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Iceland centre-right opposition poised for election win

24 april 2013, 18:41
©REUTERS/Ingolfur Juliusson
©REUTERS/Ingolfur Juliusson
Iceland's centre-right opposition is seen likely to win general elections Saturday after a leftist coalition failed to meet voters' expectations in the aftermath of a financial crisis that threatened to capsize the country, AFP reports.

Polls show a dead heat between the conservative Independence Party, in power for much of the postwar period, and the centrist-agrarian Progress Party, and both are vying to get their candidate in the prime minister's seat.

A survey carried out April 17-18 by research firm MMR gave the parties more than 25 percent each of the vote, with the Independence Party leading slightly after a few months of lagging the Progressives.

The parties have spent decades together in power and are widely expected to form a coalition government.

Meanwhile, the two members of the ruling coalition -- the social democratic Alliance Party and the Left-Green Movement -- are likely to suffer a heavy defeat.

The former is expected to have little influence in parliament, the Althing, and the latter may not pass the election threshold at all if the recently formed Pirate Party, which runs on an Internet activist platform, does well.

Iceland's first-ever leftist government came to power as voters blamed its rivals for the financial maelstrom of 2008, and the crony capitalism and lax regulation seen causing it.

But the new government was marred by political infighting, and when Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, 70, steps down -- after announcing her retirement last year -- she leaves behind a country that is economically healthier, but still unhappy.

"She had to do many things that no government likes to do: cutting spending, raising taxes, in one word reducing living standards," said Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson, a professor of political science at the University of Iceland.

"The 2009 election was a huge swing to the left. The 2013 election shouldn't be a huge swing to the right, but rather a rebalancing, a return to normal in Icelandic politics," he added.

The Progressive Party, led by 38-year-old Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, looks set to be the biggest winner after being punished for the country's economic woes in the last election.

Having remained in the doldrums for much of the past mandate, it got a boost in January when the Court of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) said Iceland could refuse to reimburse British and Dutch savers at failed online bank Icesave with taxpayers' money.

While the government was trying to reach an agreement with Britain in the years after the Icesave dispute, the centrist party took a hardline stance, refusing to compromise. "It helped them tremendously" in terms of public opinion, said Kristinsson.

By contrast, the Independence Party has seen a more gradual return of its traditionally liberal and conservative voters, but has failed to appeal to other groups.

The Althing has 63 seats that are distributed proportionally, and the biggest party traditionally picks the head of government.

"Policy-wise, there is an overall agreement between these two parties. The only difficulty could be to decide who will be prime minister if voters give them the same number of MPs," Kristinsson said.

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