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Iceland goes to the polls

REYKJAVIK, Apr 25 – Iceland goes to the polls in a snap general election on Saturday, some six months after its economy collapsed and massive public protests forced the government to resign in January.

The Republic of Iceland comprises one large island — the 17th largest in the world — and several smaller ones situated near the Arctic Circle in the North Atlantic.

GEOGRAPHY: Iceland has a surface area of 103,000 square kilmetres (40,000 square miles), 11.5 percent of it under glaciers, located 300 kilometres (180 miles) southeast of Greenland and 900 kilometres (550 miles) north of Scotland. Only one percent of the land is cultivatable. The Gulf Stream keeps Iceland warmer than might be expected.

POPULATION: 319,000 (2008)

CAPITAL: Reykjavik

LANGUAGE: Icelandic

RELIGION: Lutheran Church of Iceland 82.1 percent, Roman Catholic Church 2.4 percent, others 15.7 percent (2006)

HISTORY: Discovered in the eighth century by Irish monks, Iceland was first colonised by Norway then, from 1380, by Denmark. It became autonomous in 1905, was linked to the Danish crown from 1918, and became fully independent as a republic in June 1944 following a referendum.

INSTITUTIONS: Iceland is a parliamentary democracy, with a 63-seat legislature, the Althing, elected by universal suffrage every four years.

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The president, elected by universal suffrage every four years, has an essentially ceremonial function. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson was first elected in August 1996 following four successive terms by Vigdis Finnbogadottir.

Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, of the Social Democrats, has been in office since February, heading an interim coalition with the Left Green Movement.

ECONOMY: Iceland was one of Europe\’s most prosperous countries until its three biggest banks and oversized financial sector collapsed in October under the weight of the global credit crunch. The country was pushed to the verge of bankruptcy, as its currency plummeted by 44 percent and thousands of people lost their jobs.

It received a 2.1 billion dollar bailout from the International Monetary Fund in November, and some early signs of recovery have been observed.

Iceland has its fishing and aluminium sectors to fall back on. Fishing, its traditional economic base, accounted for 36.6 percent of overall exports last year, second only to products manufactured by the aluminium industry, which represented 52.1 percent of exports, according to Statistics Iceland.

Tourism is continuing to grow, and the island\’s rich potential in hydroelectric and geothermal power is being tapped.

Unemployment was virtually non-existent before the crisis, rising from 2.3 to 7.1 percent in the first quarter. It is expected to hit 10 percent by the end of the year.

Inflation peaked at 18.6 percent in January before sliding back to 17.6 percent in February. Growth was 0.3 percent in 2008, but is expected to contract by 10 percent in 2009.

GDP: 52,000 dollars per capita (2008), down by 20 percent from 2007.

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DEFENCE: Apart from its coastguard Iceland has no defence forces of its own but is a member of NATO. The United States withdrew in 2006 from the Keflavik air base that provided defence to the island.

ORGANISATIONS: Iceland is a member of the Nordic Council and of the European Free Trade Association.

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