Freedom in the World
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Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson won an unprecedented fifth term in the June 2012 presidential election. The Social Democratic Alliance government lost its majority in June, when one of its members joined the newly-formed Bright Future party. Meanwhile, voters in October approved a non-binding referendum on a new constitution.
After gaining independence from Denmark in 1944, Iceland became a founding member of NATO in 1949, despite having no standing army. The country declared itself a nuclear-free zone in 1985. The center-right Independence Party (IP) has traditionally been a dominant force in Icelandic politics.
In the May 2007 parliamentary elections, the IP took 25 seats and formed a coalition with the center-left Social Democratic Alliance (SDA), which captured 18 seats. The IP’s Geir Haarde returned as prime minister. A major credit crisis forced the government to nationalize three large banks in 2008, resulting in widespread protests and Haarde’s resignation on January 26, 2009.
In February 2009, 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 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.
While the majority of Icelanders remain opposed to European Union (EU) membership, the country opened EU accession negotiations in July 2009. Negotiations were ongoing at the end of 2012.
The anti-establishment Best Party, led by comedian Jón Gnarr, rode a wave of protest votes to capture 6 of the 15 seats in the May 2010 Reykjavik City Council election, making Gnarr mayor of the Icelandic capital.
In April 2011, voters defeated a referendum on a repayment plan for British and Dutch depositors at Icesave, an online savings account brand owned and operated by the private Landsbanki, which collapsed in 2008. Landsbanki announced that a sale of its assets should fully cover repayment to all British and Dutch depositors; the sale of assets was ongoing at the end of 2012. In 2011, a case was brought before the court of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) by EFTA’s Surveillance Authority, arguing that Iceland failed to live up to its legal obligation to provide adequate compensation to the British and Dutch depositors. The case was pending at the end of 2012.
Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson won the presidential election and his fifth term in July 2012, defeating independent journalist Thóra Arnórsdóttir.
The government lost its majority in October 2012, when Robert Marshall left the SDA to join the newly-formed Bright Future party. Marshall vowed to continue to support the government until the next general election in April 2013. Also in October, a referendum on a new draft constitution was put to a non-binding referendum. Voters approved all six proposals, including one that natural resources not currently privately owned be designated national property; another allowing a certain percentage of the electorate to put issues to a referendum; and a suggestion to establish a national church. The draft must go through further steps, including approval through another referendum, before its adoption by the parliament after the April 2013 legislative elections.
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 Althingi is arguably the world’s oldest parliament, established in approximately 930 AD. The largely ceremonial president is directly elected for a four-year term. The legislature is also elected for four years, but can be dissolved for early elections in certain circumstances. The prime minister is appointed by the president.
The center-right IP dominated politics until 2009, when Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir’s center-left coalition took power. Six major political parties and several smaller parties are represented in the Althingi.
While corruption is not a serious problem in Iceland, the country has experienced politically tinged business-fraud scandals in recent years. In 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, Ingólfur Helgason—were arrested in 2010 in connection with the 2008 Icesave banking crash. Several members of parliament were also implicated in the crash, including former prime minister Geir Haarde, who faced charges of negligence in the wake of the financial crisis. He was found guilty on one count in April 2012, but was not sentenced to any punishment. Iceland was ranked 11 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
The constitution guarantees freedoms of speech and the press. In June 2010, parliament unanimously passed the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, which mandates the establishment of stringent free speech and press freedom laws and focuses 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 three national newspapers. Internet access is unrestricted.
The constitution provides for freedom of religion. Almost 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 through 10. Academic freedom is respected, and the education system is free of excessive political involvement.
Freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are generally upheld. Peaceful protests occurred in September and October 2011 against IMF austerity measures and the government’s failure to protect Icelanders from housing foreclosures. Many nongovernmental organizations operate freely and enjoy extensive government cooperation. The labor movement is robust, with more than 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, ethnic origin, race, or other status. 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 an anti-racism rally in the same month in response to 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 lesbian head of government. Iceland topped the World Economic Forum’s 2012 ratings on gender equality. A committee was appointed in 2008 to develop new strategies to combat human trafficking in Iceland, and parliament passed a law criminalizing human trafficking in 2009.