Viewing cable 08REYKJAVIK11, ICELAND: REYKJAVIK CITY COUNCIL PLAYS TWO ROUNDS OF
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|08REYKJAVIK11||2008-01-29 16:04||2011-01-13 05:05||UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY||Embassy Reykjavik|
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UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 REYKJAVIK 000011 SIPDIS SIPDIS SENSITIVE E.O. 12958: N/A TAGS: PGOV IC SUBJECT: ICELAND: REYKJAVIK CITY COUNCIL PLAYS TWO ROUNDS OF MUSICAL CHAIRS Ref: 07 Reykjavik 114 ¶1. (U) Summary: The majority coalition in the Reykjavik City Council has broken down twice in the past three months, resulting in three different mayors for the largest city in Iceland. The coalition majority of the Independence Party (IP) and the Progressive Party (PP) split up in October over a controversial public-private merger of two energy investment companies. The PP's lone councilman formed a shaky coalition with the minority parties. This coalition terminated in January when the one of the minority parties had a change of heart and left the coalition to join forces with the IP. Reykjavik voters are outraged at the turmoil and the rapid changes have hurt the credibility of the city council. The newest mayor is pulling out all the stops to restore confidence. While some predict that the unrest at City Hall will cause strains in the national IP-Social Democrat governing coalition, no such faults are evident so far. The tumult has, however, made it less clear whether the Reykjavik mayorship will retain its traditional role as a stepping stone to national office. End Summary. First Ever Majority Coalition Split ----------------------------------- ¶2. (U) On October 11, 2007 the majority coalition of the Independence Party and the Progressive Party in the Reykjavik City Council suddenly collapsed. The coalition had a one seat majority and Bjorn Ingi Hrafnsson, the sole PP city councilor, split off to form a new majority with the opposition parties that have seats in the city council: the Social Democratic Alliance (SDA), the Left Green Movement (LG), and the Liberal Party-Independents (LP). This was the first time in the history of Reykjavik that the coalition majority split mid-term. The cause was reportedly a disagreement between the IP and the PP over a public-private energy investment merger gone awry. In early October 2007, Reykjavik Energy Invest, the business development and investment arm of Reykjavik Energy (Note: Reykjavik Energy is a publicly-owned geothermal energy company, whose largest shareholder is the City of Reykjavik. End Note.), and Geysir Green Energy, a private investment firm targeting the geothermal energy sector, announced their agreement to merge. The IP was quickly mired in an internal party feud over the merger and the role of Mayor Vilhjalmur Vilhjalmsson, and as the negative media attention increased, Progressive rep Hrafnsson broke ranks with the coalition in a clear attempt to leave a sinking ship. ¶3. (U) The new majority consisted of the SDA, the LG, the PP, and the LP, and Dagur Eggertsson (SDA) became mayor. Olafur Magnusson, the sole LP city councilor, was considered the architect of the new majority. He was on sick leave while being treated for depression during most of 2007, and his alternate, Margret Sverrisdottir, filled his seat in the meantime. Both Magnusson and Sverrisdottir had left the Liberal Party in early 2007 due to disagreements with the party leadership and joined a brand new political party called the Iceland Movement (reftel); both remained on the city council under the Liberal Party-Independent label. Public opinion was divided on Progressive rep Hrafnsson's role in breaking up the IP-PP majority coalition, but the IP city councilors, including former Mayor Vilhjalmsson, were seen as bigger losers in the public-private merger drama. Majority Coalition Terminated...Again ------------------------------------- ¶4. (U) In a surprise move on January 21, City Councilor Magnusson (LP) and former Mayor Vilhjalmsson (IP) announced they had reached an agreement on forming a new majority coalition. Magnusson will be mayor for the first half of the remaining electoral term and Vilhjalmsson for the second half (Note: The current electoral term ends in May 2010. End Note.). The decision caught everyone off guard, including Magnusson's alternate, Sverrisdottir, who stated that she would not support the new majority because Magnusson kept her out of the loop. Pundits have been quick to note that her ambivalence hobbles the coalition, because if Mayor Magnusson is ever absent from city council meetings, Sverrisdottir can vote with the minority. ¶5. (U) The outgoing coalition wasted no time in voicing their complaints about the reshuffle, accusing the IP and Magnusson of undermining city government and voters' trust in their elected officials purely for selfish reasons. Outraged supporters of the outgoing majority disrupted the City Council meeting on January 24, forcing a delay of several hours in Magnusson's election as mayor. ¶6. (SBU) Meanwhile, on January 23, Hrafnsson (PP), who had split the coalition in October, announced his immediate resignation from the Reykjavik City Council. In the days preceding the decision a former PP member of parliament accused Hrafnsson of trying to rise in the ranks of the party at the expense of others, and for purportedly using party funds to buy expensive clothes for use in the election campaign for the 2006 local elections. (Comment: Once Hrafnsson was no longer keeping his party in the majority in city government, it seems the party leadership made it clear that the clothing allegations were the proverbial straw that broke the REYKJAVIK 00000011 002 OF 002 camel's back. His exit has for now quashed hopes of his potential as a future leader of the PP.) Snapshot of the New Mayor: Olafur F. Magnusson --------------------------------------------- - ¶7. (U) Olafur F. Magnusson is a veteran at Reykjavik city politics. Before he was elected to the City Council in the 2002 local elections for the LP, he served as an alternate City Councilor for the IP from 1990-1998 and as City Councilor for the same party from 1998-2001. Magnusson worked as a medical doctor in the 1970s and 1980s and was active in the grassroots politics of the IP. Magnusson parted ways with the IP in 2001 because his environmental policy views were at odds with the policy of the IP. Subsequently he joined the Liberals and was elected to the Reykjavik City Council for the party in 2002 and 2006. Magnusson now considers himself an independent in the city council, but he is a registered member of the Iceland Movement. Comment ------- ¶8. (SBU) Comment: Despite media speculation, the changes at City Hall do not seem to have raised tension between the national government's IP-SDA coalition. Prime Minister Haarde (IP) and Foreign Minister (and former Reykjavik Mayor) Gisladottir (SDA) have been careful in their public comments, though Gisladottir did allow that the way the new majority came about was "an unfortunate step" for both the people of Reykjavik and Icelandic politics in general. More broadly, these two swift changes in coalition majorities may herald a new era in Icelandic politics. This era may see power-hungry politicians who are not afraid of splitting alliances in exchange for greater professional glory. Additionally, neither Magnusson nor his coalition partner Vilhjalmson of the IP claim ambitions to national political office, which when added with a loss of voter confidence could mean that fewer look at the Reykjavik mayorship as a traditional stepping stone to higher office. ¶9. (SBU) Comment, cont'd: Olafur Magnusson (LP) and the IP city councilors can for the moment be called the winners of the course of events on January 21. However, the creation of the new majority comes at the cost of voter confidence. A January 24 poll shows the new majority enjoys the support of only one quarter of the electorate, and just six percent support the new mayor. Many have asked if Magnusson is capable of handling the mayoral position given his medical problems in 2007, a line of questioning not usually seen in Icelandic politics. Magnusson has gone on the offensive to answer the questions, hitting all major media outlets over his first weekend as mayor and asking to be judged "by my work, not by my illness." However, with such a tenuous majority, the life of the new coalition could easily be cut short. End Comment. VAN VOORST