On Sept. 15 — in a shockingly quick implosion — Iceland’s government collapsed, again. This is the third male-led center-right government in a row to lose the confidence of the Icelandic population before serving out its full term.
Why do Icelanders keep electing these coalitions that keep collapsing?
Iceland is a microstate of some 300,000, in which outrage reverberates quickly through the Internet echo chamber. Despite having an elected president with some policymaking authority, Iceland is mostly a parliamentary democracy where coalition governments are common. In recent cycles, the multiparty system has included several new parties, such as the Pirate Party, which have shaken up the system. Put these together and it explains the new volatility within Iceland’s system. But it doesn’t account for the repeated implosion of male-led, right-leaning governments.
Women have been objecting to the chummy, men’s club behavior of recent Icelandic governments
My recently published book shows that this results from political dynamics in Iceland that are both informal and gendered. Iceland may be widely seen as one of the least corrupt, most democratic and most woman-friendly governments in the world — but male-dominated informal elite networks remain strong. That paradox suggests how informal politics have become the main obstacle to gender equality in the 21st century, not just in Iceland but beyond.
In 2009, an Independence Party-led government headed by Geir Haarde collapsed amid Iceland’s financial crisis and a “pots-and-pans revolution,” a set of rowdy street protests that pushed the next government to investigate what led to the crash. Four years followed of a woman-led, center-left government. Then the Independence Party returned to power in a coalition with the Progressive Party in 2013. That government lasted only until April 2016, when prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson was forced to resign, after the Panama Papers revealed that during the financial crisis, he and his wife had protected their enormous wealth offshore. Early elections last fall produced no clear coalition. Finally, in January, a new Independence Party coalition headed by Bjarni Benediktsson was formed.
So what happened this time? In September, news surfaced that Benediktsson’s father, himself one of the richest men in Iceland and a powerful member of the Independence Party, had written a letter in support of “restoring the honor” of a convicted child molester. Benediktsson and other ministers had attempted to cover up the letter of support. One of the Independence Party’s coalition partners, Bright Future, resigned from the coalition, citing a breach of trust. Although Bright Future had only four seats, that was enough to bring down the government.
A chummy group of male elites moved into power and privatized the economy
To understand how these center-right governments won power, you have to understand the strength of male-dominated informal elite networks in Iceland.
Until the early aughts, Iceland’s economy was one of the most regulated and state-controlled in Europe. Starting in the 1990s, under the leadership of Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson and his Independence Party government, the economy was deregulated and many state-owned enterprises, including the public-owned banking sector and some natural resources, were privatized into the hands of their allies and their supporters. He and most of his male partners in privatization had gone to Reykjavik’s oldest and exclusive Latin School (now, Reykjavik Junior College) and remained close friends through attending the University of Iceland. The new male tycoons made news headlines with their stereotypically masculine antics, such as nightclub excursions, yachting and fancy cars.
Iceland’s president at the time, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, was one of this cabal of chums; he justified the group’s risky business practices by saying that Iceland has been settled by Vikings. In the language of gender scholars, these elites were enacting hegemonic masculinity and bonding through homosociality. Together, these elites overextended Iceland’s economy, leading to one of the most dramatic economic busts in recorded history.
A female-led, left-leaning government tried to clean up after the crash but was blocked by the same group of chums
The left-leaning government of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir (2009-13) tried to reform the rules of Iceland’s political game. It pursued legal redress from the architects of the financial crisis; passed laws requiring a critical mass of women on corporate boards, in part powered by the idea that the self-dealing of this cohort could be countered by women from outside the circle of male school chums; and sought to revise the constitution to be more democratic and protect Iceland’s natural resources.
Sigurðardóttir was blocked in part by former Prime Minister Oddsson, who had become editor of one of Iceland’s major papers, which consistently opposed the prime minister. Grímsson, who still remained president, twice used his veto power against the prime minister, the only president ever to use this power. Grímsson was elected to an unprecedented fifth term in 2012, after claiming his pregnant competitor didn’t have the necessary gravitas.
In the run up to the 2013 parliamentary elections, Gunnlaugsson promised to help average Icelandic citizens recover their financial losses from the crisis, and the center-right parties returned to power. Then the Panama Papers exposed just how well political and economic elites, including Benediktsson and Grímsson, had managed to protect their money from the crisis. Nevertheless, only Gunnlaugsson had to resign; the rest of the group remained in positions of power.
The Icelandic women’s movement has been extremely active, especially since 2009
The Icelandic women’s movement has been extremely active and vocal throughout this time. In the 2009 “pots and pans” revolution, women made up most of the protesters; feminists set up a shadow government as part of the protests.
In the last several years, the Icelandic women’s movement has made sexual violence a prominent issue. One of Iceland’s most prominent feminist organizations, Stígamót, a sexual assault crisis center, organized a 2010 women’s strike focused on violence against women. Several high-profile women spoke out about their own histories with abuse, including the late bishop of Iceland. In 2014, feminist activists forced the University of Iceland to stop a hire that was underway of a prominent former politician who had been publicly accused of sexual abuse and was backed by other powerful men. In 2015, women across Iceland organized through a 25,000-person closed Facebook group deceptively called “Beauty Tips,” in which young women revealed rape and sexual abuse. Over this past year, an Icelandic woman named Thordis Elva gave a widely viewed TED talk with the man who had raped her when she was a teenager, in which he took responsibility for what happened.
This pressure has been a social awakening for Iceland’s society, leading to outrage this summer that two convicted child molesters had had their records expunged. Women’s protests forced Benediktsson to step down. Support for feminist change is one reason the feminist-identified Left-Greens won the second biggest share of the vote in the 2016 elections and are now polling equally with the center-right Independence Party, the party that has had the most sway in politics since Iceland’s independence from Denmark in 1944.
How strong is the outrage? We will find out soon. The next parliamentary elections will be held Oct. 28.
Janet Elise Johnson is a professor of political science at Brooklyn College, City University of New York and author of “The Gender of Informal Politics: Russia, Iceland and Twenty-First Century Male Dominance” (Palgrave, 2018) and “Gender Violence in Russia” (Indiana University Press, 2009).
Correction: The headline and text of the article originally said that Bjarni Benediktsson’s father had recommended a “pardon” for the molester. The article has been updated to reflect that his recommendation was only for “restoring honor.”