Two years ago, as the international banking crisis swept the world, Iceland's economy collapsed through the floor. Thousands of Icelanders regularly took to the streets during the winter of 2008 to drive out their government which was disgraced by revelations of corruption. Amid an atmosphere of revolution, and excited talk of remodelling the country's society, these unprecedented mobilisations held high hopes of creating a new democratic platform. So just what has changed since? Ludovic Lamant reports from the capital Reykjavík.
Jorgen Jorgensen, a Danish adventurer who died in the wilds of Tasmania in 1841, is, as a result of his various misadventures, a laughing stock in his native land. However, one of this prolific writer's exploits did have irrefutable panache. In 1809 he landed in Iceland, then under the authority of Denmark, bent on trading. By early summer he had managed to jail the local governor for frustrating his mercantile ambitions, and proclaim the independenceof the island.
Following the lead of French and American revolutionaries, Jorgensen decreed that "all men are born free and equal", and promised the creation of a parliament, with elections that same summer. Alas, two months later he was arrested by the English, who had come to lend their Danish allies a hand. Jorgensen's attempt at revolution had ended in fiasco, and today Icelanders recall with fond amusement this ambitious and ephemeral monarch, the‘Dog-Day King'.
"At the time Icelanders didn't understand what was happening. They weren't ready to hear this call for equality, and the man who was to obtain our real independence, in 1944, was born years after this episode", regretted Andri Snær Magnason, a young writer with a mop of blond hair, author of damning books on the consumerist Iceland of the 2000's. "I feel as if the same thing happened to us 200 years after," he continued. "For a few months, we citizens held power over the banks, business and the government. In theory, anything was possible. But our libertarian way of thinking, took over again. We were afraid of becoming a Castro-island like Cuba, and things gradually went back to the way they were." With an embarrassed smile, he concluded: "We didn't dare change our alphabet."
Two years after the collapse of its banking sector there is a whiff of missed revolution in the air of Iceland, as if the window of opportunity to change everything had been walled up without warning. "Things happen in waves. In 2008, society woke up in a state of desperation mixed with euphoria", said Minister of the Interior, Ögmundur Jonasson, Green MP andone ofthe pillars of the current social-democratic government elected in April 2009. "New faces appeared in meetings, on the front pages of newspapers, on television. For over a year, people were alive. And I'm a bit worried about how things are beginning to die down at the moment."
From October 2008 to January 2009, thousands of Icelanders took over the streets of Reykjavik to voice their anger. The ‘Saucepan Revolution', thus named as a distant echo of the Argentinian cacerolazos, toppled the then-head of the government, the conservative Geir Haard.
"At the time, we were demandinga government of national unity, or a government composed of citizens chosen at random from the phone directory. But we weren't heeded. Traditional elections were organised and the established parties won," bemoaned SigurlaungRanarsdottir, one of the leaders of the Saturday rallies opposite parliament,which were a regular feature of life in the capital at the end of 2008.
What has been the outcome? A centre-left government was elected in April 2009, principally made up of old political journeymen. And two political forces have since emerged. The first, directly from the citizen movements of 2008, is called The Movement, an ‘anti-party', which has three representatives electedto the 63-strong national parliament, the Althinghi (Alþingi, literally"all-thing").Today it is one of the mouthpieces of Iceland's radical left, associated with afringe of Green MPs who are critical of the government's action, but remain divided on the question of joining the European Union. "Either there's a real revolution this year, or we're going to leave the country in big numbers," warned Sigurlaug Ragnarsdottir, a member of The Movement.