Iceland’s centrist vote has resurged, but the left still has opportunities to govern and grow in a fragmented party system
- NordForsk / Kim Wendt
- CC BY 2.0
Voters from both right and left drifted towards Iceland’s centrist parties this weekend—but left-wing Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir still enjoys broad personal support and may yet retain her office.
Defying pollsters’ expectations, Saturday’s election result showed strong public support for Iceland’s governing parties: Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s eco-socialist Left-Green Movement (Vinstri græn), the right-leaning Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn), and the centrist-agrarian Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn).
Should the ideologically-diverse coalition continue, it would do so with an increased majority. The Left-Greens have three fewer seats than the 11 returned in 2017, but they have only lost one from when the election was called, as two MPs had already defected to the opposition). Meanwhile, the Progressive Party’s group has expanded from eight to 13, and the Independence Party has maintained its 16 MPs. The coalition parties remain the three largest parties in the country, albeit with the Left-Greens and Progressive Party switching places, and they have a collective 37 seats compared to the 35 they had in 2017 (and the 33 they had when the election was called).
It is not yet guaranteed that the coalition will return to government in its current format. The larger partners may wish to see one of their own installed as Prime Minister; on the other hand, the Left-Greens are aware that their leader is the most popular choice for Prime Minister among voters, and will not want to take a junior position in a coalition that may tip to the right under different leadership. Before considering the possibilities for government formation and the future of the left in more detail, it is worth taking time to consider Iceland’s unique history of government and its recent electoral turbulence.
Promiscuous coalitions and centre-right dominance: Iceland as the Nordic outlier
Although generally classified as a Nordic social democracy, Iceland’s electoral politics have little in common with those of its fellows. Where one might immediately think of the many post-WWII governments led by the centre-left in Denmark, Norway, and (perhaps especially) Sweden, Iceland has been led for most of that time by the centre-right. The Independence Party has traditionally been the country’s ‘natural party of government’; since the republic was established in 1944, it has been in government for a combined 52 years, and it has held the office of Prime Minister for over 42 of those years. The Progressive Party has traditionally been its main competitor, having participated in 19 governments and contributed the Prime Minister nine times.
By contrast, there have been only five left-leaning Prime Ministers, including the incumbent. The most recent former Prime Minister from the left was Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir of the Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin); when she formed a broad-left government in 2009, it was the first time in almost thirty years that the Prime Minister was not from a centrist or rightist party. The other three social-democratic Prime Ministers were Stefán Jóhann Stefánsson (in office February 1947–December 1949), Emil Jónsson (in office December 1958–November 1959), and Benedikt Sigurðsson Gröndal (in office October 1979–February 1980). Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and Katrín Jakobsdóttir are the only leftist Prime Ministers to have served full terms in office.
The other feature of Iceland’s post-WWII governments is a certain ‘promiscuity’ among its coalitions. While the parties of other Nordic states often form ideologically-coherent ‘red and blue blocs’, and rarely form governments with parties on the opposite end of the political spectrum, Icelandic political co-operation tends to be more fluid. The first five years of the republic were governed by a coalition featuring conservatives, social democrats, and socialists; the majority of current parties or their predecessors have governed with one another at some point.
This history of cross-ideological co-operation has done much to instil expectations of moderation and compromise in Icelandic political culture, despite the electoral dominance of the Independence Party. However, an increasingly fragmented political system has somewhat undermined its dominance, and the past decade or so has been marked by an unprecedented lack of Independence Party prime ministers (the sole exception since 2009 being Bjarni Benediktsson’s tenure after the 2016 election, which lasted for less than a year).
Icelandic elections in the 21st Century: increasing fragmentation
The most popular approaches to examining party fragmentation were defined by the political scientists Markku Laakso and Rein Taagepera (1979), whose methods we use to count the ‘effective number of parties’ in the system; rather than simply counting the number of individual parties, which would set a party with one representative equal to a party with a hundred representatives, these ‘effective’ numbers scale the parties according to their size. To understand how divided the electorate is, we count the effective number of electoral parties (or ENEP), whereas to understand how divided the parliament is, we count the effective number of parliamentary parties (or ENPP).
The Irish political scientist Professor Michael Gallagher maintains a very useful online document with these effective numbers, updated for almost every election around the world, including each Icelandic election since 1946. In Figure 1, I use his figures from 2003–2017 and add my own calculated ENEP and ENPP for the 2021 election to illustrate these trends in fragmentation.
Before Saturday’s vote, Iceland had experienced a general increase in both ENEP and ENPP at each election over the past 20 years. The biggest increases in these trends were in the general elections of 2013 (when the number of viable parties competing in the election surged) and 2017 (when the number of parties in the Althing reached a record high, and the distribution of seats between them became more balanced). We can characterise these changes as fragmentation in the party system, as voters switched away from the traditional ‘large parties’ to a multitude of alternatives.
What has this meant for the Icelandic left? Arguably, it has suffered from the fragmentation of left-leaning voter cohorts but benefited from fragmentation of right-leaning parliamentary parties. Figure 2 shows the vote share received in each election since 2003 for all left-leaning parties (black solid line) and each of the two larger left-leaning parties, the Social Democratic Alliance (SDA, red dotted line) and the Left-Green Movement (VG, green dashed line). The shapes of each point on the black line also show the party orientation of whomever was subsequently elected Prime Minister (triangle for left-leaning parties, diamond for centrist parties, and square for right-leaning parties).
Fragmentation on the left: the 2013 election
In 2009, support for left-wing Icelandic parties was riding high in the wake of the Icelandic financial crisis: over half of those who went to the polls voted for a left-leaning party. Moreover, the Independence Party found itself dethroned from its traditional spot as the largest party by its erstwhile coalition partners in the Social Democratic Alliance. This unprecedented support led to the first majority government solely composed of leftist parties in Iceland’s history, as the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement formed a coalition with 34 out of 63 seats.
However, at the next election in 2013, their combined support would be halved; both parties exited government and a new centre-right coalition took control. In Figure 1, we see that this electoral defeat for the left coincided with the first stage of fragmentation in Iceland: the surge in ENEP. In total, 11 new parties contested the 2013 election, but only two (the social-liberal Bright Future, or Björt framtíð, and the syncretic anti-system Pirate Party, or Píratar) won seats in the Althing, which is why the increase in ENEP was much greater than the increase in ENPP.
While it is not unusual for left-wing parties to lose considerable numbers of voters after a period in government, the extent of the electoral backlash was perhaps greater than might have been expected. It is quite likely that the preponderance of emergent parties, with appeals to different parts of the left-liberal voter coalition that had elected the broad-left government, was a major factor in the incumbents’ significant losses.
Fragmentation on the centre and right: the 2016 and 2017 elections
The next stage of fragmentation had much greater impact on the right. It occurred at a particularly turbulent time in Icelandic electoral history, when two elections took place in less than a year (only the second time that this has occurred since the founding of the republic).
After the rout of the outgoing left-wing government in the 2013 election, a new centre-right coalition was formed between the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, with the latter’s Sigmundur Davið Gunnlaugsson becoming Prime Minister. In April 2016, revelations about his financial affairs led to mass public protests and calls for his resignation, which ultimately resulted in elections taking place almost a year earlier than expected. The result of the 2016 election was another centre-right coalition, this time led by the Independence Party. However, this arrangement collapsed after less than a year due to another political scandal, with snap elections being called for October 2017.
The Progressive Party suffered at both elections, losing 13.7 percentage points of the vote and 11 seats across the two elections, while the Independence Party experienced a net loss of 1.5 percentage points and three seats. Both parties experienced splits during this period.
The Reform Party (Viðreisn) split from the Independence Party in 2016, and it was well-positioned to both capture departing Progressive Party voters and provide an alternative to the Independence Party by offering liberal social policies and centre-right economic policies. It received 10.5% of the vote and entered the Althing with seven seats in 2016, as well as joining the subsequent short-lived government, but this decreased to 6.7% and four seats in 2017.
The Centre Party (Miðflokkurinn) split from the Progressive Party prior to the 2017 election. Under the leadership of former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davið Gunnlaugsson, whose resignation in 2016 had triggered the previous election, it positioned itself as a right-populist party (despite the name). It won nearly 11% of the vote and entered the Althing with seven seats.
The third significant party to emerge in this time was People’s Party (Flokkur Fólksins), a populist party emphasising nativism, conservative social policies, and a more expansive state. In 2016, it attracted 3.54% of the vote but won no seats; however, in 2017, it almost doubled its share of the vote to 6.9% and entered the Althing with four seats.
The emergence of these three parties, along with Bright Future being wiped out in 2017, meant that there were eight parties in the Althing after the 2017 election compared to only six before the 2016 election. Although the Independence Party emerged as the largest party, it only held 16 seats (its joint-worst performance since the Althing became a unicameral parliament in 1995), and could not attract sufficient support from other parties to lead a coalition. The Left-Green Movement’s Katrín Jakobsdóttir was the most popular choice to become Prime Minister from among the party leaders, as well as being the most trusted politician in the country; by leveraging her popularity inside and outside the parliament, she capitalised on the divided right and positioned herself as the default choice to lead the new government during negotiations.
The result of these discussions was that a new coalition formed with the participation of the Independence Party, the Left-Green Movement, and the Progressive Party, with Katrín becoming the first Left-Green Prime Minister. The Social Democratic Alliance improved its lot considerably in the 2017 election, more than doubling its share of the vote to 12.1% and increasing its seats to seven, making it the joint-largest party in the opposition.
Election 2021: Further fragmentation at the ballot box, but consolidation in the chamber
Compared to 2017, this year’s results show a more fragmented electorate (ENEP = 7.05, up from 6.76) but a less fragmented parliament (ENPP = 6.29, down from 6.54). Pre-election polling had consistently suggested that the Icelandic Socialist Party (Sósíalistaflokkur Íslands) would enter parliament as the Althing’s ninth party. Ultimately, the party did not achieve any seats, being way off the pace in the competition for constituency seats and failing to reach the 5% threshold for inclusion in the national ‘balancing’ seats. It did, however, receive 4.1% of the vote—almost exactly equal to the decline in support for the Left-Greens since 2017.
The Left-Greens themselves will likely be content with their results after a difficult four years in government. Although they have lost a quarter of their support (down from 16.9% to 12.6%) and won three fewer seats compared to 2017, this is still rather better than what was predicted by polls in the final weeks of the election. Moreover, the party’s leaders—particularly Katrín Jakobsdóttir and Health Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir—remain popular with the public, and have largely won praise for their handling of the COVID-19 crisis. Meanwhile, the Social Democratic Alliance has lost 2.2 percentage points and one seat from its 2017 result, a particularly disappointing result after four years opposing a government led by its chief rival on the left. The combined left vote declined slightly to 26.6%, a far cry from the heady days of 2009 but certainly better than either 2013 or 2016.
At the other end of the spectrum, the combined right-wing vote has also declined. The primary reason for this is that support for the Centre Party has collapsed to 5.5%, leading to a loss of four seats, and the votes do not appear to have moved to any of the other right-leaning parties: the Independence Party’s vote declined slightly, while the Reform Party received a modest increase of 1.6 percentage points to 8.3% and secured an additional seat (for a total of five).
Although there were two new right-wing parties that contested the election and tried to capture voters opposed to public health measures deployed against COVID-19, the Liberal Democratic Party (Frjálslyndi lýðræðisflokkurinn) and Responsible Future (Ábyrg framtíð) failed to attract much support, receiving around 0.4% and 0.1% respectively. This suggests that, as with the left parties, votes did not just move between the right-wing parties but also shifted into the centre.
The parties of the centre were the biggest winners in this election, with the Progressive Party substantially increasing its vote (to 17.3%, up from 10.7%) and seats (13, up from eight), a significant achievement for an incumbent party. The People’s Party set out a much more moderate stall in this election: it gave well-known Icelanders prominent positions in its campaign, filled out its candidate lists with older and disabled citizens, and playing down its nativist rhetoric in favour of a broader focus on expanding the welfare state.
Arguably, it was the People’s Party that sprung the biggest surprise of election night: despite earlier polls suggesting that it would struggle to clear the 5% mark and could lose all its seats, it took 8.9% of the vote and won six seats. While their combined share of the vote is still slightly smaller, the centrist parties now hold as many seats as the leftist parties, and it is difficult to see any government that can be formed without the support of one (or both) of the Progressive Party and the People’s Party.
What are the opportunities for the left now?
The Left-Green Movement did not win the Prime Minister’s office in 2017 by sheer electoral success, but rather by leaning on the high popularity of its leadership and skilfully navigating a fragmented Althing. The objective this year is the same—building a stable coalition in an unstable environment, without making too many compromises—but the challenge is greater; Left-Green MPs are reduced in number, and the Progressive Party may be keen to try and lead the next government. Nonetheless, at least one historical record is on Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s side: while four of the new Althing’s party leaders have previously served as Prime Minister, she is the only one to have completed a full term.
At present, the most likely—but not certain—outcome is that the existing government coalition will continue in one form or another. The Left-Greens may well insist on retaining the Prime Minister’s office as a condition of doing so. Preliminary data from the Icelandic National Election Study show broad support for Katrín Jakobsdóttir to continue leading the government, even among those who voted for opposition parties—and, perhaps more importantly, large portions of Independence Party and Progressive Party voters. If the partnership can be renewed under her leadership, she will be the first left-wing Icelandic politician to become Prime Minister after two consecutive elections, though the other parties may demand sacrifices in the policy agenda or the cabinet composition to make it happen.
All sides will be hemmed in during negotiations by the lack of practical alternatives: there is little prospect of a government without the Progressive Party, and it is unlikely that a centrist or right-leaning party could be brought in to replace the Left-Greens. A centre-left government remains theoretically possible, but it would require the Progressive Party and Left-Greens to co-operate with at least two other parties—a configuration rejected by the Progressive Party in 2017.
Beyond the question of government formation, the Icelandic left may need to perform some soul-searching after these results. The Left-Greens will need to consider if the swing against them caused by participating in coalition with the Independence Party has reached its apex, or if a second term would lead to further decline: even with its decreased share of the vote, this election’s result ranks somewhere in the middle of its performances since its first election in 1999 and is close to its historic average.
For the Social Democratic Alliance, serious questions will be asked about its strategy, given that this election saw a partial reversal of the recovery experienced in 2017. Trying to prise away disaffected Left-Green voters was a less fruitful source of votes than the more collaborative messaging in the last election, when the prospect of the parties entering coalition together was regularly floated. In policy terms, the parties themselves are arguably closer than ever before: the Social Democratic Alliance has drifted left and become ‘greener’, the Left-Greens have become more comfortable with pragmatism, and the issues of EU and NATO membership have become less salient.
Then there are the ‘challenger parties’. The Socialist Party faces an existential conundrum after failing to reach the 5% vote share required to qualify for a balancing seat, which was its main hope of entering the Althing this year; as a result, the 4.1% of votes that it did receive were effectively ‘wasted’, whereas they would have improved the odds of a centre-left government had they gone to the Left-Greens or Social Democratic Alliance instead. While it is a respectable performance for a ‘new’ party, it should be borne in mind that the Socialist Party chose not to contest the 2017 election so that it would have more time to build support, so the result will still be disappointing—and there is no certainty that the threshold will be reached next time.
Of broader concern will be the success of the People’s Party. As elsewhere in Europe, a populist party with growing appeal is a direct challenge to the Icelandic left if it appears to attract working-class voters and others who would normally support social-democratic and socialist parties. Certainly, the People’s Party—with its proposals for higher minimum wages and welfare spending, and more muted nativist appeals—fared much better in this election than populist challengers on the economic right. The task for the left-leaning parties now is to convince those voters that a robust welfare state and liberal social policies remain compatible, and that the ideological left can deliver much more for the vulnerable in Icelandic society than any stripe of populist.
Dr Luke Field is a political scientist at the Social Science Research Institute and Faculty of Political Science, University of Iceland. He specialises in electoral politics, political psychology, and democratic innovations. His website is lukefield.ie and he is also on Twitter (@LukePField).
Gallagher, M. (2021). Election indices dataset. [Online] www.tcd.ie/Political_Science/people/michael_gallagher/ElSystems/index.php (28 September 2021).
Laakso, M. and Taagepera, R. (1979). ‘Effective’ Number of Parties: A Measure with Application to West Europe. Comparative Political Studies, 12(1), pp. 3–27.