Thursday, August 13, 2009

Check out my new blog.

I'm not necessarily going to abandon this (although with my lack of posts it would seem that I have already) but I've formed a new blog where I'll be trying to cover the Norwegian election up to when it takes place in the middle of next month so that's where most of my activity is likely to be in the immediate future.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Mixed picture for European radical left

Here's the share of the vote received by all of the main parties of the radical left across Europe in the recent EU parliament elections:

Progressive Party of Working People - 34.9% (+7.0), 2/6 seats (±0)

Czech Republic: Communist Party - 14.2% (-6.1) 4/22 seats (-2)

Denmark: Socialist People’s Party - 15.9% (+7.9), 2/13 seats (+1)
People’s Movement Against the EU - 7.2% (+2.0), 1/13 seats (±0)

Finland: Left Alliance - 5.9% (-3.2), 0/13 seats (-1)

France: Left Front (includes PCF) - 6.3% (+0.4), 5/72 seats (+2)
New Anticapitalist Party - 4.8% (+2.6), 0/72 seats (±0)

Germany: The Left - 7.6% (+1.5), 8/99 seats (+1)

Greece: Communist Party - 8.3% (-1.1%), 2/22 seats (-1)
Coalition of the Radical Left - 4.7% (+0.5), 1/22 seats (±0)

Ireland: Sinn Féin - 11.2% (+0.1), 0/12 seats (-1)
Socialist Party - 2.8% (+1.5), 1/12 seats (+1)

Italy: Refounded Communists/Italian Communists - 3.3% (-5.1%), 0/72 seats (-7)
Left and Freedom - 3.2% (+0.7%), 0/72 seats (-2) compared to Greens last time

Luxembourg: The Left - 3.2% (+1.5), 0/6 seats (±0)

Netherlands: Green Left - 8.9% (+1.5), 3/25 seats (+1)
Socialist Party - 7.1% (+0.1), 2/25 seats (±0)

Portugal: Left Bloc - 10.7% (+5.8%), 3/22 seats (+2)
Communist Party/Green Party - 10.7% (+1.6), 2/22 seats (±0)

Scotland: Scottish Socialist Party - 0.9% (-4.3%), 0/6 seats (±0)

United Left/United & Alternative Left/Catalan Greens - 3.7% (-1.0), 2/50 seats (±0)
Republican Left of Catalonia/Galician Nationalist Bloc/Basque Solidarity/Aralar - 2.5% (+0.1), 1/50 seats (±0)

Sweden: Left Party - 5.6% (-7.1%), 1/18 seats (-1)
Feminist Initiative - 2.2% (+2.2), 0/18 seats (±0)

Overall then an advance compared to last time in Cyprus, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Portugal - although in Germany and France the left will be disappointed not to have achieved anything like as much as some recent polls had predicted and the Dutch Socialists are down considerably on the 17% they received in the last national election. The biggest success stories are Denmark and Portugal where the Socialist People's Party and Left Bloc have made huge gains respectively. The differences between both parties are quite stark though with the Socialist People's Party having abandoned much of their radical roots in recent years and instead focussed on cooperation with the Social Democrats and Radical Liberals.

The left meanwhile has less reason to be cheerful in the Czech Republic, Finland, Greece, Italy, Scotland, Spain and Sweden. In Italy especially the defeat is crushing with a loss of all 9 of the MEPs the radical left won last time. However a combined share of 6.7% is nevertheless an improvement on the 3.1% received by the now defunct Left Rainbow coalition in last year's national election. Since then the Refounded Communists have split with the reformist wing breaking off and forming the new Left and Freedom coalition together with Greens and radical Social Democrats. Both received just over 3% which is under the new threshold of 4% required for representation. Further north in Sweden and Finland the left parties also went back considerably and each lost a seat. The Swedish Left Party did do unusually well last time and their result yesterday is roughly the same as what they got in the 2006 parliamentary election. In addition the newly formed Pirate Party has won strong support among young people and has, as a result, undoubtedly dented the Left Party's support.

Here in Scotland the SSP has lost more than 80% of its support compared to last time and while 0.9% is an increase on the 0.6% we received for the Scottish Parliament in 2007 it's hardly anything to celebrate when you get beaten by Nazis and Christian fundamentalists and receive the same vote as an independent who noone's ever heard of. The party's resources are extremely limited and while some people (like myself) could perhaps have done more to help the campaign I really don't think there's anything that would have made too much of a difference. I'd like to be optimistic about the future of the left in Scotland but at the moment we just don't seem to have the political culture to support a proper multiparty system or the sort of popular engagement in politics which is required to get people thinking about issues and ideology rather than about a politician's personality and charisma (which is in turn dependent on them being able to win coverage from the capitalist media).

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Left victory in Iceland but Left Greens do worse than expected

Social Democrats: 29.8% (+3.0), 20 seats (+2)
Independence Party: 23.7% (-12.9), 16 seats (-9)
Left Greens: 21.7% (+7.4), 14 seats (+5)
Progressive Party: 14.8% (+3.1), 9 seats (+2)
Citizen’s Movement: 7.2% (+7.2), 4 seats (+4)
Liberal Party: 2.2% (-5.1), 0 seats (-4)

On the left we’ve basically got the moderate pro-EU Social Democrats, the radical leftist, feminist, environmentalist Left Greens and the Citizen’s Movement which arose out of the recent protest movement and was only formed 9 weeks ago. The main party of the right is the Independence Party who have been in government almost continually for as long as anyone can remember but have lost a huge amount of support over the country’s economic collapse which was caused by the neoliberal economic policies they pushed through over the last 2 decades. The Progressive Party are supposedly a centrist, agrarian party but are probably closer to the right on many policy issues. The Liberal Party (now out of parliament) are populists who have strongly pushed the issue of fishing rights and have been accused of making various xenophobic remarks in recent years.

Now on to the results. The major surprises are the failure of the Left Greens to do as well as most had expected together with the strong showing for the newly founded Citizen’s Movement. That the Left Greens would be the biggest party, as some polls had predicted, seemed to me to be too good to be true and I remembered from the last election in 2007 when again the Left Greens didn’t do nearly as well on election day as many of the polls had predicted. But 22% (an increase from 14% last time) is still not bad and leaves them as perhaps the strongest party of the radical left in Europe. The main reasons I can see for why they didn’t do as well as they could of is the growth of the Citizen’s Movement together with Social Democrat leader Johanna Sigurdardottir’s short time as Prime Minister which gave her party more of a chance to set the agenda than it might have otherwise.

The Social Democrats have been trying to portray their success as an endorsement of the EU and the Left Greens have apparently said they would now be willing to back a referendum on Icelandic membership even if they continue to remain strongly opposed. However according to the polls a majority of people would reject membership so unless the fishing issue gets sorted out I don’t think the pro-EU side should be particularly optimistic that they can win any potential vote on the matter.

Overall, despite my disappointment that the Left Greens didn’t do better, I think there’s plenty to be positive about. For a start the once dominant Independence Party has been severely weakened, losing at least a third of their support, and Iceland will now see its first every left-wing majority government. The Citizen’s Movement which will remain outside government (almost certainly a Social Democrat/Left Green coalition) and has strong links to the protest movement will also, I think, help ensure the new government listens to the people and remains true to the spirit of the revolution which swept away the nation’s corrupt neoliberal government. Most of their voters are in addition people who would probably have otherwise supported the Left Greens. We should also remember that Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir is from the left of the Social Democrats and the very thing about her that appeals most to people, according to the New York Times, is that she comes across as being the complete opposite of everything which characterised the so-called ‘New Vikings’ who ruled the country and brought it to a state of ruin with their reckless neoliberalism.

43% of new MPs women

According to my count of the newly elected MPs 27 out of 63 are women (43%) - a significant increase from the last parliament in which women made up 33% of MPs. This now gives Iceland the second highest percentages of female MPs in Europe (Sweden comes first with 47%). It’s also almost certain that Social Democrat leader Johanna Sigurdardottir will remain in office as the country's first woman Prime Minister and the world’s first openly lesbian national leader. Here’s the figures by party:

Social Democrats: 10/20 (50%)
Left Greens: 7/14 (50%)
Citizen’s Movement: 2/4 (50%)
Progressive Party: 3/9 (33.3%)
Independence Party: 5/16 (31.3%)

Friday, April 24, 2009

ANC wins 66% - why?

Latest results (2004 figures in brackets)

African National Congress: 66.15% (69.69%)
Democratic Alliance: 16.32% (12.37%)
Congress of the People: 7.46% (n/a - ANC split)
Inkatha Freedom Party: 4.59% (6.97%)
Independent Democrats: 0.92% (1.70%)
United Democratic Movement: 0.86% (2.28%)
Vryheidsfront Plus: 0.85% (0.89%)
African Christian Democratic Party: 0.79% (1.60%)
United Christian Democratic Party: 0.39% (0.75%)
Pan Africanist Congress of Azania: 0.28% (0.73%)
Azanian People’s Organisation: 0.22% (0.25%)
Minority Front: 0.22% (0.35%)
African People’s Convention: 0.21% (n/a - PAC split)

The ANC’s failure to deliver

For a party that has delivered so little over the past 17 years it seems astonishing that the ANC should have taken 66% of the vote in the recent South African election and may retain the two-thirds majority it needs to single-handedly alter the constitution. The main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, have grown slightly to take 16% while the ANC breakaway (set up by supporters of former leader Thabo Mbeki) won a relatively unimpressive 7-8%. Most of the smaller parties have been hit quite badly and the former Black liberation movements, the Pan African Congress of Azania and the Azanian People’s Organisation (two of the only parties which represent a left alternative to the ANC), could lose the 4 seats they currently hold in the South African parliament.

Why is it that the ANC remains so popular when the average South African dies at the age of 49 and when the country’s infant mortality rate stands at a shockingly high 44 in every 1,000 births. South Africa is not a poor country - in GDP per capita terms it’s equivalent to Costa Rica (life expectancy: 78, infant mortality: 9) and Serbia (life expectancy: 74, infant mortality: 7). We can’t of course forget the role of apartheid in all this and South Africa has been left with a terrible legacy of racial segregation and impoverishment of its Black population. What is so shocking is the fact that over the last 17 years there has been no significant improvement in the lives of ordinary people. In fact in some ways things seem to be getting worse - in 1994 for example the average life expectancy was 60.

At the root of the misery faced by ordinary South Africans is of course the ANC’s refusal to take any real steps to redistribute the country’s land and wealth (with a Gini coefficient of 0.58 it’s currently among the world’s ten most unequal countries) and their outrageous mismanagement of the HIV/Aids crisis (denial being the only appropriate word with which to describe the approach of former President Thabo Mbeki). Some articles by John Pilger which I would really recommend can be found here:

Among other things he discusses the compromises which the ANC leadership made with the white elite, which made their ultimate rise to power far more palatable to the old apartheid state, and their utter collusion with big business to betray the goals of the Freedom Charter which back in 1955 had declared that South Africa belonged to “all who live in it” and pledged to share out the land, transfer industry and resources to the people and provide housing and medical services to all.

For the ANC to get another huge majority of this size is, I think, extremely unhealthy for South Africa and will do nothing to promote a more open and democratic culture. Neither will it reduce the ruling party’s complacency or force them to take any more account of the needs of ordinary people, not least the impoverished majority as the enter into the financial crisis with an unemployment rate of 40%, an Aids crisis which shows no sign of going away and with very little chance of ever entering the new ‘Black middle-class’ which the ANC seems so keen to promote.

Jacob Zuma: a tragedy for South Africa?

Here’s a few of the statements made by South Africa’s new President (and ANC leader) Jacob Zuma:

“God expects us to rule this country because we are the only organisation which was blessed by pastors when it was formed. It is even blessed in Heaven. That is why we will rule until Jesus comes back. We should not allow anyone to govern our city when we are ruling the country.”

Same-sex marriage is "a disgrace to the nation and to God": "When I was growing up, an ungqingili (a homosexual) would not have stood in front of me. I would knock him out."

“In Zulu culture, you cannot leave a woman if she is ready... To deny her sex, that would have been tantamount to rape” (said during rape trial against him).

Taking a shower after sex "cuts the risk of contracting HIV".

Jacob Zuma enjoys immense support across South Africa and has the strong backing of the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions. He’s also a highly controversial figure who has faced (but has never been found guilty of) charges of rape and corruption. In the rape trial against him he ridiculed the sex life of his accuser, a 31 year old woman now living abroad, while his supporters chanted slogans and burned photos of her outside the court, throwing stones at another woman they mistook to be her. He admitted to having sex with her but ultimately was able to convince the court that it was consensual. According to the prosecution the woman didn’t openly resist his sexual advances as she was in a state of shock at the time but he was acquitted nevertheless. Here’s an article which discusses further the gender dynamics of the case:

There are very real reasons to fear for the future of South Africa and its democracy with a man like Zuma in charge who so often resorts to the worst type of populism and is of such questionable character. That so many South Africans, especially those who are materially disadvantaged, have put their faith in him to such a large degree is perhaps a symptom of the despair which so many feel over the lack of progress since the end of apartheid. But it’s a misplaced faith and one which will ultimately serve noone. What we need most of all is of course a strong left-wing opposition (something which at the moment completely non-existent) but in the absence of that surely anything to check the ANC’s power can only be a good thing.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Iceland: sex purchase bill passed, strip club ban fails - for the moment

iI haven't read about it anywhere else but according to an article (English translation) in the Norwegian paper Klassekampen the bill to ban the purchase of sex was passed by the Icelandic parliament on Friday (and has come into effect immediately), the day before it broke up for the election. At the same time the proposal to remove the current exemptions allowing the operation of strip clubs in the country was rejected, which is a shame but I don't think should in any way be cause for despair. The left still only has a minority in the Icelandic parliament but things are likely to change dramatically on Saturday when the Social Democrats and Left Greens are expected to receive up to 60%+ of the votes there. As the poll I posted recently shows most Icelanders are highly supportive of a ban on stripping so I think we could easily see it happening in the not too distant future.

The article's centred around an interview with Guðrún Jónsdóttir of Stígamót, an organisation which runs women's shelters and campaigns against male violence in Iceland. Interestingly she points out that with Iceland becoming the third out of five Nordic countries to ban the purchase of sex (only Denmark and Finland have still to do so) we can now talk about a 'Nordic model' on prostitution. In Iceland itself the feminist movement had been pushing strongly for a change in the law for 10 years and is entirely united in its opposition to prostitution. A poll in 2007 found that 82% of women and 57% of men wanted to criminalise the purchase of sex while only 8% of Icelanders were completely opposed to the measure.

According to
Guðrún Jónsdóttir prostitution has always been hidden in Iceland - "we live in a micro-society where everything happens in secret" - and that it'll be another thing getting the law to be properly enforced. However it's still an extremely important symbolic victory in terms of having a law which clearly defines prostitution as a form of violence against women and places the responsibility firmly on those who use their money to perpetuate it. There's also a new action plan against human trafficking and hopefully new resources will be made available to help women leave the industry. What we need now is for them to shut down the strip clubs and on paper at least Iceland should be fully sex industry free. In the meantime let's celebrate the fact that Iceland is the second country in less than 6 months (along with Norway) to make the purchase of sex a crime. It's been a full ten years ten years since Sweden did so so let's hope the progress of the struggle against prostitution is accelerating and that it won't be long before other countries consider similar legislation.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Strong support for stripping ban in Iceland

Support for ban:

Everyone - 58%
Women - 73.8%
Men - 42.7%
Social Democrat/Left Green supporters - 70%
Progressive Party supporters - 56%
Independence Party supporters - 36%

This is according to a poll today in Frettabladid. I haven't heard anything yet on the progress of the proposed new law I wrote about a few weeks ago and it's perhaps going to wait until after the election on the 25th but it certainly doesn't look like there's going to be too much opposition from the public. I find it interesting that Icelanders take such a negative view towards an industry which most people in other countries seem to see as nothing other than a form of harmless fun (or so they've been led to believe by the patriarchal capitalist media). How we replicate it here, I don't know, but it shows that having a strong and united feminist movement and a political left which takes the issues of gender inequality and oppression seriously is something which really can help to change common understandings and attitudes throughout society regardless of the interests of the ruling classes.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

No place for the sex industry in Iceland

'Prostitution is violence' - Icelandic feminists in 2005

I’ve been writing rather a lot about Iceland lately but this is just too good not to mention. The new left-wing government has decided, in an attempt to eliminate all human trafficking into Iceland, to fully outlaw both the purchase of sex and the running of strip clubs. Describing human trafficking as “the most disgusting form of international and organized crime that exists in the world” Social Affairs Minister Ásta Ragnheiður Jóhannesdóttir drew up a 25 point action plan which includes the two measures and it is hoped that as much of it as possible can be implemented in time for the new elections in late April.

With stripping banned too this will take Iceland further than both Norway and Sweden and, since pornography is still illegal (at least according to Iceland Review), will in effect mean that the sex industry is more or less completely outlawed. This is a huge victory for the Icelandic feminist movement which is proportionately quite strong and has long been fighting to shut down the few strip clubs that exist as well as campaigning to get the purchase of sex criminalised.

Iceland of course has a history of strong feminists - on the 24th of October 1975 90% of the country's women went on strike for a day, marching out of their workplaces and refusing to cook, clean or look after children. For a time also there was a women's party represented in parliament with many former leading members now involved in the governing social-democratic Alliance and Left Greens.

Under the decades of right-wing rule progress towards gender equality and female liberation was in many ways held back but with capitalism thoroughly discredited, the left in the ascendancy, and for the first time ever, a female Prime Minister and a gender balanced cabinet the feminist movement can hopefully again march forward and take back what should rightfully be theirs. And can act as an inspiration to their sisters and supporters elsewhere.

There's some more stuff in English about Icelandic feminism here if anyone's interested:

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Iceland: a nation in revolt

Here's a more detailed article I've written for the socialist Frontline magazine on the latest situation in Iceland. It should be out later this month but I though I'd post it here as well so people can read it while it's as topical as possible:

Iceland: a nation in revolt

The dramatic events of recent months in Iceland may have had relatively little mention in the UK media yet they provide one of the clearest indications in recent years not just of the failure of neoliberal capitalism but of the potential for ordinary people to resist and reject those who rule over them and the dominant ideology they seek to impose. In what is perhaps a sign of what we may see in other nations should the crisis continue and intensify, the government was forced to resign after months of mass demonstrations outside parliament which culminated in the building being brought under what could be described as a state of siege by thousands of protesters on the 22nd of January. New elections have been called for April and the people of Iceland have been forced to rethink their country's direction both socially and economically for the years ahead.

Economic background to the crisis

Iceland for the last 19 years has been ruled by governments led by the conservative Independence Party, first under Davíð Oddsson and then Geir Haarde. Davíð Oddsson who was Prime Minister from 1991 until 2004, and is now the most hated man in Iceland, is widely seen as the architect of the Thatcherite policies which allowed the financial sector to emerge out of nowhere, becoming the source of the country's new found wealth. The banks were privatised, taxes were cut back and regulations slashed. In addition Iceland, unlike its Nordic neighbours which have largely maintained relatively high and progressive personal tax levels, has adopted a system of flat taxation (currently at 36% of people's income), being one of the few countries outside Eastern Europe to do so. Corporation tax has also been steadily reduced and currently stands at 18%.

In some ways the Independence Party's neoliberal policies appeared, economically at least, to have been a success and in GDP per capita terms Iceland became, for a number of years, the third richest European nation after Luxembourg and Norway. A wealthy class with their luxury apartments and enormous cars emerged and a culture of aspiration was endlessly promoted among ordinary working and middle-class Icelanders. Yet the foundations of Iceland's economic miracle had always been shaky and much of the country's visible wealth was bought with borrowed money. The deregulated banking sector which was at the forefront of the country's new economy had been quickly building up enormous debts which by last year had astonishingly reached ten times the country's total GDP.

Disaster strikes

The potential for disaster though had been completely ignored by those in a position of power and it wasn't until the collapse of the bank Glitnir on the 29th of September 2008 that people started to become aware of the scale of the problem. Within the space of a just a few days the krona then plunged by around a third and soon afterwards on the 7th of October the second major bank Landsbanki went into administration. Part of Landsbanki was the internet savings scheme Icesave and when withdrawals by British savers were restricted Gordon Brown outrageously used anti-terrorism laws to freeze Icelandic assets in the UK, a move which some say contributed to the collapse of the last remaining bank Kaupthing days later.

The effects of the crisis were very quickly felt by ordinary people as workers started getting laid off, inflation soared to 18% and people have lost their homes and cars. While unemployment was minimal back in September it is now estimated at over 7% and it is believed that this year the economy could contract by as much as 10%. As a result many families have started relying on charity food aid and the welfare system has been overwhelmed by the numbers of people seeking state assistance. Icelanders have understandably been outraged over the situation and at the years of recklessness at the hands of their government and banks which directly led to it. A popular movement of resistance has began to emerge and from October onwards protesters had gathered regularly in their thousands outside parliament in Reykjavík.

People take to the streets

Repeatedly those at the top have refused to accept any responsibility, assuring people that everything was fine, that the banks were sound just days before they collapsed and, once they had, that it would be no time before the economy would pick up again. Perhaps unsurprisingly people have seen through the lies of the powerful and political activism in its various forms has flourished. One of the organisations which sprung up, and which was involved in the protests outside parliament, is the grassroots campaign group Raddir fólksins (Voices of the People) with the singer and activist Hördur Torfason one of the people who helped get it started. Outraged at the behaviour of the political and economic classes who bankrupted his country he tells, in an online interview, how at the beginning he went to parliament square with a megaphone and talked to and listened to the views of ordinary people. From there a popular movement was built up and the protests became a regular occurrence with the aim of forcing those in a position of power to accept responsibility and resign - namely the government and the boards of the Central Bank and Financial Services Authority. At the height of the demonstrations in Reykjavík as many at 10,000 people were in attendance, a significant figure for a country with a population of just 300,000.

On the 20th of January the situation on the streets suddenly became more dramatic as up to several thousand people clashed with the police who used pepper spray and made over 30 arrests. Outside parliament people banged pots and pans, blew horns and made as much noise as possible to disrupt its first meeting of the new year, staying on through the night and lighting bonfires to keep themselves warm as well as burning the large Norwegian Christmas tree. The following day Prime Minister Geir Haarde's car was surrounded and pelted with eggs and snowballs and thousands surrounded government buildings which had red paint thrown over them. On the 22nd police used tear-gas for the first time since the anti-NATO protests in 1949 to disperse people from around the parliament as rocks, paving stones and bottles were thrown at the building and at the Prime Minister's office, smashing windows and injuring several police officers.

According to the Icelander Eiríkur Bergmann writing in The Guardian “The word ‘revolution’ might sound a bit of an overstatement, but given the calm temperament that usually prevails in Icelandic politics, the unfolding events represent, at the very least, a revolution in political activism". A people who, like most Europeans, were once politically apathetic and rarely took to the streets for any reason have became angry and engaged with what is happening around them. A sense of protest can be felt right across Icelandic society and those who have taken to the streets can be found in all age groups and walks of life. It is not just the poor who have suffered from the crisis but also the professional and middle classes who have faced large numbers of job losses and risked losing their homes and cars due to the enormous levels of personal debt. Icelanders have also used new information sources to bypass the mainstream media and there has been a surge in political blogs and online activism.

Government falls

After the three days of intense protests Prime Minister Geir Haarde announced on the 23rd that a new election would be held in May and that he had been diagnosed with cancer and didn't intend to continue beyond that point. However the protesters wouldn't go away until their demand that the government resigned had been met. From the beginning of the crisis opposition within the social-democratic Alliance to their coalition with the Independence Party had been growing considerably and when the party's Reykjavík branch voted in favour of pulling out on January the 22nd it seemed likely that their days of participation in the government were numbered. On the 26th of January the party officially terminated the coalition after the Independence Party refused to sack the Central Bank's board and agree to a cabinet reshuffle. Geir Haarde shortly afterwards called for a national unity government but this was ultimately rejected by the Alliance and Left Greens when, after several days of negotiations, they announced their intention of forming a new minority government together which would govern until a new election on the 25th of April.

The new government's programme, announced on February the 1st, includes the intention to alter the constitution so as to make reference to public ownership of the nation's resources resources and allowing greater opportunity for the use of national referendums. Also included has been the cancellation of the Act giving generous pensions to Ministers and MPs, measures to stop people losing their homes and assurances that the needs of ordinary people will be taken into account as much as possible and the welfare system protected. One of the new government's first decisions was to call for the resignation of Iceland's three central bank governors, including its Chairman, former PM Davíð Oddsson. Yet in a show of contempt for the Icelandic people Mr Oddsson has refused to accept all responsibility and repeatedly ignored the requests of the new Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir for him to stand down.

The Left Greens

For such a small country Iceland has a surprisingly diverse political scene. On the the left there is the Left Greens who were founded in 1999 as a more radical alternative to the merger of the Social Democrats, People's Alliance, National Movement and Women's List into today's centre-left Alliance. From the beginning they have placed a strong emphasis on environmental issues, gender equality and national independence from organisations such as the EU and NATO. In the first two elections they were able to gain 9% of the vote, growing in 2007 to 14% on the back of a strong campaign against the construction of several large aluminium smelters, something the government of the time was keen to promote. With 3,000 members and a popular and respected leader, Steingrímur Sigfússon, they have been in a strong position to represent themselves as the main political opposition to the status-quo as neoliberal capitalism becomes irreparably discredited in the eyes of many Icelanders.

In a number of the opinion polls conducted over the last few months the Left Greens have emerged as Iceland's most popular political party and they will be trying hard to hold on their strong position in the run up to the election on April the 25th. Support for the centre-right Independence Party has naturally been badly hit by the crisis and it appears likely that, for the first time in decades, parliament could be dominated by the left. With the social-democratic Alliance and Left Greens keen to continue their joint coalition both parties will be competing to gain the most support and therefore be in the strongest position to lead the next government. Interim Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir from the left-wing of the Alliance, and the country's first female and openly gay PM, is someone who also enjoys a high degree of respect among Icelanders, being seen as someone likely to stand up for the disadvantaged, and her brief time as leader of the nation has helped her party regain much of its popularity in recent weeks.


A likely area of contention for any new government and one of the issue where the strongest disagreement exists between the Alliance and the Left Greens is Iceland's proposed EU membership. After the crisis initially set in and particularly with the rapid collapse of the krona there was a surge in support for Iceland joining the EU with the Independence Party dropping its active opposition to membership and the agrarian Progressive Party officially coming out in favour. As the Alliance has long backed membership this leaves the Left Greens as the only major party still strongly opposed. However according to the polls much of the early enthusiasm appears to have dissipated with the majority of the public again on the 'no' side as the issues involved get discussed and debated in more detail. People are also aware that even if Iceland does get accepted quickly into the union it is unlikely to be allowed to join the Euro any time soon due to the strict fiscal rules imposed upon member states.

The main drawback of membership for Iceland specifically is in the area of fishing, which with the collapse of the nation’s banking industry is likely to become an even more important part of its economy in the years ahead. At the moment Iceland as part of the EEA (European Economic Area) can stay out of the Common Fisheries Policy and therefore can set its own quotas and regulate who fishes off the Icelandic coast. If they joined the EU, on the other hand, they would be forced to open their waters to fisherman from other European nations and would have to accept centrally agreed quotas which they would have little control over. Iceland has long fought for national control of its fishing stocks, getting into several skirmishes with Britain in the 70s in the so-called 'Cod Wars', and over the last few decades they have arguably done a far better job at building a sustainable fishing industry than any of the member states of the EU.

Where now for Iceland?

What type of Iceland its citizens can look forward to, now that the banking sector lies in ruins and is likely to have a much reduced role in future, will surely be at the front of people's minds in the run up to the election. Economically many would like the country to return to a more traditional way of life, utilising its vast natural resources and rebuilding the fishing communities which have dwindled in size as people pursued new lives in Reykjavík, once just a small town but now home to around half the nation's population of 300,000. The last decade or so of riches now has an air of unreality to it as all the money which flooded in has disappeared again just as fast with nothing much left to show for it apart from half-built apartment blocks and luxury car dealerships whose customers have vanished into thin air. Despite their difficult financial situation though a number of Icelanders have spoken of their relief that this period of their history is now over and that anger and resentment is again possible, that a culture of scepticism and critical debate has replaced the blind faith in capitalism and the free market which was once so common.

The anger at the Fred Goodwins of our world who have stolen so much from ordinary people while leaving a trail of destruction in their midst is something that can be felt more and more in every country as the human implications of the economic crisis have became clear. Not just in Iceland but also in Greece and Latvia have people resorted to direct action to show their discontent at the policies of their governments. Recently in Ireland, a country whose famed 'Celtic Tiger' economy has run out of steam and where few of the benefits have been spread to the working population anyway, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets in anger. Iceland however is the first country where the protesters have succeeded in achieving their main goal and represents a spectacular, if socially disastrous, testament to the instability of neoliberal capitalism. Only under such a system could a resource-rich country go overnight from one of the world's wealthiest to a bankrupted state whose population are, in large numbers, facing the loss of their homes and their jobs and where families can't even afford to feed themselves without relying on help from local charities.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

Opposition to EU membership grows in Iceland

As a new left-wing minority coalition of the social-democrats and Left Greens takes power today (with new elections planned for the 25th of April) it looks like opinion is shifting away from support for EU membership. According to the Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen the last two polls have both shown the no side in the lead - by 38.3 to 37.7 percent in one poll and by 59.8 to 40.2 in another - which is in stark contrast to those carried out just a few weeks ago. In addition Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre who has been in Iceland for the last few days says he doesn’t expect EU membership to be an important priority for the new government. It was reported yesterday in The Guardian that Brussels is keen to have Iceland as a member and would fast-track them for admission in 2011. For numerous reasons though it is in the interests of Iceland not to go down such a road and in the end it's what ordinary people think that counts.

As for why Iceland should remain out the most important thing is perhaps fishing which with the collapse of the nation’s banking industry is likely to become an even more important part of its economy in the years ahead. At the moment Iceland as part of the EEA can stay out of the Common Fisheries Policy and therefore can set its own quotas and regulate who fishes off the Icelandic coast. If they joined the EU on the other hand they would be forced to open their waters to fisherman from right across the union and would have to accept centrally agreed quotas which they would have little control over. Iceland has long fought for national control of its fishing stocks, getting into several skirmishes with Britain in the 70s, and over the last few decades they have made a far better job of building a sustainable fishing industry than any of the member states of the EU.

The collapse of Iceland’s currency was the main reason why people initially turned in favour of the EU yet even if Iceland did become a member it’s in no way guaranteed they’d be allowed to use the Euro because of the strict fiscal rules imposed on member states. Some in the Norwegian government opposed to the EU, such as Centre Party leader Liv Signe Navarsete, have instead suggested that Iceland’s currency could be tied to the Norwegian krone. I’m not an economist and have no idea what the consequences of such a move might be for Norway but it would certainly in my view be the most favourable option for Iceland, stabilising its currency while allowing it to remain independent of many of the centralised and undemocratic EU structures which take little account of the social and economic needs of ordinary people.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Norden til venstre: Icelandic government falls, left ahead in Norway

Icelanders protesting outside parliament
in Reykjavik

After weeks of regular protests outside the Icelandic parliament in Reykjavik, the government has finally collapsed with the social-democratic Alliance unwilling to continue in their coalition with the conservative Independence Party. Many Icelanders have meanwhile thrown their support behind the socialist Left Greens with them expected to become the largest party in any future election according to the polls. A government which refused to accept any responsibility for what had happened and for the misery which many ordinary families have been subjected to, has finally given in to the demands of its angry citizens, or at least the social-democrats have realised that staying in a coalition with the Independence Party any longer will do them more harm than good.

If the Left Greens become the largest party and if the Alliance have enough seats to allow both parties to form a coalition then Iceland will undoubtedly have the most radical government of any western country. Their ability to act will of course in many ways be reduced due to the serious situation the country finds itself in, with the economy expected to shrink by 10% this year, unemployment approaching a record high and inflation making basic items hard for many Icelanders to afford. But with the right policies the poor and the jobless need not be hit as hard as they might otherwise have been. A left-wing government would, I expect, return to a more progressive tax system, do what it can to stop people losing their homes and redistribute whatever resources are available to those who need them the most. Perhaps most importantly they would lay the foundations of a new economy based not around banking but on developing the nation’s vast natural resources in a way which is largely at harmony with nature.

The political situation right now seems a little unclear with the outgoing Prime Minister Geir Haarde calling for a national government while some in the Alliance, Left Greens and agrarian Progressive Party have called for the three parties to form a temporary coalition until the elections, already expected to take place in May after an earlier announcements from Mr Haarde shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer. It’s difficult to say what the political impact of either option would be for the parties involved but the Left Greens are the one party which has consistently offered a real alternative to the free market economic policies Icelanders are now blaming for what’s happening so I expect they’re likely to remain strong over the next few months.

In Norway meanwhile the last three or four polls have all been predicting a parliamentary majority for the centre-left which is significant as ever since their election in 2005 most polls have been predicting a clear victory for the opposition. Before these latest polls the left hadn’t been ahead once since 2007. Fortunately the financial crisis has helped turn things around around as the government appears to be seen doing things, putting forward a number ‘crisis packages’ to help Norwegian businesses, banks and municipalities. Yesterday a further 20 billion kroner was announced and if it proves not to be enough the government can quite easily dip into the oil fund. Nevertheless predictions are that over 100,000 jobs could be lost over the next few years so they’ll be hoping as few as possible go before the election in September.

The left has also been strengthened from an ideological perspective with Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg arguing that the crisis proves the superiority of the Norwegian model over the free market American one, given that Norway has been far less affected by most other countries and that it was unregulated capitalism which was undeniably responsible in the first place. The right-wing Progress Party (Frp), which recently showed its true colours by calling for uncritical support to Israel during their war against the people of Gaza, has only one answer: yet more tax cuts and deregulation together with the reckless use of oil revenues. Perhaps as a result of the voters are abandoning them in droves with the Frp down to below 20% in the most recent poll, the lowest they've had for years.

The election is of course over 8 months away and a lot will happen before then. Personally I think it could go either way - although even if the four opposition parties do get a majority the composition of the future government is far from certain as both the Liberals and Christian People’s Party have suggested they’d be unwilling to join a government which includes the Progress Party. What’s clear though is that the left’s now in a better position to hold on to power, due largely to the crisis, and hopefully the opposition will be weakened further as they come under greater scrutiny in the run-up to the election.

By the way if you want to keep up to date with what's happening in Iceland these are all good sources: