Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The credit crisis that began in late 2008 and led to an economic collapse in Iceland fueled widespread protests throughout the beginning of 2009. The increasing frequency of demonstrations and escalation of tensions between protesters and police led Prime Minister Geir Haarde to step down in January, creating an historic interim government which was eventually voted into power during early elections in May.
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), first elected prime minister in 1991, finally stepped down in 2004. 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. A credit crisis forced the government to nationalize three large banks in 2008, resulting in widespread protests and Prime Minister Haarde’s resignation on January 26, 2009.
In February, Johanna Sigurdardottir was named interim prime minister. Her center-left coalition, consisting of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement, won early elections in May capturing 34 out of 63 seats, the first time that leftist parties have held a majority in Iceland. Elections also resulted in the highest number of first-time members and the highest percentage of women in parliament in Iceland’s history.
While majority of Icelanders are still opposed to European Union (EU) membership, the grim economic situation appeared to alter public attitudes in favor of joining the EU, and the government formally applied for membership in July. Iceland is expected to join before 2011.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties:
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 directlyelected for a four-year term. The legislature is also elected for four years, but it can be dissolved for early elections in certain circumstances, as was the case in 2009. The prime minister is appointed by the president but responsible to the legislature. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson was reelected as president in the 2008 elections. The center-right IP dominated politics since the country’s independence until May 2009 when Johanna Sigurdardottir’s center-left coalition took power. Elections are free, fair, and competitive. Five political parties are represented in the Althingi.
Corruption is generally not a problem for Iceland, although it has experienced politically tinged business-fraud scandals in recent years. The government and leading businessmen were under investigation in 2009 for prior corruption that may have partially caused Iceland’s financial collapse in 2008 and 2009, though no conclusions had been made public by the year’s end. Iceland was ranked 8 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 Corruption Perceptions Index. In response to the Index, a national survey was held in November indicating that 67 percent of Icelanders consider the level of corruption in government to be high or very high.
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 threenational newspapers. Some reporters practice self-censorship to avoid publishing libelous material. Internet access is unrestricted.
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, which citizens can choose to direct to the University of Iceland instead. A 2008 law requires the teaching of theology in grades 1–10. Academic freedom is respected, and the education system is free of excessive political involvement.
Freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are generally upheld. However, protests over Iceland’s devastated economy in January 2009 ended when police fired tear gas on crowds, the first time tear gas had been used since NATO protests in 1949. Police also beat several protestors from the environmental organization “Saving Iceland” in August 2009, seriously injuring one woman; the protestors wanted to expose government tax breaks for the aluminum industry. Other large-scale peaceful protests occurred throughout the year against government economic policies. Many nongovernmental organizations operate freely and enjoy extensive government cooperation. The labor movement is robust, with over 80 percent of all eligible workers belonging to unions, though unemployment reached 10 percent in 2009 due to the economic crisis. 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. Prison conditions generally meet international standards.
The Act on Foreigners 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 for at least five years, or three years for citizens of Scandinavian countries. Protests broke out in March 2009 when the Directorate of Immigration decided to deport asylum seekers to Greece; the four men in question were deported in October. One of the men returned to Iceland in December and is appealing his asylum application.
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. While a five-year plan to reduce violence against women was launched in 2006, a 2009 report indicated that 42 percent of women over the age of 16 years have been subject to physical or sexual abuse or have been threatened with such violence. In 2008, the Althingi passed the Act on Equal Status and Equal Rights of Women and Men to advance gender equality. In the May 2009 elections, Johanna Sigurdardottir became the first woman leader of Iceland and the world’s first openly lesbian head of state. Women captured nearly 43 percent of seats in the parliament, the highest number in the country’s history. The government participates in the Nordic-Baltic Action Group against Human Trafficking. A committee was appointed in 2008 to develop new strategies to combat human trafficking in Iceland. In April 2009, parliament passed a law criminalizing human trafficking.