It may surprise travelers to know that Iceland is the world’s oldest democracy. Shortly after its settlement in the late 9th century, the people formed their own ruling body, the Althing, which, except for the first half of the 19th century, has existed continuously, in one form or another, up to the present. Though in Iceland’s early years only male landowners had any voice in government, today all citizens over the age of 18 have the right to vote—and in any given election, about 85% of eligible voters get out to the polls.
After declaring independence from Denmark in 1944, the new Republic of Iceland established a parliamentary democracy with the head of state a directly elected president. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, first elected in 1996, is in the midst of his third term as president. The real power, however, resides with the Althing, which, in today’s political system, is the 63-member parliament. Members are elected every four years, unless the coalition parliament is dissolved and new elections are needed. The prime minister-appointed cabinet must maintain majority support in the Althing; generally the cabinet members are appointed according to which parties hold the most seats in the parliament. In the 60+ years of the Republic of Iceland’s existence, no party has ever held the majority vote, making a coalition government necessary. The prime minister is usually the majority party leader or the leader of the majority coalition. If enjoying Iceland travel today, Geir Haarde, a member of the Independence Party, was just elected prime minister in June 2006.
The center-to-conservative Independence Party has taken one-third to two-fifths of the popular vote since the 1970s. The Progressive Party is generally the second leading party, and other popular parties include the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Party. The Independence and Progressive parties have formed coalition governments from time to time.