Iceland Heads to the Polls Amid Political Scandal and Distrust, Disgust Among Voters

Former Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson. Driven from office in the Panama Papers leak, he has returned in this campaign.
Halldor Kolbeins/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

As Iceland headed to the polls on Saturday to vote for members of one of the oldest Parliaments in the world, the shadow of political scandal clung to the political landscape, fomenting voter distrust and disgust.

The scandals have run the gamut, from accusations of a cover-up of a letter of recommendation written by a prime minister’s father on behalf of a convicted pedophile, to the fall of another prime minister who was forced out because of his family’s ties to the Panama Papers.

Both episodes led to the collapse of the government.

In a country that has clawed its way out of the financial collapse of 2008 and that can boast of unemployment figures veering close to zero, voter angst is high. Political parties that had once seemed like fresh alternatives a year ago have lost their luster.

“There is still a lot of distrust in politics,” said Ottarr Proppe, the health minister and leader of Bright Future, the junior coalition party that is struggling for survival. Voters are seeking “something new, something different,” he added.

Twelve parties are competing for seats in the 63-seat Parliament, the Althing, established in A.D. 930. Polls show that the ruling center-right Independence Party is neck and neck with the Left Green Movement, which is offering Katrin Jakobsdottir as a candidate for prime minister.

If the environmentalist Left Greens triumph, Ms. Jakobsdottir would be the fourth prime minister in less than two years.

In this crowded mix, a dark horse has appeared: the former Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson. He was driven from office in April 2016 when he became the first major casualty of the leaked Panama Papers. They revealed that he and his wife had set up a company in the British Virgin Islands.

Mr. Gunnlaugsson had come to power on promises to clear out corruption. But the Panama Papers leak, though it revealed nothing illegal, suggested an unseemly conflict of interest, and an outraged public called for his ouster.

For days, Icelanders gathered outside Parliament and hurled fish and yogurt in protest. He eventually stepped down, prompting snap elections. It seemed as if he would never lead his country again.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Richard Martyn-Hemphill