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article imageIceland votes for second time in turbulent year as economy booms

By Jeremie RICHARD (AFP)     Oct 24, 2017 in Politics

Iceland on Saturday holds its second snap election in just a year after a slew of scandals ensnaring its politicians in a nation whose economy is thriving thanks to tourism.

Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson of the conservative Independence Party called the vote last month after a junior member of the three-party centre-right coalition quit the government over a legal scandal involving the prime minister's father.

Saturday's vote will be the fourth time Iceland has held legislative elections since its 2008 financial crisis, when its three major banks collapsed and the country teetered on the verge of bankruptcy.

But it has made a spectacular recovery and is basking in good times now, with robust growth of 7.2 percent in 2016 and unemployment at an enviable 2.5 percent.

The latest opinion polls put the prime minister's Independence Party neck-and-neck with its main rival the Left-Green Movement, each credited with around 20-25 percent support.

With the emergence of several anti-establishment parties, Iceland's political landscape is splintered, with at least eight parties vying for the 63 seats in the single-chamber parliament.

Under the Icelandic system, the president tasks the leader of the biggest party with trying to form a coalition government.

"The fear is whether there will be a possibility to form a government," Arnar Thor Jonsson, a law professor at Reykjavik University, told AFP, recalling that negotiations to form a coalition after the October 2016 election took three months.

"There seems to be a growing instability in Icelandic politics," Jonsson said.

- 'Serious lack of trust' -

A year ago, snap elections were called after then-prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson was pressured to resign when he was named in the so-called Panama Papers which exposed offshore tax havens.

More than 600 Icelanders -- a surprisingly high number in a country of 335,000 -- were also named in the documents, including Benediktsson, the then finance minister.

Despite that, Benediktsson was able to build a coalition with the centrist Bright Future and centre-right Reform Party, holding a one-seat majority in parliament.

But Bright Future pulled out of the nine-month-old government in September, making it the shortest-lived administration in Iceland's history.

If the rightwing loses on Saturday, Iceland could find itself with only the second leftwing majority since its independence from Denmark in 1944.

The first came to power in 2009, after the "pots and pans revolution" that ousted the right, seen as responsible for the financial crisis.

Independence "suffered a huge defeat" in the 2009 election and now "they're not as dominant as they used to be," Egill Helgasson, political commentator at public broadcaster RUV, told AFP.

"There is a perception that the prime minister is part of the crash elite that crashed the system," he said.

Voters have expressed growing frustration with the political establishment.

Benediktsson, 47, and his influential, wealthy family "suffer from a serious lack of trust" after being implicated in several scandals, Helgasson said.

In addition to the Panama Papers, he has been accused of covering up the fact that his father, a business leader, wrote a recommendation letter for a convicted paedophile in a bid to help restore his civil rights.

And media reports recently alleged that Benediktsson sold nearly all of his assets just hours before the 2008 collapse.

- Growth and stability -

And yet, many voters still view Independence as the main force for economic stability and growth. Nearly half of the postwar prime ministers came from the Independence Party.

The party, which is opposed to EU membership for Iceland, has campaigned on tax cuts and business investments.

Given the country's strong economy, it would "be surprising if the Independence Party ... would not get good support," University of Iceland political science professor Hannes Gissurarson told AFP.

Thirty-one-year old voter Bjarki Reinarsson said he would be casting his ballot for Benediktsson.

"I would be worried if we would get a new party (in power that) would raise taxes for Icelanders and on tourism," he said.

But others are ready for a change.

Laufey Sigrun Haraldsdottir, a 35-year-old voter in Reykjavik, is drawn to the Left-Green Movement and its charismatic 41-year-old leader Katrin Jakobsdottir, who has called for investments in public health care and education and tax hikes for the wealthiest.

"They have much more of the ideas that I have in terms of school system, taxes and health care," Haraldsdottir said.

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