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Thingvellir and Iceland's Politics


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The site of the Althing was at what we now call Thingvellir (the plain of the assembly). It was founded at Thingvellir in 930 and met at the site of the current national park until 1798. As is typical of other Assemblies founded by northern European peoples in the Middle Ages, the Althing functioned as both a kind of legislature and a kind of court during the early days of its existence. It was presided over by the Law Speaker, who was expected to have the entire body of law in the Commonwealth memorized. Over the course of the Law Speaker’s three year term, he was expected to recite the entirety of the law from the Lögberg, the Law Rock, that served as the primary speaking platform for the entirety of the Assembly. Law challenges figure prominently in the sagas and many of the most famous characters in the sagas had ample experience with the law. Icelandic law and tradition during the Commonwealth allowed a great deal of latitude towards socal relations. An example of this can be seen in the 18th chapter of the Laxdaela Saga about the notion of ordeal. 

“Now this tale is spread abroad by Thorkell and his men…but the kinsmen of Thorarin misdouted this tale somewhat, and said they would not believe it unproved, and claimed one half of the heritage against Thorkell; but Thorkell maintained it belonged to him alone, and bade that ordeal should be taken on the matter, according to their custom.”

The politics of contemporary Iceland are conducted within a parliamentary, democratic tradition established when the country gained independence from Denmark in 1944. Since independence, the Independence Party has generally been the largest party in the Althing and has been a part of the government more often than any other party. The Independence Party has been in government (with the exception of the 2009-2013 post-banking collapse win by the Left-Green Alliance) from 1983 to the present day. Every chairman of the party has served as Prime Minister at some point in their career.

The present Prime Minister is Katrín Jakobsdóttir who is the leader of the Left-Green Alliance. She came into office after the inconclusive 2017 parliamentary election. Of particular note in understanding Icelandic politics is the uniquely powerful role played by the Pirate Party (Píratar), a post-industrial political philosophy favoring open access to information, free speech, Internet neutrality and direct democracy.

Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson was elected President of the Republic in 2016. Before becoming president he was noteworthy for being a professor of history at the University of Iceland and other universities and for being one of the translator of Stephen King’s oeuvre into Icelandic.


Jon Cassie