Freedom in the World
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The ruling Independence Party formed a new coalition with the Social Democratic Alliance after May 2007 parliamentary elections, and Geir Haarde retained the premiership. In one of its first decisions, the new government postponed immigration access for citizens of Bulgaria and Romania, which had joined the European Union in January.
Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944. It became a founding member of NATO in 1949, despite having no standing army. The country declared itself a nuclear-free zone in 1985.
David Oddsson of the center-right Independence Party (IP) stepped down as prime minister in 2004, having held the post since 1991. He was succeeded by Halldor Asgrimsson of the Progressive Party (PP), the coalition partner of the IP. After a poor government showing in local elections, Asgrimsson resigned the premiership in favor of the IP’s Geir Haarde in June 2006.
The ruling coalition broke up following May 2007 parliamentary elections, in which the IP took 25 seats and the PP slipped to 7, leaving the pair with a razor-thin majority in the 63-seat legislature. The IP then formed a new coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Alliance, which held 18 seats, and Haarde returned as prime minister. Among other parties, the Left-Green Movement took 9 seats, and the Liberal Party won 4.
Soon after taking office, the new government decided to postpone open immigration for citizens of Bulgaria and Romania, which had joined the European Union (EU) at the beginning of 2007. The decision would be revisited in either 2009 or 2014. Iceland itself remained outside the EU, largely due to disagreements over fisheries policy, but it had close ties to the bloc as a member of the European Economic Area.
Iceland is an electoral democracy. The constitution, adopted in 1944, vests power in a president, a prime minister, the 63-seat unicameral legislature (the Althingi), and a judiciary. The president, whose duties are mostly ceremonial, is elected for a four-year term. The legislature is also elected for four years, but it can be dissolved for early elections in certain circumstances. The prime minister is appointed by the president but responsible to the legislature. Although the IP has dominated politics since the country’s independence, elections are free, fair, and competitive. Five political parties are represented in the Althingi. The center-right IP formed a ruling coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Alliance after May 2007 elections, leaving the PP, the Left-Green Movement, and the Liberal Party in opposition.
Corruption is generally not a problem for Iceland, although it has experienced politically tinged business-fraud scandals in recent years. It was ranked 6 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. Iceland’s wide range of print publications includes both independent and party-affiliated newspapers. The autonomous Icelandic National Broadcasting Service competes with private radio and television stations. Private media ownership is concentrated, with the Nordurljos (Northern Lights) Corporation controlling most of the private television and radio outlets and two out of the three national newspapers. In 2004, the president refused to sign a law that would have placed limits on media ownership, particularly for firms that owned nonmedia assets, marking the first presidential veto in the republic’s history. Some reporters practice self-censorship to avoid publishing libelous material. In June 2007, journalist Helgi Seljan was found to be in violation of ethical regulations for a story that falsely accused a member of parliament of pressuring the government to grant citizenship to her son’s Guatemalan girlfriend.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion, though nearly 90 percent of Icelanders belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church. The state supports the church through a special tax and religious instruction in schools. However, citizens may choose to give the tax to the University of Iceland and have their children exempted from religious instruction. In 2006, the courts rejected a lawsuit by the Icelandic Pagan Association in which it sought state funding proportional to its membership; the ruling was upheld by the Supreme Court in October 2007. Separately, a new curriculum implemented in 2006 took a more multicultural approach to religious education.
Academic freedom is respected, and the education system is free of excessive political involvement.
The freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are upheld. Many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely and enjoy extensive government cooperation. In 2004, the government cut all direct funding to the Icelandic Human Rights Center to help ensure its independence. The labor movement is robust, with about 85 percent of all eligible workers belonging to unions. All unions have the right to strike.
The judiciary is independent. The law does not provide for trial by jury, but many trials and appeals use panels of several judges. The constitution states that all people shall be treated equally before the law, regardless of sex, religion, opinion, ethnic origin, race, property, or other status. However, the charter does not specifically prohibit racial discrimination in other contexts. In 2003, the UN Committee Against Torture (CAT) reported that Iceland’s laws did not clearly define and prohibit torture or ban the use of evidence obtained through torture. The government disagreed with those findings. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.
The Act on Foreigners—which specifies the government’s powers with regard to immigrants, including refugees and asylum seekers—was amended in 2004 to allow home searches without warrants in cases of suspected immigration fraud, among other changes. Foreigners can vote in municipal elections if they have been residents of the country for at least five years, or three years for citizens of Scandinavian countries.
Women enjoy equal rights, and more than 80 percent of women participate in the workforce. A pay gap exists between men and women in spite of laws designed to prevent disparities. A five-year plan to reduce violence against women and change public attitudes about domestic violence was launched in 2006. There has been some concern about women of immigrant origin, who may not have the opportunity to learn the Icelandic language and customs, and may be unaware of their rights under the law. The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance has urged Iceland to strengthen their racial tolerance in several areas including protections for immigrant women from domestic violence and with assistance integrating into Icelandic society. The government participates in the Nordic-Baltic Action Group against Human Trafficking.