Iceland

Free
94
100
PR Political Rights 37 40
CL Civil Liberties 57 60
Last Year's Score & Status
94 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

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.

header2 Key Developments in 2021

  • Parliamentary elections held in September were generally deemed free and fair, and resulted in the governing coalition—composed of the Independence Party (IP), the Left-Green Movement (LGM), and the Progressive Party—keeping its legislative majority. After several weeks of negotiations, the parties agreed to renew their coalition, allowing Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir to retain her position.
  • Immediately following the election, a recount was conducted in Iceland’s northwest electoral district, reportedly due to very close initial results. The legality of the recount, which caused five candidates in that district to lose their seats to other candidates from the same parties, came into question after it was discovered that officials had failed to seal the ballots following the initial count; Parliament confirmed the recount’s validity in November.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

The prime minister is the 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 LGM, first took office in 2017. The governing coalition led by Jakobsdóttir kept its majority following parliamentary elections in September 2021, and after several weeks of negotiations, agreed to continue working together for another term, with Jakobsdóttir retaining her position.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4.004 4.004

The 63-member 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. The IP, the LGM, and the Progressive Party formed a coalition government after several weeks of talks.

Parliamentary elections were held in September, and saw the governing coalition keep its majority, with the IP winning 16 seats, the Progressive Party winning 13, and the LGM winning 8. After several weeks of negotiations, the parties agreed to renew their coalition to govern for another term.

The elections were generally considered free and fair, but were marked by procedural irregularities. In the country’s northwest electoral district, extremely close results led to a recount the day after the election, resulting in five candidates—whose electoral victories had been announced earlier that day—losing their seats to five other candidates from the same parties. The legality of the recount, however, came into question after flaws in the district’s vote counting process were discovered, including the officials’ failure to seal the ballots following the initial count. Parliament confirmed the validity of the recount in November.

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 authorities. However, the division of responsibilities between the relevant bodies is not always well defined.

Some of the candidates who lost their parliamentary seats following the recount of the September 2021 parliamentary election results announced plans to lodge a complaint with the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) regarding alleged flaws in the counting process. The validity of the recount was confirmed by the parliament several weeks after the election took place.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. Several new parties contested the 2021 parliamentary election, though no representatives from those parties were elected.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 has been included in all but one ruling coalition government since 1991.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

The interests of women and LGBT+ people are well represented in politics. Following the 2021 parliamentary election, women make up nearly 48 percent of Parliament; prior to the northwest district’s recount, women were poised to hold more than 50 percent of the seats in Parliament, which would have made Iceland the first European country with more women legislators than men.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 continued to serve in government.

In 2018, the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) published a report urging the government to strengthen regulations on accepting third-party gifts and criticizing the inadequate enforcement of conflict-of-interest rules. New conflict-of-interest legislation for ministers, their advisers, and permanent secretaries entered into force in January 2021 alongside a new law protecting whistleblowers that came into effect on the same date.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3.003 4.004

Iceland made changes to its Information Act in 2013 to strengthen existing legislation on transparency and freedom of information. However, the act has been criticized by press freedom advocates as having weak provisions. In the past, public officials have sought to conceal information that may be embarrassing or implicate them in wrongdoing.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 highly 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.

Reports emerged in May 2021 claiming that Samherji, a large Icelandic fishing company implicated in a 2019 corruption scandal, had tried to undermine and control public debate by spying on, intimidating, and attacking the credibility of journalists and civil society organizations that had reported on the corruption allegations. Samherji has also been accused of attempting to interfere in the Union of Icelandic Journalists’ leadership elections.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 60 percent of Icelanders belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 of surveillance or retribution.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 based on the spread of COVID-19 during 2020 and 2021.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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, in 2017, former justice minister Sigríður Andersen interfered in the selection process for the Court of Appeals when she selected nominees who were considered unqualified to that court. In 2020, the Grand Chamber of the ECtHR ruled that the government violated the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) when a defendant was judged by one of Andersen’s nominees.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 low compared to other northern European countries. In 2019, authorities deported an Albanian family—including a heavily pregnant woman who had received medical certification that she was unfit to fly—even though an appeal against their deportation was still under consideration. The family was ultimately removed from Iceland. The Directorate of Immigration has repeatedly been accused of using excessive force in carrying out deportations.

Immigrants who do not fluently speak Icelandic often face barriers to employment. Until 2019, noncitizens were prohibited from employment in the public sector.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. Although travel to and from Iceland has been affected by COVID-19-related regulations, a total lockdown has never been imposed.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 that was adopted in 2012 and expanded upon in 2019 simplified legal issues pertaining to gender reassignment surgery, ensured full and equal rights for transgender people, and guaranteed relevant health care. Additionally, Iceland allows individuals to change their legal gender identification on the basis of self-determination.

Abortion legislation was amended in 2019 to allow abortions through the 22nd week of pregnancy without requiring special approval.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 2021 edition of its Trafficking in Persons Report, the US State Department reported that no one had been prosecuted or convicted of trafficking in Iceland since 2010. However, the State Department did note an increase in investigations into trafficking cases and in the identification of potential victims, as well as the creation of a centralized database for gathering victim information.

On Iceland

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  • Global Freedom Score

    94 100 free
  • Internet Freedom Score

    96 100 free