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  1. #1

    Default An Icelandic Take on Elections and Unintended Consequences

    From Bardarbunga Rei, who is a bit disillusioned, like some of us may be feeling today:

    We're going to take a little bit of a break from Bárđarbunga and Hraun-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named tonight. Over on your side of the pond, you're all getting ready for the good fight in midterm battles. And in my volcano diaries, I've often gotten remarks along the lines of, "Oh, too bad our political environment isn't like yours."

    Are you really sure you want that? If you're looking for a little bit of a break from US politics, join me below the fold for a look at what's been going on over our side of the pond.

    We all know the story: Icelanders, furious with the country being robbed by evil banksters, rose up in revolt and overthrew the government, threw all the banksters in jail, rejected austerity, rejected the IMF, didn't bail out any banks, instead nationalized them, got a new constitution, and Iceland lived happily ever after as an anticapitalist paradise. All over the world people have been citing Iceland as an example of what they want to achieve.

    It is, of course, a complete myth, as I've covered before. Many of the people acting as the biggest opponents of the útrásarvíkingar ("outvasion vikings", aka, banksters) were their biggest friends before the crash; it was just an act. There was no "revolution" in the literal sense - there were protests, then an election, that put in power a left-center government for one term. Relatively few people served any jail time for the crash - many of the people widely viewed by many people++ as among the biggest culprits, such as Björgólfur Ţór, are still living it up. Iceland did some of the most major austerity in the world per-capita; half of the staggering budget shortfall was made up with cuts. The government never declared bankruptcy. Iceland became the poster child of the IMF, who boasted about how well Iceland was following their repayment plan. Despite the fact that some private banks whose accounts weren't government-backed were allowed to fail (akin to the Lehmann Brothers and other similar failures in the US), Icelanders nonetheless paid a huge amount of money per-capita to bail out and recover banks in general. The government did acquire a stake in the banks for this (similar to the US bailout of the auto industry), but quickly sold it off at under market value to avoid the perception of nationalization. The right completely derailed the constitutional process.

    And then they took power.

    It may sound crazy, re-electing the same people that caused the crash, but that's exactly what happened. Here we have a true multiparty system due to a party-list voting system (it's not unbiased by region - people in Vestfirđir for example have twice the voting power per person as those in Reykjavík - but it's not as unbalanced as the US electoral college). The left was heavily divided into many parties while the right was heavily dominated by just two. Many of the left parties didn't meet the threshold to get any parlimentarians, so their votes were thrown away.
    But it's not just that, because the right really did win a small majority of the general vote as a whole.

    Part of it was due to people being upset with the fact that we hadn't recovered that well from our financial crisis. It shouldn't be a shock that we hadn't, given it's scale, and the concept of putting the foxes back in charge of the henhouse sounds ridiculous, but you know how people are sometimes. And of course, Framsóknarflokkurinn (the Progress Party), in true form, pulled out their standard strategy of introducing a last minute "election gimmick".

    It's really a brilliant strategy on their part, they've taken to doing it every election. They usually poll terribly, with people having been burned by their absurd policies time and time again. But they keep a low profile, letting everyone get mad at everyone else, and then at the last minute (a couple weeks before the election) they introduce some sort of massive policy proposal, generally some form of "We're going to give you tons of money and you won't ever have to pay for it, not EVERS!". They give it enough time for people to get familiar with what they propose to do, but not enough time for proper analysis to be done and thus for the public to get to realize, "If you try to do this, it either won't work at best, or it'll bankrupt the country at worst". And they present it with such gusto, with relentless optimisim, that they manage to sell the concept.

    The previous election (pre-crash) the gimmick had been to have the government guarantee to loan anyone 90% of their home loan - in their plan, an individual would only need to find a private loans for 10% of the cost. Brilliant way to both get votes in a growing economy, and of course, to later ensure a housing loan crisis of unprecedented proportions. This last time, however, it was an amazingly effective promise of "personal debt reduction". The government is going to pay off your debts! And you won't have to pay a single króna! Like, not EVERS! Banks will pay for it for you!

    (crickets chirping)

    So, they pulled off their standard perfectly-timed poll spike:

    [Rei provides a nice chart here which I found completely incomprehensible, so I decided to save the space. Link to article will be at the end.]

    ... and joined their traditional conservative partners Sjálfstćđisflokkurinn (the Independence Party) in taking control of the government.

    The first thing that they did was to gut one of the best achievements of the left-center government: a large tax on the super-wealthy fishing barons ("veiđigjald"). This massive income had promised to not only pay for continuing our social safety net despite the economy, but even presented the possibility of expanding it. About 75% of the public polled support for it. But this was to be the first real taste of how much the new government gave a rat's arse about public opinion.

    With the loss of the income of the veiđigjald plus an already absurd debt-repayment concept (which, when you look at the details, basically amounts to a regressive wealth transfer, as those who took the largest, riskiest loans stand the most to gain), you'd think they'd back off on it. But of course, they didn't. Instead, they went full force on gutting the government to an amazing degree.

    An election promise to increase funding for the national hospital "strax" (immediately)? Well, of course that was thrown out, with the brilliant line that "the word 'immediately' is a flexible concept" (you can thank Vigdís Hauksdóttir, the Icelandic version of Sarah Palin, for that one, along with other gems such as how Europe is in famine and Malta isn't a country). Instead of additional funding, we got major cutbacks in the healthcare system, to the point that doctors have now gone on strike, with 96% voting in favor of the strike. This is the first time in history they've ever gone on strike.
    Going on strike, what a concept. Because to a degree never before seen, the government has imposed "lögbann" on all kinds of unions who've tried to go on strike to prevent them from doing so, on the grounds of national interest. Which of course completely eliminates all of their negotiating power.

    The cuts have hit everywhere. The arts? Cut. Our national public radio service, RÚV? Serious cuts - and now they're talking about selling it outright. This led to a scheduler, Ólafur Páll Gunnarsson, to write:

    I'm going to step right up and say it: It's morons like me who are to blame that these nutcases (I'd like to use another word...) are in power in Iceland today. I was promised that my mutant housing loan would be corrected and THEREORE I VOTED FRAMSÓKNARFLOKKURINN in the last election.

    You may all make fun of me until the end of time. But I honestly believed that which my director and former colleagues at RÚV said. I really believed that this hocus-pocus with the loans and vulture fund and everything was possible. I, and everyone else who voted Framsóknarflokkurinn, didn't consider – at least I didn't consider – that these extremely dangerous people were included in the deal. Fuck me and other idiots like me!

    Privatization has become the name of the game. One by one they've been trying - and sometimes succeeding - at selling off national assets to industry. Medicine and education are their main targets now. If it sounds like they have a want to imitate America, that's probably a good description, but it's more than that, they're trying to outdo all of the worst aspects of American culture.

    For example, let's look at policing and crime. Iceland is usually ranked as the most peaceful countries on earth (no military) and has one of the lowest murder rates per-capita on Earth. Some years there's not a single murder in the country. Rarely have there been more than a couple per year. In the country's entire history, only once - just last year - did the special police forces have to kill anyone. Regular police are unarmed. Totally - no guns, no tasers, no mace, nothing. They're authority figures, not threat figures, and it totally changes the interaction dynamic for the better. They've worked hard on cultivating public respect (they even announce speed traps ahead of time on their Facebook page) and have become one of the most trusted institutions in the country. Of the police, only the Víkingasveit ("Viking Squad") is armed. They're basically a sort of SWAT / anti-terrorist squad, a small number of very highly trained elite. It's an arrangement that has worked out very well to suit the needs of the country.
    So of course, that's when the machine guns come in.

    The details are still trickling in, but here's what's known so far: behind everyone's backs, the government has been doing their damnedst to turn our coast guard into a veritable navy and turn the police into a version of US police forces on steroids. The Coast Guard has been the agent of their doing this. Since they took power, they've had the Coast Guard secretly smuggle weapons into the country. When I say "smuggle", I don't just mean "hide it from the public", but even "hide it from other parts of the government". NATO secrecy was used to try to hide the acquisitions. The coast guard now has more submachine guns than it has people, as well as 10 shiny-new 1,2 meter long 1300 round-per-minute MG3 machine guns (a type normally fitted to tanks and other military vehicles) as part of a plan to try to arm up the coast guard ships to be able to better handle deployments to conflict zones in the Mediterranean.

    Part of the smuggle, however, was to be redirected to the police - hundreds of MP5 submachine guns (since they came from the Norwegian army, it's generally assumed that they are the version with the full-auto mode), with the goal of trying to get two guns, one of them a submachine gun, in every police car in the country. These are the same type of gun used in the Elian Gonzales raid.

    The rate of lies, distortions, and secrecy on this on has set new standards for duplicity. First, they were rightly criticized for spending money on guns while cutting back services and putting new taxes on things like food (ridiculously estimating that the average person only spends $2 per meal). But they responded by saying that the guns were free. FREE! A gift from our good friends in the Norwegian police. Of course, we had to turn to Norway for the truth, who informed us that, first, they're from the military, not the police (Norwegian police don't carry machine guns), and secondly, they're not a gift, they were purchased, for no trivial amount of money. Icelandic officials tried covering their arses, saying that it's normal interaction with Norway, for their accounting purposes, they mark it as a purchase, but they never send the bill. Again, Norway replied that, um, yes, it is a purchase, and the bill is being sent to you.

    We didn't find out that the guns were here until they started giving them to the police to practice. And the main government response is to get mad at the media for reporting on it.
    Right about now, the bald-faced election lie about how we'd get to vote on whether to hold forward with EU accession negotiations seems trivial by comparison to everything else that's going on. Same with bulldozing a bird nesting ground to make a road that nobody seems to understand the need for. Or Leakgate. I thought I was mad about that, when the ministry of the interior, headed by Hanna Birna, leaked private information about an asylum seeker's personal life as an attempt to discredit him to justify their decision to kick him out of the country. But by comparison, that was just an appetizer...

    It's not all puffins and elves in Iceland.

    Well, you know, it's at times like these where one turns to other branches of government for counterbalance, like the judicial system in general and Supreme Court in particular. Except that our Supreme Court is terrible. Utterly, utterly horrible.


    [Running out of room so I refer you to the full article here. There are lots of beautiful clear pictures of weapons and political rallies in the article.]

  2. #2


    Don't know for certain, but I wouldn't doubt that things might get a bit tense over the next few years. Absolute control of the government often produces unforeseen problems that those in control don't foresee. I'm being optimistic, but these are times when great changes often occur, benefiting those that have other views of how society might help in a way that would provide a better life for the populous rather than the people at the top who bought the election and their minions.

  3. #3


    Being a fan of Iceland, I was surprised to read this. I found a different more positive take in the Guardian which claims the foreigners got stiffed and Iceland recovered. I don't know enough to guess which saga is correct but here is the Guardian's take.

    From the Guardian article, "Where everyone else bailed out the bankers and made the public pay the price, Iceland let the banks go bust and actually expanded its social safety net," noted Paul Krugman, admiringly. Iceland, he found, had demonstrated the "case for letting creditors of private banks gone wild eat the losses" Although not a fan of Krugman, he shows the the left is not unanimous in supporting all of the Daily Kos article.

    I was disappointed when the newly elected right wing government denied Edward Snowden asylum privileges though. Why did the right wing line up with Obama and in violation of long time Icelandic asylum practice? If genealogical research is to be believed, I had a Bagler ancestor, a judge, from near Tromsř, in about 1200, flee the Birkebeiners. I don't know if he lived out his days in Iceland but his son wound up back in Norway. Iceland was kind enough to harbor my family but couldn't do the same for Snowden. Disappointing.

  4. #4


    My family members who live in Iceland agree more with Rei than with Krugman. They are bemused by the outsiders' rosy views and have told me many times that all is not as it has been reported. I guess it was Step One, let the banks go bust, followed by, Step Two, Pay for it HOW? followed by Step Three, Fire in the Hole! We seem not to be hearing about the Fire phase internationally.

  5. #5


    gazhekwe, I won't second guess your relatives. I don't have any inside sources and normally don't quote Krugman. I am curious about how it is that you have relatives in Iceland.

  6. #6


    Let's see, it is a long story. Here's the Cliff Notes version. My brother lost his daughter in divorce and she was adopted by her stepfather. When her mother left that marriage, the stepfather remarried an Icelandic woman. The daughter was visiting her stepmother's parents in Iceland when she met her future husband. Subsequently we joyfully rediscovered her after she returned to the States with her husband and daughter. Time passed, and her daughter grew up, moved to Iceland where she met her husband and they now have two children, and are stoically enduring the gaseous emissions of Bardarbunga, and the peculiar frustrations of conservative governance.

  7. #7


    Ah, wonderful story. Thanks.

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