Path: ICPP > ICPP 1980 > List of Countries --> Iceland
Kenneth Janda
Political Parties: A Cross-National Survey
New York: The Free Press, 1980: pp. 426-427
ICELAND: The Party System in 1950-1956 and 1957-1962
(Text as published in 1980 citation above)

Formally a dependency of Denmark (but possessing home rule since 1918), Iceland declared itself an independent republic in 1944. Denmark was then under German occupation, and the United States assumed responsibility for Iceland's defense. Following the outbreak of War in Korea, the United States again negotiated responsibility for the defense of Iceland, which became one of the charter members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Throughout our time period, the U.S. military presence was one of the major issues in Icelandic domestic politics.

Iceland has a parliamentary form of government featuring proportional representation in its electoral system. The setting is thus appropriate for the practice of stable multiparty politics, and Iceland conforms to the model. The four major parties, in decreasing order of strength, were the Independence Party (Conservative Liberal), Progressive (Farmers), People's Alliance or Union (Communist) and the Social Democrats. These four parties controlled all 60 seats in the Althing for all but one segment of our time period, when they shared only 96 percent of the total. Although the largest of the parties, the Independence Party never held more than 40 percent of the seats&endash;-- and never dropped below 37 percent. Thus the most common pattern of government was a coalition involving the Independence Party.

Our period begins with such a coalition: the Independence Party and the Progressives governing with a Progressive prime minister, Steingrímur Steinthórsson. The coalition was continued after the 1953 elections, but this time the prime minister was Ólafur Thors from the Independence Party. The harmony was disrupted, however, by the election of 1956, which turned on the presence of NATO (U.S.) forces, which the Independence Party favored and the Progressives opposed, albeit uncertainly. Ironically, the Hungarian uprising in late 1956 served to negate interest in U.S. withdrawal, and the forces remained.

Thus in 1957 the Independence Party stood in opposition to a coalition government supported by all three of the other parties and headed by the Progressive Hermann Jónasson. The coalition broke up in late 1959 over economic issues, and the Independence Party reasserted leadership after the elections in a coalition with the Social Democrats. Thors headed the government a again and closed out our time period.

Continuity and Change since 1962

The graph of party representation in the Icelandic Althing shows little change until 1978. All four of our original parties continued, however, and no new parties qualified for study.

Original Parties, Continuing

221 Independence Party. After 1962, the Independence Party governed in a coalition with the Social Democrats continuously until defeat in the 1971 elections, but the Independence Party returned to government in 1974 in a coalition with the Progressive Party. That government was ended in 1978, when both parties lost substantially in the elections. The Independence Party became the lone party in opposition to the new government.

222 Progressive Party. Second in size to the Independence Party, the Progressive Party figured in all governmental coalitions since 1971. Although losing heavily in the 1978 elections, the Progressives were not only in the new left of center government but headed it with Olafur Johannesson as prime minister.

223 People's Alliance. Regarded as a communist arty, the People's Alliance nevertheless served in a coalition government from 1971 to 1974 and participated in the coalition formed in 1978. It maintained its parliamentary representation rather steadily over time and enjoyed a gain of three seats in 1978.

224 Social Democratic Party. Although the party participated in government with the Independence Party from 1959 to 1971, it began to decline in seats until 1978, when it nearly tripled its representation and was catapulted back into a governing coalition.


The 1978 election in Iceland may have been a shock to the stability of its party system, as both leftist parties made substantial gains at the expense of the conservative parties. Although the Progressive Party ostensibly heads the new center-left governmental coalition, it does so as the smallest of the three parties, and strains are likely to be evidenced soon.

For party politics in Iceland since 1962, see the essay by Michael J. Faber]

1. Our study of party politics in Iceland is based on a file of 164 pages from 23 documents, all of which are in English (see Table 1.3). The bibliographic search and indexing of material for the file was done by Jean Jacobsohn. Kathee Henning coded the Icelandic parties on the variables in the ICPP conceptual framework. Our consultant was Richard F. Tomasson.