Vote of No Confidence Felled

bjarni benediktsson

The People’s Party and Pirate Party motion of no confidence against Iceland’s coalition government was felled with 35 votes to 25. The motion was introduced in response to Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s resignation as Prime Minister and her replacement by Independence Party Chairman Bjarni Benediktsson. The bill’s supporters were calling for the dissolution of Parliament by June and an election in September.

Unsurprising outcome

People’s Party MP and Chairperson Inga Sæland, who introduced the bill, told RÚV that the result of the vote did not surprise her. “Of course not. They have 38 MPs, with a very good and strong majority as we know.”

Hildur Sverrisdóttir, Chair of the Independence Party’s parliamentary group, also stated that the vote’s outcome was as expected, adding that “[i]t’s good this is over with and we can continue our work.”

Ministries play musical chairs

Prime Minister of Iceland since 2017, Katrín Jakobsdóttir announced earlier this month that she was resigning from the post to run in Iceland’s Presidential election on June 1. As a result, the governing Left-Green Movement, Independence Party, and Progressive Party reassigned ministry appointments, making Bjarni Benediktsson Prime Minister.

Bjarni resigned as Finance Minister just last October following a ruling that he had mishandled the sale of state-owned bank Íslandsbanki. Less than a week later, it was announced that Bjarni would be appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs, swapping roles with Þórdís Kolbrún Reykfjörð Gylfadóttir, who took over as Minister of Finance.

Broad disapproval of Bjarni as PM

Nearly four out of every five people (78%) surveyed said they disapproved of Bjarni Benediktsson, leader of the Independence Party, ascending to the office of prime minister. According to a new poll by Prósent, only 13% said they approved of Bjarni, Heimildin reports. Almost 42,000 people in Iceland, equivalent to around 15% of voters in the country, have signed a petition titled “Bjarni Benediktsson does not have my support as Prime Minister.”

Read more about Bjarni Benediktsson.

Pirates and People’s Party Challenge Coalition Government

Cabinet of Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson

Inga Sæland, leader of the People’s Party, has submitted a motion of no confidence directed at the coalition government of Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson. The motion is co-signed by MPs from the Pirate Party.

The entire cabinet is the object of the motion, which also includes a clause calling for new elections for Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, this September.

Ministers not held accountable

“In our view, ministers have not been held accountable when they swap cabinet positions instead of resigning and admitting their violations in office,” Inga told Vísir. She added that Bjarni, who became prime minister last week after Katrín Jakobsdóttir resigned to run for the office of president, had left the ministry of finance last fall after failing to confirm to guidelines during the privatisation of Íslandsbanki bank.

“We also think it’s in bad taste that Svandís Svavarsdóttir, who as minister of food, agriculture and fisheries violated law and maybe even the constitution itself, has been promoted as well and is now minister of the interior,” Inga said.

Little hope of success

Inga said that she expects most, if not all, MPs from opposition parties to support the motion and hopes that it will be scheduled for debate as soon as tomorrow. She admitted, however, that the chances of the motion carrying were low.

“They have 38 MPs and they’re not going to vote themselves out of power,” she said of the coalition MPs from the Independence Party, Progressive Party and Left-Green Movement. Members of parliament in Alþingi are 63 in total.

She said that the motion was a symbolic gesture first and foremost. “Behind it stand some 40 to 50 thousand voters who have signed a petition to protest Bjarni Benediktsson becoming the head of the entire executive branch in the country,” Inga said, referring to an online petition started following the cabinet reshuffling.

Coalition’s Strength to Be Tested by Vote of No Confidence

Inga Sæland, leader of the People's Party

Inga Sæland, leader of the People’s Party, will submit a motion of no confidence directed at the coalition government next week. The cabinet of the Independence Party, the Progressive Party, and the Left-Green Movement was reshuffled last week following Katrín Jakobsdóttir’s announcement that she would resign as prime minister and leader of the Left-Green Movement to run for president.

“We’re planning a motion of no confidence against the government as a whole,” Inga told Mbl.is. “There are three ministers in this cabinet who are particularly skilled at evading the law in this country.”

Motion against Svandís on hold

Inga has discussed the matter with the other opposition parties in Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament. Following meetings of the parliamentary groups on Monday afternoon it should become clearer whether Inga’s motion will have broader support.

Inga had pledged to submit such a motion against Svandís Svavarsdóttir before a reshuffling of the cabinet last week that saw Svandís move from the ministry of food, agriculture and fisheries to the ministry of infrastructure. The Parliamentary Ombudsman had found that Svandís had not acted in accordance with law when she temporarily stopped the whaling season last summer. Inga said it was unclear if she could refile the motion with Svandís now at a different ministry.

Bjarni under fire

The other two ministers Inga mentioned are Bjarni Benediktsson, the new prime minister and leader of the Independence Party, and Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, minister of social affairs and labour and interim leader of the Left-Green Movement. The Parliamentary Ombudsman concluded last year that Bjarni had not confirmed to guidelines as minister of finance during the privatisation process of Íslandsbanki bank. Nearly 40,000 people have signed an online petition expressing their lack of support for Bjarni’s leadership of the coalition government.

In Inga’s opinion, Guðmundur Ingi has broken his promise of establishing an office of an ombudsman for the elderly. “No opposition MP I’ve talked to has confidence in this coalition government,” Inga added.

Minister to Face Vote of No Confidence

Minister of Health Svandís Svavarsdóttir

Svandís Svarsdóttir, minister of food, agriculture and fisheries, will face a vote of no confidence next week when Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, reconvenes after Easter break. Chairperson of the People’s Party, Inga Sæland, has announced that she will file the motion, Vísir reports.

Svandís returns from sick leave tomorrow. She announced on her Facebook page that she is feeling good following treatment for breast cancer that she was diagnosed with in January.

Previous motion withdrawn

Svandís was set to face a motion of no confidence when she went on sick leave in January, but Inga withdrew the motion in light of the circumstances. The Alþingi Ombudsman had concluded that Svandís’ decision last summer to temporarily stop whaling had not been in accordance with law. The CEO of Hvalur, Iceland’s only whale hunting company, had threatened to sue for damages due to last year’s shortened whaling season. She’s also faced criticism from MPs of the Independence Party, a government coalition partner of her party, the Left-Green Movement.

Controversial whaling decision

“The vote of no confidence is still pending, we’re just waiting for her to be present to defend it,” Inga said. She’s said that her motion is a result of Svandís breaking the law and has nothing to do with whaling as a practice, adding that Svandís had overreached when she temporarily stopped whaling.

The hunting of whales in Iceland remains a controversial practice and is the subject of protest both domestically and abroad.

Embattled Minister on Medical Leave

Svandís Svavarsdóttir

Svandís Svavarsdóttir, minister of food, agriculture, and fisheries, announced yesterday that she is on medical leave. In a Facebook post, she divulged that yesterday morning she received a diagnosis of breast cancer and will undergo surgery and treatment in the coming weeks.

“I face this challenge upright, serene, and optimistic,” she wrote. “All my efforts will go towards this with my people by my side.”

Vote of no confidence withdrawn

As Alþingi reconvened today, Svandís was set to face a vote of no confidence. The Alþingi Ombudsman concluded earlier this month that the decision made by Svandís last summer to temporarily stop whaling was not in accordance with the law. She had announced her decision in June due to an “unequivocal” opinion on animal welfare produced by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (MAST). She argued that in light of the opinion, she would have no choice but to postpone the start of whaling season.

Svandís, a member of the Left-Green Movement, has faced heavy criticism from MPs of the Independence Party, her coalition partners. The CEO of Iceland’s only whale hunting operation had threatened to sue for damages caused by the shorter whaling season. The hunting of whales remains a controversial practice in Iceland and has been protested by several local and international animal rights groups.

Inga Sæland, chairperson of the People’s Party, had only just submitted the motion of no confidence when Svandís announced her diagnosis. Her party started the process of withdrawing the motion right away. “This is shocking,” Inga told Vísir. “Terrible news. It wouldn’t be in good taste to vote on a person who’s not present in Alþingi to defend herself. She’s a hard working woman. I wish her the very best. She’ll battle this with serenity.”

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir will act as minister in Svandís’ stead during her medical leave.

Grindavík, Palestine, and Whaling Questions Loom in Alþingi

Alþingi parliament of Iceland

Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, will convene at 3pm today for the first time since before the holidays. The first item on the docket is Grindavík, but Vísir reports that the cabinet of ministers will also convene today to discuss and subsequently announce how the residents of Grindavík can be best served in the wake of an eruption that did significant infrastructural damage to the town.

Although the topic of Grindavík looms large over Alþingi’s agenda, there are a number of highly debated issues likely to be brought up during today’s scheduled ministers’ question time. Opposition members have criticised Foreign Minister Bjarni Benediktsson after his recent comments on Palestinian asylum seekers and their protests outside of Alþingi. Furthermore, a vote of no confidence is likely to be brought up against Minister of Food, Agriculture, and Fisheries Svandís Svavarsdóttir for violating the law when she temporarily stopped whaling last summer.

Coalition solidarity in question

These topics and others have tested the strength of the government coalition in the last few weeks. The coalition is comprised of the Progressive Party, the Left-Green Movement, and the Independence Party, with the latter two clashing on a number of issues. Independence Party MPs have been highly critical of Left-Green Movement Minister Svandís’ handling of the whaling issue and a vote of no confidence from opposition MP and People’s Party leader Inga Sæland will force them to pick sides. Vísir has also reported on a rumour swirling among MPs that the category of whaling will be moved from Svandís’ ministry to the Ministry of the Environment, Energy, and Climate, thus taking it from her hands. This would give control of whaling policy to Independence Party member Guðlaugur Þór Þórðarson.

On the other hand, the opposition is likely to test the Left-Greens’ allegiance to the coalition by bringing up Independence Party Leader Bjarni’s comments on asylum seekers and his calls for stricter border controls and increased police powers. Palestinian protesters have been camped outside of Alþingi since December 27. The group has made three demands of Icelandic authorities. Firstly, to carry out family reunifications for residents of Gaza whom they have already granted visas. Secondly, a meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister of Justice, and the Minister of Social Affairs and the Labour Market. Thirdly, to stop the ongoing deportations of Palestinian people in Iceland and grant them international protection.

Calls for Grindavík buy-out

The Grindavík topic, however, remains the most urgent one. As reported, two lava fissures opened up near Grindavík, on the south coast of the Reykjanes peninsula, on January 14. Lava flow from these combined fissures caused interruptions in electricity and both cold and hot water, damaged the shortest route to the capital area, and set three houses on fire. Ground swelling and related seismic activity has also done widespread damage in the form of crevasses.

While Grindavík had been evacuated of its residents the day before, they now face an uncertain future regarding what steps the government should now take. Most residents of a recent community meeting want to be bought out, and for others, they would like to see the government take steps to ensure that their housing loans do not spiral out of control with the cost of maintaining property in the town.

Opposition Leaders Question Government Mandate

Alþingi parliament of Iceland

In an interview with RÚV yesterday, the leaders of the opposition reacted to Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson’s decision to resign. The Chair of the Pirate Party’s Parliamentary Group held that the government’s mandate was “completely compromised” while the Chairs of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Reform Party questioned the coalition’s ability to address the most pressing issues facing Icelanders. The Chair of the People’s Party hoped that Bjarni’s resignation would set a new precedent in Icelandic politics while speculating that Bjarni might switch roles within the government.

“Completely compromised”

Following the resignation of Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson yesterday, RÚV solicited reactions from leaders of the opposition parties. The Party Group Chair of the Pirate Party stated that the mandate of the government was completely compromised.

“It’s important to note that the mandate of this government is completely compromised, especially since the Prime Minister and other leaders within the government have fully supported the Finance Minister’s governance up to this point,” Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir, the parliamentary group leader of the Pirate Party, told RÚV yesterday.

“They should, therefore, see every reason to seriously reconsider their position in light of the ombudsman’s conclusion. And this, of course, applies to Bjarni as well.”

An unexpected decision – but the right one

Kristrún Frostadóttir, Chair of the Social Democratic Alliance, admitted that the resignation had been unexpected: “In some ways, this is an unexpected decision, but it’s the right one. He is taking responsibility, and I agree with him to the extent that as a minister, he could no longer fulfil his duties.”

Kristrún also contemplated the future of the government: “I believe the entire government needs to address whether it can truly handle the tasks at hand that matter most to the people. I’m thinking about economic issues and major welfare matters.”

Government mandate weakened

Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, Chair of the Reform Party, echoed Kristrún’s sentiments.

“It’s clear that when the leader of the largest party in the government steps down from a crucial ministry like the Ministry of Finance, it weakens the government. We repeatedly see this government expend their energy on internal disputes rather than focusing on what matters most to households and businesses in the country, namely inflation and the battle against interest rates.

A precedent is set

Inga Sæland, Chair of the People’s Party, told RÚV that Bjarni’s resignation had marked a turning point in Icelandic politics, as he had taken political responsibility, hopefully setting a precedent for the future: “We’re not used to seeing a minister step down like this without being pressured out of office with significant hullabaloo.”

However, Inga speculated that Bjarni might not be leaving politics altogether. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he switches to another ministry. There are only two possibilities: he either moves to another ministry or resigns from parliament, and I’m not sure if that’s good for his party as a whole.”

Nonetheless, Inga believes that Bjarni’s resignation did not mark a turning point for the coalition government. “It will try to endure despite everything.”

MPs Walk Out of Parliament in Protest of Sigmundur Davíð

Four female MPs walked out of Alþingi when Centre Party chairman Sigmundur Davíð rose to make a statement during Friday’s meeting, RÚV reports. The walkout occurred when MPs were announcing what their votes would be on next year’s governmental budget.

Progressive Party chair Þórunn Egilsdóttir was first to walk out, followed by Progressive MP Halla Signý Kristjánsdóttir, Social Democrat Helga Vala Helgadóttir, and finally, People’s Party chair Inga Sæland. All of the women remained outside of the room while Sigmundur Davíð spoke but returned as soon as he finished and returned to his seat.

The MPs’ protest stems, undoubtedly, from the ongoing Klaustur tape scandal, of which Sigmundur Davíð played a central part. The former prime minister is one of six MPs caught on tape speaking misogynistically about female colleagues such as Inga Sæland, who participated in the protest, as well as making a variety of other demeaning, homophobic, and ableist comments.

The parliamentary Ethics Committee has since launched an investigation into the matter, to determine, in part if the MPs involved acted improperly.

Tape Reveals Geir Haarde Appointed Ambassador as Political Favour

The already infamous recorded conversation between former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, former foreign minister Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, and four other Centre and People’s Party MPs has drawn considerable criticism across the political spectrum for the demeaning way in which the politicians spoke about their female colleagues. Stundin reports, however, that in the same conversation, Gunnar Bragi also spoke at length about the how he’d appointed former Prime Minister Geir Haarde to an ambassadorial position as a political favour that he expected to be rewarded for by current finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson.

Geir Haarde, a member of the Independence Party alongside Bjarni Benediktsson, was prime minister from 2006-2009 and left office amidst accusations of wrongdoing that led to Iceland’s financial collapse. Geir was later even tried by Iceland’s High Court on four charges of violating the constitution and was convicted of one, namely not having held cabinet meetings on important matters in the lead-up to the economic collapse.

In 2014, a few years after his trial and conviction, Geir was appointed as Iceland’s ambassador to the United States. At the same time, Left-Green MP Árni Þór Sigurðsson was appointed as Iceland’s ambassador to Finland. And according to what he says himself in the recorded conversation, Gunnar Bragi specifically appointed Árni Þór as ambassador as a way of distracting from the fact that he was also appointing Geir at the same time.

“I talked about it with the whole party,” he says in the recording. “I saw that I couldn’t appoint Geir ambassador alone, I couldn’t show favor to Geir alone; that would be too much for the parliament and everyone to swallow. So what I did was to make Árni Þór ambassador, which didn’t cost anything in reality – you must have noticed that he’s an idiot, thought he might be my cousin – and then what happens?”

“The core Left-Greens went crazy,” he continues, “but Katrín [Jakobsdóttir; then the chairperson of the Left-Greens] didn’t say a word.”

Gunnar Bragi continues that Geir thanked him afterwards, saying, “It made me crazy when you were making Árni Þór ambassador, but then all at once, I realized that the attention was all going to Árni and I was very happy.” He also credits the former Prime Minister with saying, “Thank you for that. No one criticized me.”

Gunnar Bragi, a member of the Progressive Party, apparently had personal motives for the appointment – pecifically, he’s had hopes of obtaining a position in the diplomatic service.  Sigmundur Davíð, acting as a go-between for Gunnar Bragi and Bjarni Benediktsson at the time of Geir’s ambassadorial appointment, passed these hopes along to Bjarni. Per the recording, Bjarni responded that if Gunnar named Geir Haarde as ambassador, he would “…be in with the Independence MPs.”

MPs Bad-Mouth Female Politicians in Recorded Conversation

Gunnar Bragi and Sigmundur Davíð

MPs of the Centre Party used harsh words to describe their female colleagues in a conversation recorded at a Reykjavík bar, Stundin reports. They suggested one politician should be placed lower on the candidates list in upcoming primaries because she was no longer as “hot” as she used to be. Stundin received a recording of the conversation between Centre Party MPs Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, Bergþór Ólason, and Anna Kolbrún Árnadóttir, as well as People’s Party MPs Karl Gauti Hjaltason and Ólafur Ísleifsson, where they use the word “cunt” to describe two colleagues.

Not as “hot” as before

A transcript of part of the conversation is as follows:

Gunnar Bragi: “I actually think that […] could be damn powerful. She’s a damn cute girl.”

Sigmundur Davíð: “This is that kind of moment, a young woman, young people in the Independence Party, ‘let’s lift her up.’”

Bergþór: “Now I’m going to say something that’s of course very rude, but she’s losing her shine fast. She’s way less hot this year than she was just two years ago. There’s an incredible difference.”

Sigmundur Davíð: “And for that reason, I say she’ll go well down on the list.”

Bergþór: “Naturally.”

At that point in the conversation, Anna Kolbrún cut in: “Would you consider for a second, if this were a man?” to which the others responded with laughter.

“Full-on crazy cunt”

Centre Party MP Bergþór Ólason was recorded describing Inga Sæland, chairperson of the People’s Party, as a “full-on crazy cunt,” while trying to convince Karl Gauti and Ólafur to leave the People’s Party and join his own. Sigmundur Davíð is heard laughing in response to this statement, agreeing, and saying that Bergþór was “always right.”

At another point in the conversation, the MPs string together the letters U,N, and T, and speculate on which women could be described by placing the letter C in front of the former letters, thereby spelling “cunt.” When it was suggested the word best described Progressive Party MP Silja Dögg Gunnarsdóttir, the group laughed. Bergþór then described her an “unreliable woman” and Anna Kolbrún called her “dangerous.”

Former Independence Party MP Unnur Brá Konraðsdóttir, as well as Social-Democratic Alliance MP Oddný Harðardóttir were also the subject of harsh words in the conversation.

When Anna Kolbrún suggested that women in general lack math skills, Gunnar Bragi asked: “is that why they don’t know how many people they’ve slept with?” “There’s the explanation,” Bergþór remarked in response. “I think that’s right,” added Sigmundur Davíð.

Wrote about HeforShe

It may be noted that Gunnar Bragi wrote about feminist campaign HeforShe in British newspaper The Guardian in 2015. “For me, the crux of the matter is that promoting and protecting gender equality involves more than government action,” Gunnar wrote in the piece. “It requires a shift in attitudes and behavior.” Gunnar Bragi wrapped up the article by stating: “We need men to talk, listen and educate. Gender inequality cannot be the legacy we leave behind.”

Sigmundur Davíð, whose Centre Party hold seven seats in Parliament, only one of which is occupied by a woman, said in a recent interview he believes women avoid politics due to “personal defamation.” He stated more women than men avoid careers in politics because they “aren’t fond of how politics appears.”