Iceland’s equivalent of the State of the Union address is taking place this evening, whereby all party leaders in the Althingi parliament give speeches and then have the opportunity to reply to one another. A large crowd has gathered outside to protest the government’s handling of the ongoing financial crisis.
5,000 to 8,000 people gathered outside Althingi and police had previously erected fences in anticipation of the protest. The protests are being nicknamed the Barrel Protests because of the large number of people banging oil drums and other large containers to disturb parliament. Paint has also been thrown at the building, six windows broken, and stones and golf balls thrown at police officers. Nobody has yet been arrested.
Inside the chamber, Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir used her speech to defend her government’s record, highlighting the progress made in stabilising the krona, bringing inflation and unemployment down and in balancing the nation’s budget. She said that she has not failed to notice the regular calls for new elections; adding that she would not hesitate to call elections if she believed another government would have any chance of doing a better job under such difficult circumstances.
Leader of the Independence Party, Bjarni Benediktsson disagreed by saying that the problem with left-wing governments is that they never learn to make laws and rules to accommodate how people are — instead they make laws and rules for how they want people to be.
Left Green leader, Steingrimur J. Sigfusson defended his cutbacks and tax hikes as Minister of Finance. He told Althingi that the country is currently spending 15 percent of its budget in interest payments and it is his top priority to pay down the national debt as fast as possible. If he decided to relieve pressure on the public by relying more on foreign debt, interest payments would shoot up to a quarter of the total national budget in no time, he said.
Thor Saari, speaking for The Movement, made a simple and poignant point: namely that Althingi is conducting its keynote speeches with fences and police surrounding the building and angry protesters making their voices heard. This is simply not the way Icelandic politics should be, and the government should take some blame.
Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, leader of the Progressive Party attacked not only the government, but also the protesters. He said that the nation is in a crisis and the two main things needed to stop the crisis getting out of hand are for the government to provide more real, tangible help to those in the worst financial situations and for the government to stand above the chaos and make it clear that violence will never be an acceptable tactic.
A small group of protesters also gathered in the northern town of Akureyri in support.