The Pickled Herring: consequences
of populism for Iceland

The Icelandic television show Kryddsíld, or the Pickled Herring, has been aired on Icelandic television every New Year’s Eve for the past 26 years. Leaders of the major political parties are invited over for a meal, while discussing the passing year’s most memorable events. The show is known for providing a unifying front on the last day of the year. However, the show’s focus this time moved quickly from political struggle to the misdeeds of populistic politicians.

What stood out this time around was the highly controversial and intensely discussed case of the Klaustur recordings.  

On November 20th of last year, six members of parliament sat down together at the Klaustur bar in downtown Reykjavik. A while into the conversation, they were recorded by a fellow bar patron, making sexist remarks that referred mostly to some of their female colleagues. Most striking, however, were the loud seal sounds they made while discussing a disabled former colleague of theirs, Freyja Haraldsdóttir.

Bára Halldórsdóttir, a queer and disabled woman, came forward as the whistleblower about two weeks following the spread of the recordings in the media. This proved that ex-prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson’s accusation about spying was wrong. Gunnlaugsson was one of the MPs involved and is no newcomer to scandals, as he was forced to resign from his prime minister post in 2016 following the Panama Papers revelations.

What Gunnlaugsson’s appearance on the Kryddsíld show also revealed is that he has no intention of  resigning, standing by his earlier comments about the hypocrisy of the Icelandic people.

Four of the MPs involved in the case pressed charges against Bára Halldórsdóttir, believing it was likely she was not working alone. The court later rejected the case. During the Kryddsíld show, Gunnlaugsson pointed out what he believed was hypocrisy in the Icelandic people – stating that the people presumably don’t allow the MPs to prove Halldórsdóttir’s recordings wrong by showing video footage from Klaustur bar.

The more evident hypocrisy, however, is that Gunnlaugsson remains the leader of his newly founded Miðflokkurinn or The Centre Party. Following his resignation from the prime minister’s post in 2016, he remained the leader of his former party, the Progressive Party. Similarly, Bjarni Benediktsson was forced to resign from his prime minister post in 2017, but is now in a coalition government – working closely with the present prime minister.

The most recent Kryddsíld show highlighted the political chaos Icelanders are living in right now.

Ingunn Sæland and Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, the leaders of two of the three populist parties in Iceland, were seen arguing loudly across the dinner table. This resembled more of a TV reality show than the unifying show that has aired for the better part of three decades.

Perhaps the most important factor the Klaustur recordings has proved, is that as long as Icelanders remain focused on asking for the resignation of members of parliament, they will remain numb to political change. All other public political discussion has seemingly been placed on hold since the recordings were released, as all media attention has been focused on the reactions that followed it.

What Iceland needs is a political revolution that will extinguish the need for interactive political reality shows.


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