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Iceland came close to creating history

The tiny Nordic nation would have elected Europe’s first women’s majority parliament - but for a recount that altered the outcome

The Blue Lagoon against the backdrop of rugged mountainous terrain - BENEDICT LOPEZ

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Famed for its volcanoes and glaciers, Iceland is popularly known as the Land of Fire and Ice.

The country’s vast glaciers are safeguarded within the vicinity of the Vatnajokull and Snaefellsjokull national parks.

The topography of Iceland – one of five Nordic countries – is peppered with geysers, hot springs and lava fields.

Evidence of Iceland’s Viking heritage can be found in the National and Saga museums in the capital, Reykjavik. Over two-thirds of Iceland’s 360,000 residents live in Reykjavik.

Reykjavik in winter – BENEDICT LOPEZ

Besides its volcanoes and glaciers, Iceland is noted for the Aurora (northern lights) Blue Lagoon, horse farms, whale watching and spellbinding countryside.

Its renowned Hellisheidi power station, among the world’s largest geothermal power stations, lies just 25km (15 miles) from Reykjavik, and supplies the city’s energy requirements. I was fortunate to go on an official visit to this station many years ago.

Another notable tourist attraction in Reykjavik is the White House. This place gained popularity after the 1986 Reykjavík summit meeting between then US President Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Iceland, with its economic potential and many tourist attractions, should have thrived continuously. But it has not always been smooth sailing. The country was at the epicentre of the 2008 financial crisis, which devastated its economy. Poignantly, Reykjavik in Icelandic means bay of smoke.

Iceland was forced to implement painful reforms, which hurt many of its people. Still, the country moved forward with zeal after the crisis. Having overcome its agonising past, Iceland still faces occasional challenges.

In 2016, the country was hit be adverse publicity when then Prime Minister, Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson was forced to resign amid demonstrations over the exposés highlighted in the Panama Papers. Protesters spewed their venom by hurling eggs at parliament house.

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I know Iceland fairly well, as I do Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland. I had visited this island nation a few times, meeting politicians, public sector and corporate officials, representatives from industry associations and ordinary Icelanders.

I found them friendly and willing to share experiences and exchange ideas. This is why I believe Malaysia can benefit from Iceland’s knowhow, skills and capability to develop targeted sectors of our own economy in areas such as aquaculture, IT and life sciences.

Malaysia should try to forge closer ties with Iceland, as it has so much to offer. Ironically, we seem unaware that small countries like Iceland, Estonia and Costa Rica could be models for us.

Iceland is perhaps one of the most gender-equal countries in the world, where women have made great strides in many fields. In October 2012, I was invited to address the Icelandic Association of Women Entrepreneurs and was surprised to learn about the Icelandic women’s successes. Perhaps our women entrepreneurs can explore areas for cooperation with their Icelandic counterparts.

So it did not surprise me at all when in the Iceland general election on 25 September 2021, 30 women were elected as MPs in the 63-seat parliament.

Iceland’s new political landscape sees eight parties in Iceland’s 1,100-year-old parliament, the Althing.

Small is beautiful: The Althing parliament house in Reykjavik – ZINNEKE/WIKIPEDIA

The Independence Party won 16 seats (rising to 17 after a defection from the Centre Party), followed by the Progressive Party with 13 and the Left Green Movement, eight. The Social Democratic Alliance, the Centre Party and the Pirate Party clinched six each, the Liberal Reform Party five, and the Centre Party three (reduced to two after the defection).

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Iceland nearly created history by having a women’s majority parliament. Initial results showed 33 women elected as MPs in the 63-seat parliament. This historic outcome was short-lived: after a recount, 30 women were elected as MPs; ie 48% of all MPs.

Despite this minor disappointment, Iceland still has the highest representation of women in Europe – ahead of Sweden (46%) and Finland (46%).

According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Rwanda leads the world with women making up 61% of parliament with Cuba, Nicaragua and Mexico just over the 50% mark. Worldwide, the organisation says just over a quarter of legislators are women.

In contrast, just 15% of Malaysian MPs are women. It is time for Malaysia to open its eyes and have more capable women in our Parliament. Political parties should halt any gender discrimination and field more talented and competent women in the next general election.

Iceland also missed creating history for the second and third time because of the recount. The Pirate Party’s Lenya Run Karim, a 21-year-old law student and the daughter of Kurdish immigrants, was one of those to drop out after the recount. If she had won, she would have broken records as the youngest MPs in Iceland’s history and the first Kurd in parliament.

“Iceland’s voting system is divided into six regions and the recount in western Iceland was held following a tight contest in the northwest constituency,” Ingi Tryggvason, head of Iceland’s Electoral Commission, said.

“The female victory remains the big story of these elections,” Olafur Hardarson, a professor in politics, said after the recount.

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Climate change was a critical issue in the campaign after a warm summer by Icelandic standards, with around 60 days with temperatures over 68C. This unusual warmth can be attributed to Iceland’s well-known glaciers vanishing rapidly.

Left-leaning parties failed to capitalise on the threat of climate change even though they had campaigned for increased reductions in carbon emissions, prior to the UN climate summit in Glasgow opening tomorrow. Centrist parties emerged as the biggest gainers in this election.

A vibrant democracy, Iceland is a nation whose people are politically, economically and socially conscious about critical current issues. Tiny and isolated from mainland Europe, this nation of Viking heritage is still a shining example of democratic values, human rights, civil liberties and gender equality.

Iceland is also the epitome of an egalitarian society, possessing noble virtues which many larger countries should emulate.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Benedict Lopez was director of the Malaysian Investment Development Authority in Stockholm and economics counsellor at the Malaysian embassy there in 2010-2014. He covered all five Nordic countries in the course of his work. A pragmatic optimist and now an Aliran member, he believes Malaysia can provide its people with the same benefits found in the Nordic countries - not a far-fetched dream but one he hopes will be realised in his lifetime
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