Why has Iceland returned to the politicians who caused their crisis?

The centre-right's victory masks growing disaffection with politics.

As Iceland re-elects the parties that led it into the financial crisis and Italy forms its broadest coalition since 1946 to the sound of gunfire, something strange is afoot in European politics. As the economic crisis rumbles on past the five-year mark, traditional party systems across the continent are under strain and contorting themselves into ever-more unusual arrangements to meet the challenge posed by the plunging living standards of their electorates.

In retrospect Britain, which elected its first coalition since World War II in 2010, now looks like a trend-setter. Everywhere one looks across the continent, the financial crisis has upended the old patterns of politics. The "grand coalition" of left and right in Italy is only the latest example of political parties closing ranks against threats to their traditional position – in this case, economic woe and a surge by the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which may be led by a comedian but proved it was no joke by garnering over 25 per cent of the vote in February’s election.

Meanwhile in Iceland, voters have just returned the centre right to power in the form of the Progressive Party and the Independence Party. These are the parties many blame for getting them into a financial mess in the first place. It was Independence Party Prime Minister David Oddsson who gave Iceland its version of the City’s "big bang" and was central bank governor when the financial crisis struck. That voters would turn back to these old hands – much less in the biggest electoral swing in Iceland’s independent history – is, to put it mildly, a sign of some desperation.

The head of Iceland's Pirate Party – another anti-establishment force which just won its first seats in a national legislature, becoming the first Pirate Party to do so – was rueful about the return of the centre right. "It is the problem of the leftwing," said Birgitta Jonsdottir, a Pirate Party MP. "They clean up the vomit after the cocaine party of the neocons, who go into rehab and then come back to reap the benefits." But the very success of her own movement is a sign of something else – outsiders are increasingly crashing the party.

Europe's national governments all share a basic impotence in the face of the economic crisis and the austerity consensus imposed from Brussels, Berlin and the bond markets. Even Iceland, which has its own currency, is not fully ruler in its own house – and the outgoing government had received many plaudits from outsiders like the IMF. The exact party configurations ruling in each capital are, to an extent, besides the point in the face of this external pressure. Witness how France’s first Socialist government in twenty years is now planning to slash capital gains tax to attract businesses.

This impotence is leading to a general decline of established party systems across Europe. Voters are realising that none of the traditional parties can fundamentally challenge the austerity consensus, and are turning to outsiders who might. Italy's Five Star Movement is one example. Greece's Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), which is now the second-biggest party in the country’s legislature, is another. Even UKIP is capitalising on the mess on the continent and economic fears here at home to shake up the British political scene.

As austerity passes into its second half-decade – and as forecasts for when it will come to an end are pushed further into the future – the strain on Europe’s traditional parties will increasingly show.  If Italy’s broadest coalition since World War II and Iceland’s establishment parties cannot deliver economic security to their voters – and there seems little reason to think they can – then what happens next will be unpredictable.  Voters are running out of options near the traditional centres of their politics.

All of this poses the greatest long-term threat to the austerity consensus across Europe, as perhaps leading figures in Brussels and Berlin are starting to realise as they rhetorically distance themselves from austerity and start to talk about how, as Jose Manuel Barroso said recently, the policy has reached the limits of its popular support. But the pull of the consensus – tied up as it is with continued euro membership and the European project as a whole – remains strong.

If European governments of the traditional left and right don’t find a way to keep public confidence in both themselves and the European project alive, then we will see outsiders keep rising and rising until one day they rise all the way into power. Even more worrying is what happens when despair at the political centre becomes despair over the political system as a whole, and starts to find expression in movements like Greece's Golden Dawn or in senseless acts of violence like the shooting of two police officers in Rome. They too are warning signs on the road to an austere future.

Birgitta Jonsdottir, leader of Iceland's anti-establishment Pirate Party. (Photo: Getty.)
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Can Emmanuel Macron win? Why France is ripe for a liberal resurgence

In an era of far-right populism, an avowed centrist could see off France's political demons. 

The French Presidential Election has so far been the election of the third man. On Sunday 5 February, Benoît Hamon, a short-lived minister for education under François Hollande, became the official candidate of the Socialist party. Much like François Fillon in the opposing right-wing Republican primaries, he had entered the race as the distant third. Nevertheless, he beat the early frontrunner, former Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in the second round of the Socialist primaries, gaining almost 60 per cent of the vote. 

This was a triumph of the radical left over the establishment. Hamon had left Vall’s government to protest against what they took to be the government’s too pro-business line. When it came to the primaries, he advocated a universal basic income and fully integrating ecological concerns into his programme.

In this two-pronged strategy, too, he followed Fillon’s lead. The Republican candidate overtook the frontrunners former Prime Minister Alain Juppé and President Nicolas Sarkozy after campaigning on both a highly economically liberal and socially conservative Catholic programme.

Both these victories on the left and right prove an old saying about primaries - they are won at the extremes. But there is another old saying, that general elections are won at the centre.

Emmanuel Macron is the centrist candidate for the Presidential election. He also entered the race as the third man, behind frontrunners Marine Le Pen and Fillon. So can he win?

With an election marked by a high level of unpredictability, there are nevertheless a number of reasons to think so. First there is Macron himself. When he entered the race, many thought he would quickly run out of steam, as centrist candidates have in the past, but his "Forward" movement has been highly successful. The crowds it attracts, numbering thousands, are the envy of the other candidates.

Macron's decision to not participate in the French Socialist primaries was also very astute. It means he has dissociated himself from the toxic legacy of the Hollande Presidency, which has already lead to the downfall of his rival, Valls. Indeed, the fact that Hamon, on the left of the Socialists, won the primary is another boon for him. Centre-left voters who would have supported Valls are now likely to rally around him.

If the centre-left has opened for Macron, so has the centre-right. Conservative voters who supported the centrist Alain Juppé might be tempted to join him, particularly after the "Penelopegate" scandal that has engulfed Fillon (the Republican candidate is facing an investigation over claims he paid his wife nearly €1m for a job she did not do). Previously the favourite to win in the second round of elections in May, Fillon now trailsin the polls behind Macron in third place.

Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Front National, is engulfed in her own "fake jobs" scandal concerning her European Parliament assistant, and she has been sanctioned by the European Parliament which is retaining part of her salary. But it is unlikely that such a scandal will dent her popularity, and she remains well ahead in the polls with 25 per cent of first-round voting intentions.

The difference between Le Pen and Fillon is that, as an anti-establishment and anti-European party, the Front National will not suffer from the misuse of public funds from an institution it rejects. Fillon, however, had made a big show of his strong moral principles in the primaries compared to the "affaires" that continue to plague Juppé and former President Nicolas Sarkozy. Conservative voters put off by Fillon and unwilling to vote for the FN can rally round Macron’s economic liberalism instead. 

If Macron can make it to the second round of the French Presidential election in May, then he has every chance of becoming France’s next president. Current predictions have him wining over 60 per cent of the second-round vote. But we are not there yet. As a young, intelligent and outside candidate, he remains the receptacle of many people’s longing for a renewal of the political class. But he needs to transform his movement’s dynamic into hard votes - he lags well behind other candidates when it comes to firm intentions of voting. To do so he must give details of his political programme, which he so far failed to do, and which he is coming under increasing pressure to deliver.

The other threat he faces is the unification of the left with the far-left. If Hamon and the firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon could come together to form a common ticket then they could muster up to 25 per cent of the vote, which would propel them to first place in the first round of voting. 

What Macron has made clear is that he is pro-European, which starkly marks him out from the other candidates. He is a social, economic and political liberal, and is willing to endorse ideas from across the political spectrum - one of his mottos is that he is neither left nor right. In an age when the political centre has come under intense pressure, maybe a radical centrist is precisely what France needs.

Dr Hugo Drochon is a historian of political thought and an affiliated lecturer at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of the book Nietzsche's Great Politics, published 2016.