OUT OF THE EXACTLY
60 RESIDENTS OF SKORRADALUR,
47 ARE ELIGIBLE TO VOTE.
In 1910, there were 203 municipal councils in Iceland. Now there are fewer than half that number. During the 20th century, following centuries of economic stagnation, Iceland finally industrialised. It was later than other countries in Europe, but it happened in half the time. As people streamed to urban areas, rural municipalities lost inhabitants, and towns grew. In 1911, the greater Reykjavík area had roughly 15,000 inhabitants, around 18% of the total population. Today, that number is 240,000 – and 64% of all the residents of Iceland.
Having lost much of their tax base, many municipal councils are now in dire financial straits, struggling to find the funds to keep up the services they are required by law to provide. Minister of Local Government Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson has made it his mission to streamline municipal councils and presented a heavily-contested bill that would have required all municipalities to have a minimum number of inhabitants, forcing them to merge if they did not. This drew the ire of most regions in the country. The number he named as the minimum requirement was considered obscene, a preposterous idea to require municipalities to reach that size in the next few years.
That number was 1,000 people.
Municipal elections were held across Iceland this spring, and mergers once again became a topic of discussion. While increased requirements for bureaucracy, budgets, education, and services to inhabitants have forced several smaller municipalities to merge, the change is more fundamental than that: it requires a change in the way most Icelanders think about their immediate community.
I grew up in a small town in West Iceland. When I was a kid, the town merged with some neighbouring rural localities to form the Borgarbyggð municipality of nearly 5,000 km2 of land and just under 4,000 people. What was formerly 13 different municipalities is now a single entity, with its headquarters in the largest town of Borgarnes.
Only a few kilometres away, there is a municipality of just 60 residents that has remained independent: Skorradalur. When I think about it, I don’t really know a whole lot about what’s going on there, so I do what any self-respecting journalist would do in my situation – I call my mom.
A former member of the Borgarbyggð council, and possessing both a keen interest in genealogy and family ties to most farms in the region, she would prove a key ally in figuring out the answer to my question – why do 60 people in a small valley cling to power over their own affairs, when municipalities ten times their size struggle to keep up with the requirements of such a project?
My mother’s first suggestion? To call my ophthalmologist.
Out of the exactly 60 residents of Skorradalur, 47 are eligible to vote. One of these 47 happens to be my former ophthalmologist and a friend of my parents. She tells me she’s not really involved with the local government but gives me a few names of people on the council, noting which ones like to talk and which like to talk a little too much. I also find out the name of the person chairing the Skorradalur electoral committee. I give him a call to let him know we’d like to pay a visit on election day. He stops me abruptly: “I’m helping a sheep in labour, I’m going to need you to call me back. It’s lambing season, you know!”
Permission to monitor the proceedings secured, I wake up to a bright and sunny election day. I walk over to my local polling station to cast my vote in the Reykjavík municipal elections before I leave town for the day. As soon as I drop it in the ballot box, I head out and jump in the car with Iceland Review’s photographer – we’re going west.
Skorradalur is a deep valley centring on an even deeper lake. At around 17 kilometres, it is the longest in Iceland. Even though there are only 60 official residents of the valley, Skorradalur is saturated with summer houses, which dot the banks of the lake and stretch all the way up the mountains on either side. Uncharacteristically for Iceland, large swathes of the valley are covered in thick forest.
We park the car by the local reforestation society’s offices, the makeshift polling station. Unlike the elementary school where I cast my vote, there are no signs pointing the way. Everyone voting here knows where to go. The polling station opens at noon, but when we get there, the electoral committee is still setting up. A current member of the council is busy piling a table high with cakes, cheeses, strawberries, chocolate, and coffee. We’re here to gauge the local atmosphere and get to know the community, so I try to start a conversation. After dithering about and awkwardly asking some of my pre-prepared questions and receiving half-hearted answers, I decide it’s time to deploy my secret weapon. I walk up to the oldest person in the room, the chair of the electoral committee, who hadn’t had time for a chat the previous day due to the lambing season.
“You know, I’m actually from around these parts. I think you might know my mother, Guðrún.”
It’s as if I’ve flipped a switch. No longer an intrusive journalist from Reykjavík, I receive a warm smile as the chair of the electoral committee tells me that his grandfather and my great-grandfather used to be thick as thieves.
Davíð Pétursson has lived at Grund farm his whole life, and his father before him. It turns out that no one is better equipped to give us a sense of the importance of the municipal council for the region than Davíð: he’s been involved in every election there since 1961. “But the book goes back further, it was my father who bought it,” he says as he pulls out a notebook from 1938, detailing the election proceedings and results each four-year interval since. Alongside his work as a farmer, Davíð held the now-defunct position of hreppstjóri (district commissioner) and was the chair of the local council for decades. He isn’t a member anymore, but his son, Pétur, has had a seat for a few terms now, following in his ancestors’ footsteps.
“Have you heard about the worm?”
“The worm in the lake. A young woman from around here found herself in possession of a gold coin. She’d heard that if you put a worm on the gold, it would grow. She found a coffer and placed her coin under a worm. Sometime later, she opened it and found that the worm had grown with the gold. This unnerved her and she threw everything in the lake: the coffer, the worm, and the coin. But the worm kept growing and got so big it reached both ends of the lake. Its hump will sometimes reach out of the lake, but if it ever reaches so high that you can see Dragafell mountain between the worm and the lake, that’s when you know Ragnarök is pending.” Oh, that worm.
“Did you sort things out with the committee? Is everything legal?” someone chimes in. The committee turns a little sheepish. “It’s their ‘estimate’ that it won’t be an issue,” he answers. This is the first time that someone mentions the new election legislation that took effect this year. It won’t be the last.
“It’s in shambles, really.”
“These politicians have no idea what they’re doing.”
“All it takes is one person to file a complaint!”
The new laws require that an electoral committee be made up of people with no familial or financial ties to council members. In this rural community of 60 people, that excludes pretty much everyone. They’d had the idea to switch electoral committees with the neighbouring municipality, but the law requires that members of the electoral committee have legal residence within the municipality. So they’re doing it like they always have, crossing fingers that no complications will arise.
“And then they moved the date up!” It turns out people from Reykjavík really don’t know what they’re doing because, as I’ve heard again and again – It’s lambing season!
Ewes don’t give birth according to a schedule, which means that in the spring, farmers and their families work around the clock assisting lambs into the world. Being on the municipal council never used to be a full-time job. That’s why, historically, elections never took place until late May or June. For the five council members of Skorradalur, that means that the increased demands of modern-day local government come at the expense of time at their other job, time with the sheep, or time off.
Voting in Skorradalur is a little different from Reykjavík. Not only are the refreshments much better (any at all is an improvement!) but there are no parties and no lists to choose from. Since no party has expressed particular interest in governing the municipality, every single person eligible to vote is also automatically standing for election. Out of the region’s 60 inhabitants, 47 people are Icelandic citizens of sound mind and body and over the age of 18. In theory, any one of them popular enough has a chance of being voted into office and thus being required, by law, to serve on the municipal council for the next four years. The only people allowed to bow out are senior citizens and people who have already fulfilled their duty to Skorradalur.
A voter wanders in and finds a cup of black coffee and a seat to wait his turn. I lean over to ask him if the thought of waking up tomorrow with a seat on the municipal council is an enticing or a frightening thought. He lets out a cynical grunt. “I don’t think I’m at risk.” I ask if people campaign for a seat on the council or if it’s the reverse: are people pleading to be let off the hook? “I haven’t been going out of my way to be mean to my neighbours if that’s what you’re asking,” he says. “But you sort of know who’s up for the job.” I hesitate a little before mentioning the m-word, but bravely forge ahead.
“Any talk of a merger?”
This gets him going.
“If I wake up tomorrow as municipal council director, that’s the first thing I’m going to do. It’s insane that they haven’t done it already, years ago. Utter nonsense to keep such a small entity running. We have no leverage in any sort of negotiations, no one bothers to talk to such a small municipality.”
I was surprised to get such an unfiltered response. I hadn’t even told him who my mother was.
He drains his paper cup of coffee and gets up. It’s his turn to vote.
I think I’m getting the hang of how conversations work here. Call it what you will: rediscovering my roots or getting in touch with my ancestral line of taciturn farmers, I walk up to a determined-looking woman. “Do you come from around these parts?” I ask. She responds fiercely: “Born and raised, I’ve lived in Hálsar all my life.” Jackpot. If anyone can explain the mystery of Skorradalur’s struggle to stay independent, a life-long valley resident must have the key. I get straight to the point. “Do you think there should be a merger?”
“Of course, they should have done it years ago. We should have started the negotiations right after the last elections.” She and another local explain to me that when the other municipalities in the region merged, Skorradalur stayed out and that, in their opinion, that was a mistake. There’s also a slight chance money played a part. Municipalities gain funds from their citizen’s taxes but also through real estate fees. While the 60 people in Skorradalur don’t raise any large sums through taxes, the 800 summer residences in the area keep the books squarely in the green. So, what’s stopping the merger? The other local doesn’t want to get too deep into the subject. “Let’s not talk about that here.” By the time it’s her turn to vote, I’ve added her to my mental list of names of people who send their regards to my mother.
HAVE NO IDEA WHAT
A current member of the municipal council walks in, wearing a lovely sheep-patterned wool sweater. He’s married to a member of the electoral committee, and I’d been told he was someone who could explain how things work around here. When I asked if the elections were filled with suspense, he chuckled. “Well, I’ve been on the council now for 28 years. If I lose my seat, I think I’ll be ok.”
The atmosphere around the table is convivial and relaxed. A young woman comes in to vote, and someone asks her who she is. Or rather, who her parents are: the Icelandic phrase directly translates as “Which people do you belong to?” She’s the younger daughter from Fitjar farm, currently residing in Reykjavík. As soon as the mystery is solved, the assembly relaxes and moves on to assessing exactly which characteristics in her demeanour add the most to her resemblance to her mother. She is enthusiastically encouraged to have some cake.
In this calm, cosy atmosphere, I get overambitious. I decide to push my luck, so as I’m washing the last bit of cake and cream down with the now-lukewarm coffee, I nonchalantly say to the council member sitting on my left: “So, there are no official merger negotiations on the table?”
The temperature in the room drops several degrees. The amicable buzz of conversation halts. No one looks directly at me, but I can sense every ear in the house tune in. After a slightly-too-prolonged silence, the council member takes it upon himself to chide me. “This is not really the place for that topic.” I can sense their second-hand embarrassment on my behalf: I’ve broken the social code, and I don’t even know it. It’s the council member’s turn to vote, and he seems eager to get away from this blundering journalist. For the fifth time today, I wonder about how long it takes these people to vote. I get that this might be a weightier decision than voting for a party in Reykjavík, but it can’t be that hard. We leave the polling station to pay a few visits.
Our first stop is the incumbent municipal council director’s house. A relatively recent transplant to the valley, he’s in the process of renovating a house he bought on auction following the banking collapse. Colourful paintings cover most surfaces in his home – Árni Hjörleifsson might have spent his career in municipal matters, but his passion is art, not politics. Several of the paintings depict Skessuhorn, the triangular mountain above his home – Skorradalur’s answer to the Matterhorn.
So why is he here? Turns out Árni used to be married to a local woman and the doyen of the electoral committee, Davíð (of Grund farm), had wrangled him into taking a seat on the council for his know-how in politics. His personal politics weren’t an issue, even though he identifies as a social democrat and Skorradalur, in his words, is “a conservative lair” (íhaldsbæli). “But they found use for this damned social democrat from Hafnarfjörður.” He chuckles.
“In the last elections, I was the oldest person voted into municipal office.” Árni tells me about the cooperation with neighbouring “giant” Borgarbyggð, which at the moment isn’t going so great. “There’s new people there, and in my opinion, they’re trying to force a merger.” Skorradalur was a part of a joint force of small municipalities protesting the plans for mergers under duress. “We got out of the legislation, but there remained an incentive to merge.” In his eyes, forced mergers don’t make sense: they should only be entered into if both parties see an advantage.
So there’s nothing on the table? “There was a poll eight years ago to see if people wanted a merger. It was killed. Do you want some coffee?” I’ve had enough coffee today to start a small car so I politely decline. “But of course, it’s a question of when, not if, at this point. The talk turns to road construction on the north side of the lake and the renovation of the pool reception. We soon find ourselves back on the more comfortable topic of the incompetence of people from Reykjavík. The electoral committee should technically all be disqualified, and elections in the middle of lambing season!
“And then it’s the question of the ballot.” The ballot? “We tried to get it changed, you know, so people wouldn’t have to write in the names by hand, but we had to do it like everyone else. But I had the idea for the stencil, so that’s one solution, I guess.” As he explains further, everything starts to make a little more sense. The reason everyone is taking so long to vote is that in order to make sure their handwriting isn’t recognisable, the voting booth has a stencil with block letters. It’s a secret ballot, but in a valley of 60 people, are there really any secrets?
“SO MUCH FOR
At our next stop, we’re told to go straight to the barn. It’s lambing season, you know. Once there, we meet the council member from earlier. He’s shed his woollen jumper and is currently practising sheep midwifery of the highest order. A couple of minutes later, a ewe is tiredly baa-ing at a tiny lamb. Only one though: its twin didn’t make it. “I’d noticed she was having difficulty before I went to vote. If there’s bleeding at that point, it’s highly likely that you’ll run into trouble.”
I ask him if he’s excited to see if he’s still on the municipal council when he wakes up tomorrow, or dreading it. “I’ll do my duty, of course, but we need to get this merger going. This just doesn’t make any sense anymore.” He reveals that one reason for Skorradalur’s continuing independence is the fear that moving power away from the people will mean less attention to what needs to be done locally. “That’s why we’re renovating the pool reception; we thought we’d be merging by now and wanted to get it done before it was just a small task on a long list in a larger municipality.” I bring up rumours that Skorradalur doesn’t want a merger to protect their coffers, heavy with real estate fees from summerhouse owners. “No, that’s silly. We get by, but there’s no gold stash here.” So much for that worm.
We head to Grund, the ancestral home of the Skorradalur patriarch. Davíð is still preoccupied at the polling station, much like he has been for the past 60 years, but we’re there to talk to his son Pétur. As we drive up to the farm, he’s on his way out to the barn: lambing season.
“So he told you the story? About Grund?” I hadn’t gotten that far in my chat with his father, although I’d gotten some humorous anecdotes about my great grandfather. “Our family’s been here since the 1670s. They bought the farm from Bishop Brynjólfur.” He’s the man on the 5,000-króna bill. But even here at the grand seat of power in Skorradalur, they see the writing on the wall. An independent Skorradalur isn’t possible in the long term. As for the merger, it isn’t as simple as it looks. And perhaps Borgarbyggð, despite its proximity, isn’t the only option. “We should get the talks started immediately, so we can do this right. ” So why haven’t they yet? “Well, your mother should be able to tell you all about that. She was on the municipal council when the last merger talks fell through, and she wasn’t too happy about it if I recall. It was all going pretty well, until one meeting when a Borgarbyggð official went off on the smaller municipalities. He basically called us parasites.” There are other reasons too, of course. There’s the fact that the municipality of Akranes is actually the largest landholder in Skorradalur. There’s the question of making sure that Skorradalur’s needs are met within a larger municipality and the fact that through some mathematical gymnastics and the intricacies of municipal law in Iceland, a merger with Borgargbyggð could mean that the merged municipality might actually have less funds overall.
I feel as if I’m getting closer to the heart of the matter: it’s about identity and dignity. Living in a small community means that you’re constantly reaffirming who you are and where you come from. You rely on the people around you. You don’t want to relinquish control of your affairs to a party that doesn’t see your importance.
Maintaining a municipality of 60 people doesn’t make any sense. Skorradalur’s residents all know that: especially those of them who have to run it in between shifts at the side of pregnant ewes. But it’s a matter of pride at this point. Nobody wants to let their people down.
I call my mother on the way back to Reykjavík. After reciting a long list of regards and messages, she commends me on my choice of interviewees. “There’s some good people in Skorradalur.” I watch the election coverage that night. It takes a long time to get the first numbers from Reykjavík, but I keep an eye out for the results of the Skorradalur election. Jón gets reelected, so does Pétur. Then there are some new faces, the woman from Hálsar’s daughter-in-law. A farmer we met that day, and a woman from Akranes who just started a sheep farm with her husband.