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.)
Beijing smog. Getty
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China’s battle to breathe

Why smog is causing social unrest.

This is a war where you can’t even see your own enemy.” These are the words of the Chinese journalist Chai Jing in her documentary about air pollution, Under the Dome. Released in February 2015, the film was viewed online more than 150 million times in three days before it was removed by the government.

The enemy that provoked such a reaction was PM2.5, a microscopic particulate in the air that can penetrate deep into the lungs and bloodstream. It can cause health problems, including heart disease and lung cancer. Air pollution is a problem around the world but is particularly bad in China, where, as a result of rapid industrialisation (fuelled partly by Western demand for cheap products), concentration levels of PM2.5 are dangerously high. In March 2014, after nearly a decade of worsening air quality, the government declared a “war against pollution”.

The air quality index (AQI) in Beijing hit an average 130 in January this year, and it often exceeds 300 (although year-on-year levels have fallen slightly). The World Health Organisation recommends below 20 as healthy.

Recently, this near-invisible enemy has taken tangible form. The annual National People’s Congress, the parliamentary gathering attended by nearly 3,000 regional delegates from across China, will open in Beijing on 5 March. Smog will be at the top of its agenda. There are three reasons for this: the public health issue, international environmental commitments and the threat that toxic air poses to China’s political stability.

Last December, a group of artists fitted smog masks on statues in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, in south-western China, to draw attention to rising air pollution. Riot police were sent in, eight artists were arrested, the central Tianfu Square was blockaded and shopkeepers were told to alert the police to anyone buying large quantities of masks. Unauthorised protests are banned in China, but as one artist told the BBC: “There is no regulation that bans citizens from walking while wearing masks.”

For the inhabitants of China’s cities, there is no alternative if you want to minimise the harm done by breathing in PM2.5. The smog is an inescapable fact of daily life and one that undermines the rising living standards that have so effectively kept city-dwellers from voicing discontent with the government. Besides the events in Chengdu, there were protests in the city of Xi’an in the north-west and lawsuits against other local governments for failing to tackle the problem. A meme on Weibo, one of the most popular Chinese social media platforms, shows a panda wearing a smog mask bearing the slogan: “Chengdu, let me breathe!”

Citizens are starting to expect the government to do more to clean up the air. “People in the West . . . assume that dissatisfactions [in China] are about things like censorship and lack of political freedoms,” Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, said by Skype. “But what really can motivate people are much more tangible things that affect their daily life.”

As a friend, a gallery assistant from Beijing who did not want to be named because of her fears about Western media, told me: “Worrying about the air and the water is just always occupying a part of your mind. You can’t forget about it.” She said she hopes that the smog will at least force the government to act.

Clean air is increasingly becoming a commodity. High-end air purifiers can cost £1,300-plus and an air quality monitor can sell for more than £100. Yann Boquillod, the founder of AirVisual, a Beijing-based start-up that produces tools to monitor air quality, told me that government red alerts about the smog are great for business, increasing demand for his products.

The government only started to publish information on air quality in 2012. Jennifer Turner, the director of the China Environment Forum at the US think tank the Woodrow Wilson Centre, describes this change as an element of the “most innovative policymaking in China”. “It was a risky action on the part of the government but, at the same time, the people were getting upset. The government is making efforts to show accountability,” she told me. However, more recently there have been reports of officials ordering forecasters to stop issuing smog warnings.

With or without a warning, you can feel it when the air quality is bad. The likes of Zhao Hui, a wealthy businessman, send their children to school abroad, where “clean air and safe food are just as important as education”. Yet, for most people, foreign education isn’t an option, and anger about inequality can make the discontent all the more potent. “[The smog] affects everywhere, but it doesn’t affect everyone equally,” Wasserstrom said. “This is part of what makes the government anxious about these protests. There’s more of this feeling of this being part of a national conversation.”

“Everyone knows it, hates it and makes ironic jokes,” Badiucao, a Chinese political cartoonist, told me in an email. His smog cartoons are particularly popular, he thinks, because they are considered “not directly political . . . hence less risky to share”. But he also believes that, for the Chinese, the health of their children is “the last red line”.

For those who can’t afford to send their children abroad, dissatisfaction with the state is rising and they are making their voices heard. The Beijing Municipal Education Commission recently agreed to instal air purifiers in schools in response to complaints by parents, having rejected similar calls a year ago. In addition to the official channels, social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat (an online messaging service) allow people to voice discontent instantly and loudly.

The Chinese government is acutely aware of how combustible the situation has become. There is a saying that goes, “Zhi bao bu zhu huo” – “Paper cannot wrap fire.” Air purifiers and censorship can only do so much. No number of riot police can change one simple fact: that all over China, people can’t breathe. 

Amy Hawkins is a freelance journalist based in Beijing. You can follow her on Twitter @DHawkins93.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit