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 and maltreatment of asylum seekers continue.
- President Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, who serves as a largely ceremonial head of state, won a second term in June with 92.2 percent of the vote.
- Parliament adopted legislation to protect whistleblowers in May, while conflict-of-interest legislation that will apply to ministers and other officials was adopted in June. Both pieces of legislation will take effect in 2021.
- Icelandic authorities did not impose a wide-ranging COVID-19 lockdown during the year, relying instead on border restrictions, public-assembly restrictions, quarantining, isolation, and contact tracing. The authorities reported 5,754 cases and 29 deaths to the World Health Organization (WHO) at year’s end.
|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 Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson was reelected in June 2020 with 92.2 percent of the vote. Guðmundur Franklín Jónsson received 7.8 percent.
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.
Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) monitors found the elections well administered and in line with international standards. The Independence Party (IP) won 16 seats, the LGM won 11, and the Progressive Party won 8. The three parties formed a coalition government after several weeks of 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 have harmonized the number of votes per seat in all constituencies. The draft was approved by referendum in 2012, but the initiative subsequently stalled in the legislature.
Discussions over constitutional matters continued in 2020, with Prime Minister Jakobsdóttir vowing to propose amendments via legislation in October. A cross-party parliamentary committee began a review of the current constitution late in the year.
|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, rising and falling according to political developments and the will of the public. In 2017, two new parties, the Center Party and the People’s Party, gained parliamentary representation.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Opposition parties can gain power through free elections, as evidenced by the LGM’s gains in 2017 and subsequent 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 2019.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, 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. In Reykjavík´s 2018 municipal election, an unprecedented number of immigrants ran for office.
The interests of women and LGBT+ people are well represented in politics.
|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 have often continued to serve in government.
A report published by the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) in 2018 criticized the inadequate enforcement of conflict-of-interest rules and urged the government to strengthen rules on accepting third-party gifts. Legislation protecting whistleblowers was adopted by Parliament in May 2020. In June, Parliament adopted conflict-of-interest legislation that will apply to ministers, their advisers, and permanent secretaries. Both laws will take effect in 2021. In November 2020, GRECO reported that Iceland was in partial compliance with its recommendations.
|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.
|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 major private television and radio outlets, as well as free newspaper Fréttablaðið, which enjoys the highest circulation in the print market.
|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 70 percent 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. In recent years, however, police have faced criticism for arresting or forcefully dispersing peaceful protesters under a broadly worded provision of the Police Law of 1996.
Icelandic authorities issued varying public-assembly restrictions during the year based on the spread of COVID-19.
|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. Most unions have the right to strike, except for the National Police Federation.
The Icelandic Nurses Association planned a June 2020 strike over wages and working conditions, though it suspended that action to enter arbitration; a tribunal issued a ruling to resolve the dispute in September. Coast Guard mechanics launched a strike in November, though Parliament passed legislation to end their action that month. Negotiations to resolve that dispute were ongoing after the legislation was passed.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||4.004 4.004|
The judiciary is generally independent. Judges are proposed by an Interior Ministry selection committee, are formally appointed by the president, and are not subject to term limits. However, the selection process for the Court of Appeals was interfered with by former justice minister Sigríður Andersen in 2017, when she selected nominees who were considered unqualified to that court. In December 2020, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) ruled that the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) when an Icelandic defendant was judged by one of Andersen’s nominees.
|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 noted an apparent rise in racist discourse in Iceland in recent years.
The rate of refugee recognition in Iceland is low compared to other northern European countries. In 2019, authorities deported an Albanian family, including a heavily pregnant woman, despite receiving medical certification that she was unfit to fly. The family was deported even though an appeal against their deportation was still under consideration, and they were ultimately removed from Iceland.
Immigrants who do not fluently speak Icelandic can face barriers to employment. Noncitizens were previously prohibited from holding public-sector employment, though this restriction ended in 2019.
|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. Travel into Iceland was limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, though authorities announced a loosening of restrictions in June and maintained a quarantine policy for incoming travelers.
|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 to allow abortions through the 22nd week in 2019.
|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 the 2020 edition of its Trafficking in Persons Report, the US State Department reported that no one had been prosecuted or convicted of trafficking since 2010. However, the State Department did note an increase in victim-assistance funding to NGOs.
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Global Freedom Score94 100 free
Internet Freedom Score96 100 free