journalists Union (BÍ) launched strikes in October and November 2019 after they objected to a proposed collective bargaining agreement; these were the first strikes by journalists in Iceland since 1978.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judiciary is generally independent. Judges are proposed by an Interior Ministry selection committee and formally appointed by the president, and are not subject to term limits. However, the selection process was interrupted by former justice minister Andersen in 2017, when she selected nominees who were considered unqualified to the Court of Appeals.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||4.004 4.004|
The law does not provide for trial by jury, but many trials and appeals use panels of several judges. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||4.004 4.004|
Police are generally responsive to incidents of violence. War and insurgencies are not a concern.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
The constitution states that all people shall be treated equally before the law, regardless of sex, religion, ethnic origin, race, or other status. However, in 2017, the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) noted an apparent rise in racist discourse in Iceland in recent years.
The rate of refugee recognition in Iceland is very low compared to other northern European countries. In November 2019, authorities deported an Albanian family, including a woman who was nine months pregnant, despite receiving medical certification that she was unfit to fly. The family was deported even though an appeal against their deportation order was still under consideration, and they were ultimately removed from Iceland without notice.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of movement is constitutionally protected and respected in practice.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||4.004 4.004|
There is generally no undue government interference in business or private property ownership.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||4.004 4.004|
Parliament unanimously passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage in 2010, and a 2006 law established full and equal rights for same-sex couples in matters of adoption and assisted pregnancy. A comprehensive law on transgender issues adopted in 2012 aimed to simplify legal issues pertaining to gender reassignment surgery, to ensure full and equal rights for transgender people, and to guarantee relevant health care.
Individuals seeking an abortion after the 16th week of a pregnancy previously required special approval to undergo the procedure, but Parliament amended the law in May 2019 to allow abortions through the 22nd week of a pregnancy. The new law took effect in September.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||3.003 4.004|
Citizens generally enjoy fair access to economic opportunity. However, the systematic exploitation of migrant workers, including underpaying employees and denying overtime, has become a significant problem in recent years, especially in the tourism industry. Employers who exploit workers have largely acted with impunity due to an inadequate government response. Wage theft is not punishable by law. There are reports of forced labor, primarily involving migrants, in the construction and service industries, and of forced sex work in nightclubs.
Iceland criminalized human trafficking in 2009. In its 2019 Trafficking in Persons Report, the US State Department reported that law enforcement efforts to combat trafficking remained weak, and that no one has been prosecuted or convicted of human trafficking since 2010.
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Global Freedom Score94 100 free
Internet Freedom Score95 100 free