Iceland: Students make their voice heard in Reykjavik

CWI speaks to left-wing students in country devastated by capitalist crisis.

Iceland was rocked by a wave of protests, which brought down the government, in response to the devastation of the countries economy by the world economic crisis. (see more here). Kristofer Lundberg, from Rattvisepartiet Socialisterna (CWI in Sweden) and SST (Swedish section of International Socialist Resistance) travelled to Iceland and spoke to left-wing students, who have played an important role in the developing movement.

On 29 January, Rskva (Red Students), from the University of Iceland, marched on parliament to make clear to any new government that students are prepared to fight for their rights. They delivered a petition, with the same demands as those that the recently toppled government received in December, when the students protested against cutbacks.

The talks aimed at forming an interim government, between the Green Left party and the Social Democratic Alliance, to lead the country until new elections take place in the spring, had been taking place since early morning in the parliament buildings. The social democrats asserted that there were now no essential questions left to be discussed and that the meeting had gone well. This was a perfect opportunity for the students to raise their demands.

Under a red banner held high with the text “education first” and with red flags, drums and placards, they marched with conviction on the Parliament. One of the banners said, “With education we can build the country”. That was a criticism of the police as much as the government, as on the police shields are the words, “with the law we build the country”! This is a police force that has been sharply criticised by the mass movement, which has raised the question of the need for a new policing body. To choruses of “Education is power”, the politicians’ meeting was disrupted.

Bergpora Snabjorndottir told me, “We are here to ensure that the politicians do not forget us, that when they are negotiating in there they know we have our demands. We want to put education on the agenda. Education is important for the entire society. We need education, society needs educated people. It is we, the young people who will rebuild this crushed society.”

“We want to remind the government that the country’s future lies in their hands. We want the education that we deserve”, said Anna Finnborgadottir.

“We want a first class education, we are the generation that is going to shape society. We are here, dont forget that”, added Bergpora Benediktsdottir.

Interview with student activist

Rskva (Red Students) is a left-wing student organisation that gathers socialist together students under one roof at the national university. Rskva is an organisation which encompasses a wide range of views, from the reformist to the radical left. They describe themselves as an alliance of social thinkers, and have been around for about 20 years. Today, they do not support any one political party and have about one hundred active members at the university. SST’s (the Swedish branch of International Socialist Resistance) Kristofer Lundberg spoke to Sigurdur Karirnason, one of the Rskva candidates in the student union elections.

“During the autumn, Icelandic students had a very difficult time, due to the economic crisis that has hit the country hard. Those who have loans in other currencies are in an even worse situation.

“Red Students believe that the struggle for student rights is equally important outside of the university as it is within it. Political decisions decide the students’ futures and they must also take part in the political fight.

“We try to be the students’ voice. In December, after the crisis hit, the government wanted to bring in cutbacks of 2 billion Icelandic kronor. But after protests and a petition from Rskva (Red Students) and the student union, which we have run for two years, the government partially back-tracked. I think that we could, however, have done more but nevertheless, cuts were reduced by 1 billion kronor.

“Now that a new government is likely to be formed by the Green Left, the Social Democratic Alliance and the Progressive Party, which is a centre party, we need to continue the struggle. We are going to hand over a list of the students’ demands on the first day a new government is appointed, including an end to the cutbacks and more resources for education. We want to have a first class education, and that is even more important now during the crisis when there aren’t any jobs to be had.

“Now it is time for us to show our colours. The social democrats are not without blame: they were a part of the former government. We in Rskva [Red Students] are socialists, for us it does not matter who sits in government: if they don’t introduce improvements for us, then we have to fight against them. But we hope that they listen to our demands, They are going to be under huge pressure. They will want our votes in the next election, which is in spring, and if they want that then there have to be improvements.

“We are living in historic times. Icelanders usually don’t take to the streets but the people came back day after day, until the government resigned. The conservative right wing government is finally gone for the first time since 1991, but the struggle must continue and we hope that students will take a more active role in the continuing demonstrations.

Sigurdur hopes, in the future, to see more co-operation between the student organisations and the working class, especially the trade unions. “One call that needs to be made is ‘People before money’”, he concludes.

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January 2009