Gunnlaugsson now unexpectedly in line to form Icelandic government

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Despite the fact that Iceland’s long-ruling Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (Independence Party) won about 2% more in voter support in Saturday’s parliamentary elections, it looks like Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the leader of the second-place Framsóknarflokkurinn (Progressive Party), will have the first shot at forming a government.Iceland Flag Icon

That’s because both parties ultimately won 19 seats each in the Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament, and Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, surprisingly decided to give Gunnlaugsson the first shot at forming the next Icelandic government.

The decision shines a spotlight on the fact that in many countries, the head of state has quite an influential role in determining who will be the next head of government — in this case, it seems like Gunnlaugsson will nonetheless be on track to become the next prime minister, not the leader of the Independence Party, Bjarni Benediktsson.

It makes some intuitive sense — the Progressives have by far the most momentum, having garnered nearly an additional 10% of the vote in the 2013 election, and although the Independence Party won the vote in Reykjavík and the small southwestern region of Iceland surrounding Reykjavík, the Progressives won more votes in all of the other regions of the country (though they are more sparsely populated).

Although all signals from both Gunnlaugsson and Benediktsson are that they’ll form a center-right coalition, one possibility that I hadn’t considered is that Gunnlaugsson might join forces with other parties, leaving the Independence Party outside of government.

That seems unlikely, of course, but it’s an avenue that’s more open to the Progressives than the Independence Party, given that the Progressives can make a marginally better argument that they represent a rupture from both the Independence Party that dominated Icelandic government in the decades prior to 2009 and the more recent government led by Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir and the Samfylkingin (Social Democratic Alliance) and their coalition partners, the Vinstrihreyfingin – grænt framboð (Left-Green Movement).

Mathematically, a government needs 32 seats for a majority in the 63-member Alþingi.

Conceivably, and this is now in the realm of pure speculation, that means that Gunnlaugsson could team up with the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement for a 35-seat majority, though that seems nearly suicidal, given that the two parties suffered the heaviest losses in the recent election.  It seems even more unlikely given the Social Democratic Alliance’s support for joining the European Union, a position that both the Independence Party and the Progressives — and even the Left-Green Movement — oppose.

But another path might include a Progressive-led government that draws on support from the anti-EU membership Left-Green Movement and the most successful of the two newest parties in the Alþingi, Björt framtíð (Bright Future) — that would bring exactly 32 seats.  Bright Future was founded both by former Social Democrats and Progressives, which means that, despite its pro-EU membership views, Bright Future could be an easier coalition partner for the Progressives.

What’s clear is that, for now, Gunnlaugsson would appear to have the greatest number of options, including several novel paths to a government that could shake up Icelandic politics more than we thought even over the weekend.

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