Leftists on cusp of power as weary Icelanders go to polls

By Elias Thorsson

REYKJAVIK (Reuters) – Angry over a string of political scandals, Icelanders may usher a long dominant centre-right party out of the exit door in national elections on Saturday, handing power to a charismatic centre-left opposition leader.

Katrín Jakobsdóttir, 41, of the Left-Green Movement, has campaigned on a platform of restoring trust in government and leveraging an economic boom to increase public spending.

As voters ready for the second snap parliamentary election in a year, opinion polls show her trailing Prime Minister Bjarni Benediktsson’s pro-business Independence Party by a small margin.

Both parties have polled around 20 percent for most of October. Whichever wins will likely nominate a prime minister who will then be invited to form a coalition government.

The Independence Party has been part of every government since 1980, except the coalition that served during the crisis years of 2009-2013, which included the Left-Greens and Jakobsdottir as education minister.

In her favour this time is the fact that the left-leaning Social Democrats are likely to become the third-biggest party., and that Icelanders appear as primed for change as at any time in recent memory.

The Nordic island of 340,000 people, one of the countries hit hardest by the 2008 global financial crisis, has staged a remarkable economic turnaround spurred by tourism.

But scandals, a growing sense of inequality and worries over immigration threaten stability in one of the world’s most homogeneous nations.

Benediktsson has been weakened by fallout from an attempt by his father to vouch for the character of a convicted paedophile.

The previous snap election took place late in 2016, after the Panama Papers revelations showed several government figures involved in an offshore tax haven scandal. That gave a rise to the anti-establishment Pirate Party but its support has since waned.

Forming a government this time could take months, as poll show a further five parties winning more than the 5 percent of votes needed to enter parliament.

“I just want people who can run this country without any disgusting corruption,” says Sveinn Rúnar Einarsson, 32, a restaurant manager in Reykjavik.

He voted for the Independence Party in 2013, but says he will vote for one of the left-wing parties on Saturday.

Known for her even temper, Jakobsdottir quickly became a popular figure in Iceland after being elected to parliament in 2007, and is one of the few high-profile politicians who have avoided scandal.

While most parties agree that investment is needed in areas like welfare, infrastructure and tourism, the debate is around how it will be financed.

The left-leaning parties, including Jakobsdóttir’s, want to finance spending by raising taxes on the wealthy, real estate and the powerful fishing industry.

Having presided over the privatisation of banks, financial sector liberalisation and the economy’s collapse and eventual economic recovery during its several stints in power, the Independence Party has said it wants to fund infrastructure spending by taking money out of the banking sector.

(Story corrects to remove quote erroneously attributed to Kristrun Frostadottir of the Iceland Chamber of Commerce.)

(Writing by Jacob Gronholt-Pedersen; editing by Justyna Pawlak and John Stonestreet)

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