Iceland: “Left” election victory but no left policies

Crisis deepens – three companies go bankrupt every day

Election Day in Iceland. In a bar in Reykjavik pictures of bankers who fled the financial crisis hang not on the wall but over the urinals in the toilets. On an expensive SUV-car, a symbol of the ‘good times’, parked outside of the office of the neo-liberal Independence party, someone has written ‘Game over’ over ‘Land Rover’. How true this is for the former government party which suffered its worst ever election result taking just 23.7 %.

The coalition parties in the interim government, the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement, which took control after the ‘January revolt’ which brought down the old government, achieved a majority in parliament, gaining 34 MPs out of 63, and will remain in government. A so-called "left victory" was quickly declared in the media, but no-one celebrated in the streets. While people most are glad to get rid of the neo-liberal Independence Party, all the established parties are regarded with a certain measure of suspicion.

Will the unpopular right wing policies be exchanged for genuine pro-worker policies? How will the "left government" tackle the financial crisis and save the jobs?

The skeletons of partially completed buildings have become a common sight in the urban landscape, and riot police were called in last week to remove squatters from abandoned downtown properties. Three companies go bankrupt every day.

Unemployment

The official unemployment rate, which was non-existent before the crisis, is expected to hit 10 % by the end of this year, as the economy shrinks further also by 10%. Iceland’s unemployment compensation fund is expected to be empty by November. The upcoming student graduations will flood the job market with hundreds more applicants.

One of the first tasks of the new government will be to get the banks re-financed. They will probably have to implement an extra crisis budget during summer, cutting public expenditure and raising taxes, due to the huge public deficit. None of the elected parties have taken a clear stand against further attacks on workers and the public sector.

The euro

The most debated issue of the election was about the euro and the EU. Chair of the Left Green party, Steingrimur Sigfusson, reassured the media after the election that the differing views on EU and euro membership would be solved within the new government. In other words, the earlier EU resistance will have to give way in order for the Left Green to be able to get a seat in the sun.

All indications suggest that there is a clear parliamentary majority for immediate application. The Progressive Party has declared that Iceland should apply for membership, as well. The party has nine members in Althingi, adding two in the election. And more of the politicians from the Independence party are shifting position as the issue is discussed amongst the big business tightly connected to the party.

Already before any central negotiations have been made, some Left-Greens have also shifted, including Reykjavík City councillor Svandís Svavarsdóttir and economist Lilja Mósesdóttir.

A new group in Althingi, the Civic Movement, also wants to apply for membership. They have four new members in parliament. The party come out of the January people’s movement and their policies can be summed up as a naive wish to "go back" to smaller enterprises and "direct democracy", rather than any kind of policies for workers, unemployed and youth. In contrast, Sósíalískt Réttlæti (CWI in Iceland) clearly take a stand against the euro and EU-membership.

EU membership has not saved Spain, Ireland or Hungary from severe recession, and would almost certainly require the concession of Iceland’s most valuable resource – the fishing industry. The fishing sector – accounting for 36.6 % of exports in 2008, second only to the aluminium industry – is a crucial natural asset, as is the unique green energy supply (geothermal).

Nationalisation

Any government that wishes to stop wage cuts, fight against poverty, further employment, not have to raise taxes nor became a slave under the IMF, would have to nationalize such crucial assets and other big business, expropriate the wealth of the rich (1% rich own 20% of all wealth in Iceland), cancel all foreign dept (caused by parasitic speculation) and put the banks and the production under workers’ control.

When the new government is proven to be puppets blind to the capitalist system, as much as ousted thieves, a greater number of workers and youth will search for a genuine workers’ alternative. Sósíalískt Réttlæti raises the need for a new active workers’ party, with representatives who live on a workers salary themselves.

(This article is also published on http://www.sosialisktrettlaeti.blogspot.com)

Election results:

  • The Social Democratic Alliance (S): 29.79%and 20 seats in parliament, gaining two.
  • The Independence Party (D): 23.70% and 16 seats in parliament, losing nine. Support for the party has never been lower.
  • The Left-Green Movement (V): 21.68% and 14 seats in parliament, gaining five.
  • The Progressive Party (B): 14.80% and nine seats in parliament, gaining two.
  • The Civic Movement (O): 7.2% and four seats in parliament. This is a new party and had no previous seats in parliament.
  • The Liberal Party (F): 2.22% and no seats in parliament, losing all four of their seats.
  • The Democracy Party (P): 0.59% and no seats in parliament. This is also a new party.

Interviews with workers in Iceland:

Oli Thorvaldsson, aluminium plant worker:

“All the politicians have spoken with big words in this campaign, but as I experienced before they are mostly empty words. Many of my co-workers were sacked from the plant and I got a wage cut. As I understand it, the new coalition will cut wages even more so they don’t have to sack more people.

“ I don’t know, it feels like the rich are being bailed out. But I am still voting for the left green still, because it can’t get any worse than the previous government.”

Ragnar Sigvardsson, unemployed construction worker:

“First, I thought I wasn’t going to vote at all. But we have to get rid of the old criminals. I think Johanna and the Social Democrats will do a better job. I don’t know about the EU, it isn’t the best. But things can’t go on as they do now.

“As you can see Reykjavik is full of half-built houses. And as you can understand I am now unemployed. We should’ve known better than to privatise everything back then.”

Bryndis Björgvinsdottir, student and asylum activist:

-“The politicians say we’re in the same boat in this crisis. But why is that the case now when it wasn’t the case before. I was never invited to their champagne parties. They must pay for their own crisis. None of the parties have proposed any measure that can solve the crisis. None of the parties dares to say that these huge debts shouldn’t be paid. I haven’t decided if I am voting for the Green Left or the Civic Movement.

“Today one percent own 20 percent of all the wealth. The companies, especially the aluminium and the fishing industries, should be owned by the people not a rich few.”

Guðmundur Gunnarson, 56 year old man on disability benefits, a former sailor:

“In a way, the election campaign has been more honest and issue-oriented than it’s been for years. I owe money to the bank and the monthly repayments for the loans are increasing, because of the decline of the currency and the ‘price protection’ of loans. I’ve had to survive on little to begin with and now it’s getting tougher to afford the payments.

“Politicians need to turn away from dogmas. We should use the state where the private sector fails.”

Brynja Kristjánsdóttir, pension fund economist:

“The parties have been making some promises they can’t fulfil. For example promising jobs that don’t exist and ridiculous ideas like adopting the euro through collaborations with the IMF.

“I lost my job, but got a new one shortly after on a 50 percent lower salary. But I am leaving the country. We need jobs that are here to stay, and make sustainable economic growth, not just bubbles created out of speculation.”

Asylum movement

During the past months, a new movement has arisen in Iceland: the Asylum Movement. While the established political parties compete in luring votes, discussing all kinds of issues, the desperate situation facing Iceland’s refugees is hardly spoken about.

More than 30 refugees await deportation to a number of conflict areas such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Liberia and Somalia. In three of those conflicts – Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq – the Icelandic state participated with either troops and/or other means. This is in spite of the fact that when the old neo-liberal government, led by the Independence Party, intervened as a pet of the US imperialism and promised to “help the people” of these countries.

Now more people understand that “help” is not the proper word. In 17 years, 601 refugees sought asylum in Iceland. Only one of them was given political asylum. Only 53 received temporary stay permits but none received permanent residence permits. The refugees who are today waiting to be deported have been waiting for 1-2 years, stuffed away in a rundown hostel in an outback area outside of Reykjavik.

One of the prominent figures of the asylum movement is Bryndis Björgvinsdottir, editor of the Student Union Paper. He commented: “Asylum seekers have been here for years but they were invisible- kept away from Reykjavik, the media and the activists. I t looks to me that as the government has been trying to hide them at the camp, as close to the airport as possible”.

The refugees live on 2 500 ISK, a week, nearly two meals, and not even enough to take the bus to Reykjavik.

“They can’t work, they can’t study and they are refused basic human rights like health care”, Bryndis explains.

Hassan Akbari, who fled Afghanistan by foot, and walked through Pakistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, has now been in Iceland for one year. His arm was broken in Greece last year. When he started having problems with the arm he was denied help in Iceland. Now the arm has healed wrongly and his pain has not disappeared. When the migration office sends out letters to the refugees explaining their right to appeal and their right to a lawyer, it is only written in Icelandic.

When the Ministry of Justice sent out a letter it said that they had to reply the 20th April, the same day the letter arrived! All of this was explained to the government representatives, last week, when the asylum movement met them. At that meeting, the minister of environment in the interim-government, Kolbrun Halldörsdottir, from the Left Green party, promised to raise the issue at the next government meeting and personally fight for a general amnesty for the refugees, as suggested from Sósíalískt Réttlæti, CWI in Iceland.

It was also explained to the government, by Bryndis and other activists, that deporting people to Greece, where many risk to be sent as a result of the ‘Dublin Agreement’, is a nightmare for the refugees. Amnesty International, the German human right organisation, Pro Asyl, and Greek juridical groups have reported how refugees are imprisoned, abused and beaten by the police or end up on the street without roof over their heads.

The refugees are hopeful that the new "left" government will put an end to the unjust policies but nothing has happened yet. A few days ago, one of the refugees from Ghana was sent back to Italy. The police gave no warning, they just picked him up and drove him straight to the airport, with no chance to meet his friends.

“The campaign must go on if nothing changes, but tougher”, says Bryndis, who explains how politicians only listen to aggressive protests.

The Asylum Movement mobilised a majority of the 300 people in the May Day demonstration in Reykjavik and a well-visited solidarity concert was organised to fund the campaign and the refugees. With the action of the Icelandic Asylum Movement, it will no longer be possible for the state to keep these people a secret.

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