Opposition coalition tipped to win Iceland general election

REYKJAVIK (AFP) - Iceland goes to the polls on Saturday in a general election expected to return an opposition centre-right coalition to power four years after it was ousted over its handling of the country's dire financial crisis.

An opposition victory will likely spell the end of Reykjavik's European Union membership negotiations, as both the centrist Progressive Party and the eurosceptic conservative Independence Party are in favour of putting a halt to Iceland's bid.

The last opinion poll published before voting booths open on Saturday at 9:00 am (6pm Singapore time) gave Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson, 43, a slight lead over the Progressive Party's Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, 38.

The two parties, which have led the polls through much of the campaign, have a long tradition of governing together and are expected to form a coalition.

Outgoing Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, of the Social Democrats, meanwhile bade her political farewell to some 300 supporters on Friday, having previously announced her retirement from politics at the age of 70.

The Gallup poll, conducted between April 18 and 25, suggested the Independence Party would win 27.9 per cent of votes while the Progressives would garner 24.7 per cent.

Ms Sigurdardottir's leftist coalition was swept to power in 2009 amid a wave of angry protests, as Icelanders blamed the then centre-right coalition government for allowing the country's financial sector to balloon out of control, causing the three main banks to collapse and pushing the island nation to the brink of bankruptcy.

But voters appear to have had enough of the left, which is trailing far behind in the polls.

The social democratic Alliance Party garnered just 14.6 per cent of voter support in the Gallup poll, and its junior coalition member, the Left-Green Movement, was seen getting just 10 per cent.

The election campaign has focused on voters' discontent over four years of tax hikes and austerity measures to shore up the state's finances to meet international lenders' demands.

For much of her mandate, Ms Sigurdardottir has implemented the stern instructions laid out by the International Monetary Fund, which lent Iceland 1.6 billion euros (S$2.57 billion) between 2008 and 2011.

"I think a lot of people feel that the government has been representing the system more than the interests of the families and people in Iceland," University of Iceland sociology lecturer Kolbeinn Stefansson explained.

Paradoxically, it was the centre-right coalition that oversaw the privatisation of Iceland's banking and finance sector, blamed as one of the main causes for the sector's demise.

The two centre-right parties have however tried to renew themselves in the past four years, primarily with a new generation of younger politicians eager for change.

Polls in the final weeks of campaigning had put the two parties neck-and-neck.

Iceland's economy has recovered quickly and is in good shape, registering growth of 1.6 per cent in 2012.

That is seen as at least one of the reasons why Icelanders no longer see a need to join the European Union.

The membership process was launched in 2009, when the leftist government saw the euro and the EU as a safe haven in stormy times.

But since then Iceland's economy has recovered, while the eurozone has gone through its worst crisis since its inception.

"You have to understand that for Icelanders, the EU is a non-issue. The social democrats insisted on making it a topic in the campaign. I see that as a blunder," said Hannes Holmsteinn Gissurarson, a political science professor at the University of Iceland and an anti-EU commentator.

Voter discontent is also visible in the unprecedented number of political parties that have exploded onto the scene.

Fifteen parties will be vying for the 63 seats in the Althing, or parliament.

One of them, the online file-sharing activist movement Pirate Party, could be the first of its kind elected to a national parliament.

Polling stations will close at 10:00 pm (6am Sunday, Singapore time), with the first estimates expected shortly after.

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