Iceland | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2011

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In October 2010, thousands assembled to express their frustration with the country’s slow economic recovery after a credit crisis triggered an economic collapse in 2008. Several members of parliament, including former prime minister Geir Haarde, were implicated in the Icesave banking crash that crippled Iceland’s economy. Meanwhile, parliament passed an unprecedented initiative in June mandating the adoption of stringent free speech and press freedom laws.

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. Davíð Oddsson of the center-right Independence Party (IP), first elected prime minister in 1991, finally stepped down in 2004. He was succeeded by Halldór Ásgrímsso of the Progressive Party (PP), the coalition partner of the IP. After a poor government showing in local elections, Ásgrímsso 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 in the 63-seat legislature. The IP then formed a new coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Alliance (SDA), 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, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir of the SDA was named interim prime minister. Her center-left coalition, consisting of the SDA and the Left-Green Movement, captured 34 of 63 seats in early parliamentary elections in April 2009, marking the first time leftist parties have held a majority in Iceland. The elections also resulted in the highest number of first-time members and the largest percentage of women in parliament in Iceland’s history. A government shakeup in September 2010 reduced the number of cabinet seats from 12 to 10.
In a bizarre outcome during May 2010 local elections, the Best Party, which is made up of comedians promising to distribute free towels at swimming pools and build an amusement park in the airport, won 6 of the 15 seats on the Reykjavik city council. The party’s success was widely viewed as the public’s rejection of traditional politics.
For several days in October, approximately 8,000 demonstrators gathered in front of parliament to protest the government’s perceived failure to protect citizens from the economic collapse of 2008, specifically in the area of housing foreclosures. The protests were largely peaceful, though minor injuries were sustained by protestors and police officers, and some property damage occurred.
While the majority of Icelanders remain opposed to European Union (EU) membership, the country opened EU accession negotiations in July 2009. Elections for a constitutional assembly, to be convened for the purpose of revising the constitution, took place in November 2010. Some 500 individuals competed for a seat on the 25-member council. However, three unidentified parties challenged the legitimacy of the elections due to a lack of secrecy in voting stations, among other complaints. The validity of the elections remained under review by the Supreme Court at the year’s end.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Iceland is an electoral democracy. Elections are free, fair, and competitive. 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. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was reelected as president in the 2008 elections. The center-right IP dominated politics since the country’s independence until May 2009 when Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir’s center-left coalition took power. Six major political parties and several smaller 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. In May 2010, Steinunn Valdís Óskarsdóttir of the SDA stepped down after it was revealed that she had accepted large corporate donations for her 2006 campaign. A number of bankers—including former director of Kaupthing Iceland, Ingolfur Helgason—were arrested throughout 2010 in connection with the Icesave banking crash in 2008. Several members of parliament were also implicated in the crash, including former prime minister Geir Haarde and three other high-level ministers. Haarde could face trial at the Landsdómur, the never-before convened high court established in 1905 to hear cases brought by the Althingi against members of parliament.Iceland was ranked 11 out of 178 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. On June 17, 2010, parliament unanimously passed the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which mandates the establishment of stringent free speech and press freedom laws with a focus on the protection of investigative journalists and media outlets. 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 Norðurljós (Northern Lights) Corporation controlling most of the private television and radio outlets and two of the threenational newspapers. 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. Large-scale peaceful protests occurred in October 2010 against government economic policies and failure to protect Icelanders from housing foreclosures. 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. 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. In September 2010, a father and son of Cuban origin who had held Icelandic citizenship for more than a decade fled the country after intense racially-motivated intimidation. Approximately 1,000 people gathered for anti-racism rally on September 20 in response to the threats received by the family.
Women enjoy equal rights, and more than 80 percent of women participate in the workforce. However, a pay gap exists between men and women despite laws designed to prevent disparities. In 2009, Sigurðardóttir became Iceland’s first female prime minister and the world’s first openly homosexual head of state. Women hold nearly 43 percent of seats in the parliament, the highest number in the country’s history, and Iceland topped the World Economic Forum’s 2010 ratings on gender equality. 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, and in April 2009, parliament passed a law criminalizing human trafficking.