Iceland votes in snap polls after Panama Papers scandal

A woman drops her ballot paper as Icelanders cast their absentee vote in Perlan, Reykjavik on Oct 27, 2016.
A woman drops her ballot paper as Icelanders cast their absentee vote in Perlan, Reykjavik on Oct 27, 2016. PHOTO: EPA

REYKJAVIK (AFP) - Icelanders voted on Saturday (Oct 29) in a snap election that could see the anti-establishment Pirate Party form the next government in the wake of the Panama Papers tax-dodging scandal and lingering anger over the 2008 financial meltdown.

Voters are expected to punish the incumbent coalition after the Panama Papers revealed a global tax evasion scandal that ensnared several senior politicians and forced former prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson to resign.

Although the current government of the conservative Independence Party and the centrist Progressive Party survived the scandal, it promised a snap election six months before the end of its term in spring 2017.

"We're loosing support (because of the) big anti-establishment (feeling)," Mr Birgir Armannsson, member of Parliament for the Independence Party, told AFP.

The Pirate Party - founded in 2012 by activists, anarchists and former hackers - has been campaigning for public transparency, institutional reform, individual freedoms and the fight against corruption.

 
 

Three separate polls, released a day before the election, showed that the Pirate Party could gain up to 21 per cent of the vote and the Left-Green movement up to 16.8 percent.

Each of the polls, conducted by the University of Iceland, research company MMR and Gallup, indicate the incumbent conservative coalition government will most likely be voted out.

The final election results will be known shortly after polling stations close but because no party is expected to have a majority Iceland's fate will only be known after coalition negotiations.

The Pirate Party could become the Parliament's second-largest party and form the nation's second centre-left government since Iceland's independence from Denmark in 1944. The Social Democrats and Greens ruled in a coalition between 2009 and 2014.

In any negotiations to form a government, the Pirate Party is expected to have leverage over the Independence Party and the leftist Green movement could for the first time hold the balance of power.

Co-founded by former WikiLeaks spokesman Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Pirate Party has reached a pre-election agreement with three other leftist and centrist opposition parties, including the Left-Greens, the Social Democrats and the Bright Future Movement, to form a coalition government.

Together, they could have more than 50 percent of the votes, according to the latest polls, which however also show a high proportion of undecided voters.

"We think that these parties can cooperate very well, they have many common issues. I think it will be a very feasible governmental choice," Ms Katrin Jakobsdottir, leader of the Left-Green movement told AFP.

Although Iceland, a volcanic island with a population of 332,000 people, has returned to prosperity since its 2008 financial meltdown with GDP growth expected to be above four percent this year due to tourism and the recovery of its financial system, the nation's young people distrust the political elite.

The crisis eight years ago saw Iceland's three biggest banks and its oversized financial sector collapse.

The nation was plunged into a devastating economic collapse and forced to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

A string of bankers were jailed, the failed banks were temporarily nationalised and then sold, and foreign investors had to accept write-downs on their debt holdings.

Professor Olafur Hardarson, professor of political science at the University of Iceland, attributed the Pirates' rise in popularity to voters' anger at the 2008 meltdown.

"They have managed to focus on the anti-politics and anti-establishment feelings of a lot of voters that have been frustrated in Iceland since the bank crash," Hardarson told AFP.

Mr Einar Hannesson, a 42-year-old labourer, said he would be voting for the Pirates because they offered change.

"I want change. I don't like everything that the Pirates are proposing, but if we want change, it's the best party," he said.