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Why Iceland Swapping Out Its Prime Minister Won't Change Anything

Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson may have resigned following the Panama Papers scandal, but that won't make any difference in the grand scheme of things.
April 13, 2016, 2:45pm

Illustration by Ella Strickland de Souza

The video of reporter Sven Bergmann questioning then-Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson about his offshore accounts is a fascinating document. If you watch it closely enough, you can see the exact moment the hidden truth about Iceland emerges from under the sheen and the fluff. It's written all over Gunnlaugsson's face as his slick populist rhetoric gives way to the stuttering, indignant anger he's become better known for in his homeland.

Before Bergmann pops the big question, Gunnlaugsson is the model Nordic statesman: tactful, erudite, and well-spoken, offering platitudes about restoring trust between the government and the populace—which is actually pretty funny in retrospect.


"In all Nordic societies, I suppose, we attach a lot of importance to everybody paying his share," Gunnlaugsson patiently explains to Bergmann, who remains expertly poker-faced under this barrage of hypocrisy and condescension. "Society is seen as a big project that everybody needs to take part in."

When asked if he has assets hidden in offshore accounts, Gunnlaugsson, clearly pushed outside his comfort zone, mumbles something about labor unions before uttering these words: "It's an unusual question for an Icelandic politician to get. It's almost like being accused of something."

I cannot stress enough how significant this response is. First off, it's just not true. For weeks, Gunnlaugsson had been fending off reporters asking questions about his recently uncovered offshore shenanigans. On top of that, he and his entire cabinet had been under fire from various Icelandic media outlets for their actions and decisions ever since assuming office in 2013. They'd been dodging questions—and accusations—exactly like this one for three years.

So if he was going to lie, why pick this particular aside to throw in there? Because Bergmann is a foreigner, and the eyes of the world were on Gunnlaugsson. It's vitally important for the Icelandic right to maintain to the outside world that the people of Iceland likes the party—that they're happy with their government. The right controls the courts and the police, and have, through a combination of stubborn refusal and bald-faced pandering to special interest groups, kept Iceland out of the European Union. In short: There is no real authority powerful enough to stop what they are doing, save for maybe the court of international public opinion. So the Icelandic right has, in its decades of near-unrivaled power over the country, found that it's in their best interest to fall in line with the image most of the world has of Iceland: a happy little Scandinavian country full of forward-thinking artists and warm, level-headed businessmen and politicians who care about their populace, a place where a journalist would never even insinuate that a politician has done anything untoward.


But the crown jewel of that video is without a doubt when Gunnlaugson is ambushed by the Icelandic reporter Johannes Kr Kristjansson, who had been investigating the matter for months. Even as Bergmann's questions began to become more probing, Gunnlaugsson maintained his calm, civil demeanor. But when suddenly presented with a known face from the Icelandic media, Gunnlaugsson becomes dismissive, curt, and full of righteous indignation. He shows the world the face he has consistently shown Iceland for three long years, and will probably continue to show, since he's made it clear that while he might have resigned as prime minister, he's not retiring from politics. The interview subsequently degenerates into a repeat of pretty much every other serious confrontation Gunnlaugsson's administration has had with the media: angry obfuscation and claims of victimization, followed by feigned shock and abrupt dismissal. No straight answers are given.

The video so perfectly captures the dichotomy of "Icelandic politician speaking to a foreigner" versus "Icelandic politician speaking to a local" that it should be shown in lectures on political science and journalism throughout the world. The video is a small triumph of journalism, and in any sane world would signal massive change. The lies have been laid bare, and on several levels.

But will it actually change anything in Iceland? I doubt it. The resignation of the prime minister is actually an insultingly small bone that the right-wing parties have thrown the people. Two other cabinet ministers are also implicated in the scandal, both of whom are not resigning, and Gunnlaugsson has been able to hand-pick his successor: former minister of fisheries and agriculture, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson. The resignation last week was the smallest of victories, pretty much the definition of "too little, too late."


The entire cabinet needs to resign and new elections need to be held—elections that properly reflect the will of the people and not the empty campaign promises that put the right-wing coalition in place. Support for the PM's Progressive Party was estimated at 7.9 percent after the Panama Papers story broke. They've been hemorrhaging support for nearly a decade now, and only just managed to snatch the last election with bogus promises of canceling household debt incurred when the bank crash left thousands of families insolvent. I cannot overstate how hard these people have been screwing Iceland, and they've been doing it for decades.

The parliament building has now been swamped with protesters every day for a week, and what does Iceland have to show for it? Nothing, save for one knucklehead prime minister being replaced by another. The government appears to be defiantly sailing on as if nothing has gone wrong, speaking ominously of "unfinished business" that it apparently needs to conduct, leaving it no time to listen to the angry rabble howling for its resignation.

Similar protests followed Iceland's economic collapse in 2008 (which we now know happened in part due to the transactions of shell companies exactly like Gunnlaugsson's) and brought about the end of that right-wing government, so many naturally assumed that history would repeat itself. However, it seems that the current government learned an important lesson from the 2008 protests, even if the electorate did not (they voted the right-wing parties back into power in 2013), and that lesson was: no retreat, no surrender. All they really have to do now is stick their fingers in their ears and wait for the protests to die down, and then it will be business as usual. After all, they have banks, hospitals, and energy companies to privatize, and an electorate to misinform in time for next spring's elections.

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