2001 Scores

Status: Free
Freedom Rating: 1.0
Civil Liberties: 1
Political Rights: 1


In parliamentary elections in May 1999, Prime Minister David Oddsson's conservative Independence Party and the centrist Progressive Party led by Foreign Minister Halldor Asgrimsson held on to a majority of seats in the Althingi (parliament) as voters responded to their promises of continued stability and prosperity. Oddsson, who has been in power for nine years, is now Europe's longest-sitting prime minister. Under his leadership, the country has continued its economic upswing, with the unemployment rate remaining below 2 percent in 2000, among the lowest rates in the world.

Iceland achieved full independence in 1944. Multiparty governments have been in power since then. On August 1, 1996, the former finance minister and former leader of the leftist People's Alliance, Dr. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, was sworn in as Iceland's fifth president.

During the year, the government continued with a deregulation and privatization program affecting a few industries such as telecommunications. Although Iceland has strong historical, cultural, and economic ties with Europe, Icelanders are hesitant to join the European Union (EU), primarily because of its Common Fisheries Policy, which Icelanders believe would threaten their marine industry. Fishing accounts for 80 percent of Iceland's exports and half of its export revenues.

President Oddsson continues to rule out joining the European Monetary Union. Meanwhile, the opposition is divided into two camps, with the Social Democratic faction of the United Left bloc in favor of submitting an application to the EU, and the Green-Left Alliance opposing Union membership.

Iceland handed over its citizens' genetic data to a private, U.S.-backed, medical research company in 2000, raising some fears over privacy issues. Iceland, the most genetically homogenous nation on earth, went ahead with the plan on the grounds that the data could provide scientists with vital clues into the origin of diseases, thus increasing the chances of discovering cures. While a law was passed requiring doctors to hand over patient information, the government did contain a provision that allows citizens to opt out of providing genetic data. Only five percent of Icelanders reportedly decided not to participate in the program.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Icelanders can change their government democratically. Iceland's constitution, adopted by referendum in 1944, vests power in a president (whose functions are mainly ceremonial), a prime minister, a legislature, and a judiciary. The president is directly elected for a four-year term. The unicameral legislature is also elected for four years (subject to dissolution). The prime minister, who performs most executive functions, is appointed by the president but is responsible to the legislature.

The constitution provides for freedom of speech, freedom of peaceful assembly and association, and freedom of the press. A wide range of publications includes both independent and party-affiliated newspapers. An autonomous board of directors oversees the Icelandic State Broadcasting Service, which operates a number of transmitting and relay stations. There are both private and public television stations. Iceland has the highest Internet penetration rate in the world, with more than 80 percent of the population accessing the Internet from home.

In recent years Iceland has not received a substantial number of refugees or asylum seekers. During the Kosovo crisis, Iceland accepted a few dozen refugees. Although there is no national refugee legislation, a draft refugee law is under preparation. Legislation adopted in 1996 permits homosexuals to live together in a formal relationship with the same legal rights as in marriage, minus the right to adopt children or to be artificially inseminated.

Virtually everyone in the country holds at least nominal membership in the state-supported Lutheran Church. Freedom of worship is respected, and discrimination on the basis of race, language, social class, or sex is outlawed. About 76 percent of all eligible workers belong to free trade unions, and all enjoy the right to strike. Disabled persons enjoy extensive rights in employment and education.

The country's judiciary is independent. The law does not provide for trial by jury, but many trials and appeals use panels consisted of several judges. All judges, at all levels, serve for life. Gender-based equality is guaranteed by law. There remains about a 20 percent gap in earnings between men and women in comparable jobs. In 1995, women held 17 out of the 63 seats in parliament. After the 1999 elections, the number rose to 22. The Women's Alliance, an Icelandic feminist movement founded in 1983, is registered as a political party and has its own parliamentary faction.

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