POP interviewed Eiríkur Bergmann, Professor of Politics at Bifrost University in Iceland and Visiting Professor at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. He is also Director of the Centre for European Studies in Iceland, and he wrote Nordic Nationalism and Right-Wing Populist Politics: Imperial Relationships and National Sentiments (London: Palgrave Macmillan. Forthcoming in 2017). This (phone) interview came in the aftermath of the recent turbulent elections in Iceland, and Prof. Bergmann argues that although the Pirate Party did not win the elections, the status quo has been broken. Moreover, the key to understand the diffusion of populist discourses in the Icelandic political debate relies on the country’s nationalist and post-colonialist history.
1) Iceland, in the last eight years, has been shaken by every possible political earthquake. In 2008 the financial crisis hit hard, and was followed by the pots and pans revolution the year after. In 2011 a new bottom-up and participative constitution has been written but never ratified by the parliament. In 2016 the scandal of the Panama Papers forced the Prime Minister to resign and to call for new parliamentary and presidential elections. The conditions for a populist upsurge were there, but the same two parties remained in power (Independence Party and Progressive Party, which anyway lost a lot of votes and 11 MPs after the Panama Papers scandal). Did the Icelandic people vote to preserve the status quo? Bjarni Benediktsson (leader of the Independence Party) clearly said: “We just took a stand against populist ideas”. In another occasion, he also said: “Ideologically the Pirates are still in the making. When they get a difficult question they say: ‘let’s ask the voters’.” His pitch to Icelanders therefore has been: “Voters should ask if they want uncertainty or if they want a well-established party”. Does this vote show that indeed the Icelandic people chose to reward the well-established parties notwithstanding the economic and political crisis?
No, I would not say that the status quo has been re-affirmed. Not at all. The political party system consists of four parties which normally get around 90% of the votes, now these parties collectively only got around 60% of the votes, while three new parties have been elected into the Parliament for the first time. The Pirate party has received most attention abroad and it has tripled its votes, but there have been two more parties which challenged the party system and got a significant number of the votes. The discontent about mainstream politics originated in the wake of the crisis is still here and it manifested itself in this election, but of course quite a lot of people are opting for the status quo and want to see some stability in the political system and therefore vote for the traditional parties, but to a much lesser extent now than before.
2) Let’s go back to the Panama Papers’ scandal. In 2016, the Icelandic president Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson had to step down, and the people felt all over again the impression of having been betrayed by the same representatives who led the country into the economic crisis in 2008. In that moment, the Pirate party was leading the polls, why didn’t they win the elections? Is it because economy is doing well and Icelandic people trust the Independence Party as a mainstream party able to solve the country’s problem while the Pirates are seen as unpredictable and not reliable thus leading to instability?
— BirgittⒶ Jónsdóttir (@birgittaj) November 3, 2016
Yes, but they are probably a bit less of a wild card than often perceived. Still, I would say that the Pirate Party best compares to Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain because they are based on populist politics, although it is not as left-wing as these parties. Moreover, the Pirate Party is also rooted in anarchism and is more liberal than Syriza and Podemos although their political style is similar.
3) Another incredible political disaster has been the 2011 constitution: a bottom-up process of direct democracy has been transformed in a big failure by the parliament. What happened? And why a process of bottom-up direct democracy was suppressed when it was almost completed?
That is relatively simple. Before the 2013 elections the left-wing government has ran out of time and could not ratify the new constitution before the elections. After the victory of the Progressive Party, based on the promise of debt relief of ordinary houses which has nothing to do with the new constitution, the right-wing government formed together with the Independence Party (which was always against this project) has abandoned the idea of the new constitution. It remains still to be seen whether the new government now will re-start the process once again.
4) What is the most likely constellation of power at the moment, a right-wing or left-wing governmental coalition?
It will either be a three or four-party right-wing coalition or a five-party left-wing coalition. Now we have a record number of parties in parliament, so everything will be unprecedented.
5) You already mentioned that the Pirate Party is a moderately left-wing populist party. What about the Progressive Party: can it be labelled as populist as well? You wrote on the Guardian that Former PM Gunnlaugsson “In the classical style of contemporary European populists, (…) claimed to speak on behalf of the deprived ordinary man against the wealthy elite – while belonging himself to the world’s richest 1%. In this guise he led the fight against the creditors of the fallen banks and was instrumental in the deal that was struck.”
— Cas Mudde (@CasMudde) October 30, 2016
The Progressive Party could be labelled as a ‘surrogate’ populist party for the period 2009-2016, during the leadership change. The interesting question is why there hasn’t been the surge of a right-wing populist party as we have seen throughout Europe.
5) That was exactly my last question. Why the Crash of 2008 did not bring far right success as in other countries? What is the role of nationalism in Icelandic Politics? And how does Icelandic’s post-colonial identity relate to populist discourses?
— Cas Mudde (@CasMudde) October 30, 2016
There are three reasons for this. First, and most important, nationalism is not a fringe political movement in Iceland. It is a feature underlying all the mainstream political parties. There is no need for a political party on the fringes contesting the mainstream on nationalist bases, and this is traditional because of Iceland’s relationship with Denmark. The post-colonial identity is recent and mainstream in Iceland rather than manifesting on the fringes. Second, the Progressive Party has served as a ‘surrogate’ populist party in the wake of the crisis, between 2009 and 2016, and this is similar to the role played by the Center Party in Sweden prior to the uprising of the Swedish Democrats. Third, the surge of right-wing populist parties in Europe has been mainly in opposition to Muslim immigrants. However, there is no significant number of Muslim immigrants in Iceland, there are no Muslim neighborhoods, and there are no incidents reported in the media between Muslim immigrants and the native population. It is difficult to be against something that does not exist. Actually, there is a fourth reason: the success of right-wing populist parties (at least in Scandinavia) has relied on charismatic leaders. For example, the Icelandic National Front wanted to stand to this election but failed to even put up the necessary formalities because of the incapability of the leadership. It is not only a lack of demand-side, but also the supply-side is lacking.
6) A forecast about the formation of the new government: there will be soon as table government or a Spanish-style situation is possible thus implying new elections soon?
I mean, so many strange things have been happening occurring in Iceland in the last eight years, nobody can predict anything. A stable government could be formed, but it could also dissolve as well, it’s impossible to say.
Listen to the integral (phone) interview with Prof. Bergmann here below: