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Kosningar á Íslandi
Kosningar á Íslandi

Elections in Iceland

Iceland is a representative democracy, where all citizens above 18 have equal opportunities to vote for their representatives. Parliamentary elections, municipal elections and presidential elections are held every four years.

Iceland is a representative democracy, where all citizens above 18 have equal opportunities to vote for their representatives. Parliamentary elections, municipal elections and presidential elections are held every four years. The executive power is not voted on in general elections, but is instead formed by parliamentarians. Referendums are not regular events, but are becoming increasingly common.

How is the Icelandic parliament elected?

The Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, is the oldest parliament in the world, founded in 930 and currently has 63 members. In the Icelandic parliamentary elections, voters choose between ballots, formed by the political parties (i.e. Iceland has a ballot list election system). Candidates on the ballots are all members of their respective political parties. Voters choose one, and only one ballot, but may change the order of candidates on the ballot that they vote for.
Iceland is divided into 6 areas or constituencies, and each party runs different lists in each of the constituencies. When voters vote for a certain party, they are actually voting the ballot that represent their constituency, and not the party as a whole. The largest political parties usually run ballots in all 6 of the constituencies, but smaller parties often choose to run in only one or a few constituencies.

How does my vote affect the results?

The 63 members of parliament are divided between the 6 constituencies according to the total population of each area, as follows:
  • Greater capital region: 12 members of parliament
  • North-east Iceland: 9 members of parliament
  • North-west Iceland: 10 members of parliament
  • Northern Reykjavík: 11 members of parliament
  • Southern Reykjavík: 11 members of parliament
  • South Iceland: 10 members of parliament
Seats on the parliament are appointed to the political parties based on the results of the elections in each individual constituency. For example, if 20% of voters in the south voted for a certain party, that party gets 2 candidates elected from their southern list. There are however a few more rules of procedure, which make the matters a bit too complicated to explain on this website. One of these rules is that in order to get any candidates elected at all, a political party must have more than 5% of the total popular vote.
The executive government is formed shortly after the parliamentary elections. The government is formed by the majority party, but must have the support of the majority of the parliament. If the majority of the parliament belongs to the same party, that party may form the executive government on its own, but if no single party has the majority of parliament seats, two or more parties must form a coalition government. In the history of Iceland, all governments have been coalitions.

How are ballots created?

The methods for creating the ballots vary between parties. The larger parties usually hold preliminary elections, where members of the parties may campaign against each other. Other members of the party then vote for candidates to prioritise the list of candidates that will run for office in each constituency. The rest of the ballot is then decided upon by a party committee. The ballots must then be agreed upon at the parties’ national conventions.
Ballots in many of the smaller parties are simply formed by the party committee. They are then usually agreed upon at the parties’ national conventions.

How are local governments in Iceland elected?

Iceland is divided into 74 municipalities. Each municipality has its own local municipal government that is elected in municipal elections.
Most municipalities use the same election system as in the parliamentary elections, where political parties run ballots and the voters vote for one ballot. The municipal parties are often the same political parties as the ones that run for parliamentary elections, but most municipalities have a few of their own local parties.
Voters may vote for one ballot only and the number of representatives from each party is based on the result of the elections. The number of elected representatives in each municipality varies from 15 in the largest municipality, Reykjavík, to 5 in the smallest ones.

Individual voting

Many of the smaller municipalities use individual voting systems, where effectively everyone who lives in the municipality is a write-in candidate. The voters usually write five full names on the ballot. The names that are written most often are then elected as representatives. individual voting used to be very common in municipal elections, but is becoming less and less so.

How is the president of Iceland elected?

The president of Iceland is not the head of state, but the head of nation. All icelandic citizens above 18 may vote for president every four years.
Presidential elections in Iceland are unique in the way that they are the only elections that are based on individual voting without exception. In order to run for president, a voter must be above 35 years of age. Voters choose only one name from a list of candidates in a single-round election. The candidate that gets the most votes is elected president, even if he or she does not receive the majority of votes. If there is only one candidate running for president, the elections are cancelled and the only candidate wins by default. This has happened several times.
Presidential elections are not based on constituencies like the parliamentary elections.

Referendums in Iceland

Referendums are not regular events, but are held when needed, and are becoming increasingly common. There are four types of referendums in Iceland:
  • If the parliament passes a new law, but the president refuses to validate them, a national referendum is held to decide on the validity of the new laws. A recent example is the referendum on the so called IceSave laws.
  • On a few occasions the parliament has decided on its own initiative to call for a national referendum on important matters. An example is the 1944 national referendum on the declaration of independence from the Danish kingdom.
  • On a few occasions the parliament has decided to call for non-binding national referendums. The non-binding referendums are usually in the form of questions about controversial subjects. This type of elections is intended to find out the exact opinion of voters, but the parliament is not bound by law to uphold the results of such elections.  A recent example is the 2012 constitutional referendum.
  • Municipal governments may hold referendums about issues specifically relating to their municipalities. A common example are elections about the merger of two or more municipalities.
All citizens above 18 may vote in referendums. The results of referendums are final and binding except in the case of the non-binding referendums mentioned above.
This article was written in cooperation with Áttavitinn