The growing frustration of the Icelandic people at their government’s failure to deliver its election promises reached boiling point on Tuesday as thousands of people gathered in Austurvöllur square in front of the Alþingi, Iceland’s parliament building in central Reykjavik. Protestors waved their keys in a symbolic gesture to the current coalition government (between the centre-right Progressive Party and Independence Party) that their time is up. The event’s Facebook page listed 99 reasons for attending the protest, including anger at the scale of political corruption and ‘fat cat’ corporate greed; wage inequality; the breakdown of the healthcare system, and regular infractions of environmental protection legislation whenever this conflicts with profits from energy production. Voters are also furious at the government’s refusal to offer a public referendum on joining the European Union.
Why does this matter to WDC?
It matters because Iceland’s current government is very much pro-whaling and has a cosy hand-in-glove relationship with the whalers, and in particular, with billionaire fin whaler, Kristjan Loftsson. It matters because the current Fisheries Minister and vice-Chair of the Progressive party, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, authorised the current whaling quotas which allow Iceland’s whalers to kill up to 229 minke whales, and 154 fin whales each year in a 5-quota block which runs to 2019 (meaning that almost 2,000 whales could potentially die during that period).
Fin whaler, Kristjan Loftsson, has already shown that he doesn’t give two hoots about public opinion when, upon his recent re-election as Chair of seafood company, HB Grandi, one of his first actions was to increase the salary of Board members by a hefty 33% – whilst increasing workers’ pay by a paltry 3.3%.
The Coalition is also profoundly Eurosceptic and has not only reneged on its election promise to offer a public referendum, but has also bypassed the parliamentary process altogether by writing directly to the EU in March to withdraw Iceland’s application for membership. Most Icelanders want the chance to vote on whether they should join the EU – and membership would, of course, oblige Iceland to abide by strict EU legislation protecting whales and dolphins, including a ban on hunting and trade.
Further proof that the Icelandic government is out of touch with world politics as well as domestic matters, comes in the reports of a recent meeting between Icelandic foreign minister, Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, and US Secretary of State, John Kerry. The two discussed Iceland’s whaling at a recent dinner at the White House and, whilst Sveinsson cannot help but be aware that the US has issued a number of directives against Iceland for its commercial whaling, he chose to downplay the debate, claiming defiantly that he and the Secretary of State “understand and respect each other’s position [on whaling]” – however, at the same time, conceding that ending whaling would likely improve relations between the two countries.
By contrast, Iceland’s four main opposition parties (Social Democrats, Left-Green, Bright Futures, and the Pirate Party) are largely anti-whaling, and opposition MPs including Katrin Jakobsdottir, leader of the Left-Greens, and Social Democrat, Sigridur Ingibjorg Ingadottir, have asked probing questions about whaling in parliament. Last spring, Sigridur led cross-party demands that the government provide an economic justification for the whaling and the subsequent negative impact upon Iceland’s reputation overseas. This review was due by the end of 2014 but has yet to be delivered. Public dissatisfaction with the current government has inevitably led to a surge of support for opposition parties, including the Pirate Party, which this month became Iceland’s biggest political party. Membership has doubled in recent months and a recent MMR poll shows that the party has the support of 23.9% of the electorate (beating the Independence Party at 23.4%).
Whilst it would be naïve to claim that a change of government would definitely bring about an end to whaling (after all, whaling took place under the previous Social Democrat/Left Green coalition), there is nonetheless, a growing public appetite for change: for a move away from the old ‘fat cat’ political and corporate ideologies, and towards greater transparency, equality and social justice. This coincides with greater awareness that whaling doesn’t deliver on economic terms and is an ‘albatross around Iceland’s neck’ in terms of its reputation on the world stage. By contrast, whale watch tourism is booming and live whales are indisputably worth far more – on every level – than dead ones.