Final leaders’ debate: the hard questions
Early on, the leaders were posed hard questions and had to defend themselves and their parties, while at the end they were asked what they believe the hardest challenges of the next four years will be.
On the defensive
Katrín Jakobsdóttir, leader of Vinstri grænir (the Left Greens), was asked if the coalition deal that made her prime minister had been worth the cost; given that the healthcare system has not received much better funding during her government and that Iceland is still among the most-polluting OECD countries. Katrín responded that healthcare has received several boosts and has coped with a pandemic in the meantime, but that it is correct Iceland is not doing enough on climate change, as the countries of the world are mostly all not doing enough. That needs to change. She said the opinion polls are a bit of a guessing game and that she expects her party to perform better than predicted today. Personally she is optimistic for the election, she said.
Bjarni Benediktsson, leader of Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (the Independence Party), said the big news from the polls is that the outgoing government will probably hold its majority—the first three-party coalition to ever finish its term in office. If that is the outcome today, the same three parties will certainly discuss continuing for another four years. The polls are remarkably fluid this year, though, and support is ebbing and flowing. Bjarni was asked if he still feels he is trusted as party leader following incidents like the Panama Papers, the Vafningur case from the banking crash, and the Ásmundarsalur incident of covid rules breach at Christmas. Bjarni criticised the dredging up of issues from up to a decade ago and said he has been tested at the polls many times since then. Now is the time to talk about the future and the positive achievements of the outgoing government.
Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, leader of Framsóknarflokkurinn (the Progressive Party), was asked why his party had abandoned the disabled and elderly during its four years in charge of the social affairs ministry. Sigurður said holding that ministry is not enough on its own and that agreement has to be reached with the other parties in government. He said his party wants to continue the positive work it has done, especially for children, and that the above-named groups will see big improvements, especially the disabled, if the Progressives stay in government.
Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, leader of Miðflokkurinn (the Centre Party), refuted claims his party is attracting voters with promises to give them money. His party’s proposal is to give people back money that they have anyway. Sigmundur was not fazed by the leader of Flokkur fólksins calling the proposals bribery; saying the proposals would increase value creation and push society in the right direction to eventually see increased treasury income.
Guðmundur Franklín Jónsson, leader of Frjálslyndi lýðræðisflokkurinn (the Liberal Democracy Party), was asked if he thought there was any public appetite for his political energies, given the failure of his first political party, his unsuccessful presidential election campaign, and his party’s less-than-one-percent poll rating. “I think it will be okay,” he responded—adding that he 100 percent believes his party will make it into Alþingi this time.
Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir, MP for Píratar (the Pirates), a party that chooses not to have one single leader, was asked about the tens-of-billions-of-krónur miscalculation revealed in one of the party’s promised earnings equalisation schemes. She responded that the party reacted responsibly by acknowledging its mistake and moving on from it, which some other parties would not have done. She said basic universal income is one of the party’s ongoing plans, which is a longer-term plan than just one parliamentary term. The party’s taxation plans are green and progressive. Tax should be higher for the highest earners and the biggest polluters.
Logi Einarsson, leader of Samfylkingin (the Social Democrats), was asked about media coverage of economist turned parliamentary candidate Kristrún Frostadóttir’s personal finances. Logi said it was unbelievable that two newspapers controlled by wealthy special interest groups have been pushing a young and talented woman for more information on her finances than any other candidate. He called it scaremongering and an attack on democracy. The media questions have been answered and that is an end to the matter.
Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, leader of Viðreisn (the Reform Party), was asked about comments by the governer of the central bank about her party’s plan to peg the króna exchange rate to the euro. She said that despite the comments it is far from an empty promise, as there is nothing in European regulation that says it is not possible. It would be an enormous boost for Iceland to have a stable currency and ensure a stable exchange rate.
Inga Sæland, leader of Flokkur fólksins (the People’s Party), said she has never flip-flopped on her party’s election promises, sometimes described as unworkable, and that it was very positive to note that experts working with Kjarninn have concluded her party’s proposals are actually more passive than radical and that they are simple adaptations to the existing systems.
Gunnar Smári Egilsson, chairman of Sósíalistaflokkurinn (the Socialist Party), said his party is against state-supported media in their current form, as they use public money to support wealthy fisheries barons and prominent political party supporters. He would like to instead follow the example of the artists’ wage that supports creatives in Iceland. He was also asked about comments that the Supreme Court should be broken up. He explained that if the public decides that natural resources are public property and the Supreme Court starts standing up to defend the wealthy élite (as it was they who appointed all the judges) then there are international examples of how the court could be cleaned up.
On the next big challenges
At the end of the debate, leaders were asked what they foresee as the biggest challenges of the coming four years in Alþingi.
Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, leader of Miðflokkurinn, said the hardest challenge is launching regional development projects that work. They will be expensive, but his party’s proposals are about moving from expensive defence (against rural depopulation, for example) and towards profitable advance.
Guðmundur Franklín Jónsson, leader of Frjálslyndi lýðræðisflokkurinn, said the biggest project is to tackle corruption, and that the place to start is the fisheries industry. The system needs changing because it is incredibly unfair today.
Þórhildur Sunna Ævarsdóttir, Mp for Píratar, said the most important challenge is to implement a more categorical and ambitious climate policy. Emissions must be cut by 70 percent by 2030. It will be hard, but also good for households, as the emphasis would be placed on heavy industry and the government more than individuals.
Logi Einarsson, leader of Samfylkingin, said it is always hard to tackle powerful special interests; specifically mentioning the new constitution and fisheries. People’s quality of life needs to improve and climate change needs to be tackled.
Katrín Jakobsdóttir, leader of Vinstri grænir, said the most important project is improving quality of life in a sustainable manner. Maintaining a liberalised, free workplace and meeting people’s expectations for greater income at the same time as achieving success in climate matters. It should not revolve solely around economic growth, but also affluence in all senses of the word.
Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, leader of Framsóknarflokkurinn, named how to achieve unity in the workplace for fair and realistic solutions to benefit employers and employees alike. The number of pension funds needs to go down and their operational costs reduce. A conversation needs to take place on how to split up the cake in a fair manner while maintaining the country’s competitiveness. The proposed hocus-pocus from Viðreisn will not be good enough.
Þorgerður Katrín Gunnarsdóttir, leader of Viðreisn, said it will be easier to tackle climate change if parties who have realistic climate policies make up the next government, and not ones who receive a fail mark on the issue like two of the three current governing parties. The most complicated issue will be ensuring competitiveness, quality of life, and improving business prospects.
Bjarni Benediktsson, leader of Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn, said an economic bubble needs to be avoided. Growth has returned, but the economy is still enjoying a great deal of state support thanks to the pandemic. The most complicated and difficult, sensitive, task is how to stop the state support without stopping growth, or encouraging too-rapid growth that would lead to a crash.
Inga Sæland, leader of Flokkur fólksins, said the hardest thing will be opening politicians’ eyes to what they have been blind to: the fact that there are now two nations living in this country. There needs to be food, clothes, and shelter for everyone, and a healthcare system that works.
Gunnar Smári Egilsson, chairman of Sósíalistaflokkurinn, said some power structures need breaking up. It is not acceptable that all basic systems are tailored to the needs of the rich and owners of big business. A society needs to be built that caters to the hopes and expectations of the wider public; a public that wants to take the fishing quotas back from the sea barons and to tax the rich.