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 Akureyri’s “unity government” to tackle the crisis

Akureyri’s “unity government” to tackle the crisis

| Text: Guðrún Helga Sigurðardóttir

All five political parties on the city council of Northern Iceland’s largest city, Akureyri, have formed a coalition. Until the next election, they must work together to tackle the crisis created by the Corona pandemic and the loss of tourism income.

“We could call the municipal cooperation in Akureyri a “unity government”. At this early stage, it is difficult not to support the idea. The city councillors will work together on making difficult decisions. This is something we recognise from cooperation on a national government level elsewhere in Europe, where unity governments have been formed in the face of a crisis,” says Professor Grétar Þór Eyþórsson at the University of Akureyri. 

More humane politics

Hilda Jana Gísladóttir heads the social democratic party in Akureyri. She says the decision to form a unity government has a long history. Different parties and individual politicians have had different opinions. City councillors have long been talking about how to improve politics and make it more humane, efficient and better. There has also been a debate about whether Akureyri should try voting for individuals rather than for political parties.

Akureyri politicians

Akureyri politicians have decided to put party politics to one side and cooperate to solve the crisis which has emerged in the wake of the Corona pandemic.

“But cooperation has been really good over the past ten years. We started the election period by agreeing on a communication plan – treating each other with respect in debates and avoid hard conflicts in the city council and in debates. We want to exchange opinions in a rational and good way,” explains Hilda Jana. 

She thinks it is a good idea to start discussing the communication. The focus has been on information and active information flow. Everyone gets the same information at once – city councillors, the mayor and other managers – because it is important that they all take part in the decision-making process. 

Agreeing to changes

When the Corona pandemic broke out, it quickly became apparent that Iceland’s municipalities would be facing financial problems as a result. Hilda Jana says this led to a debate in Akureyri about how councillors could agree to changes without conflict. There are just 18 months left of the current term, and it is important to use that time in the most efficient way. 

“Everyone agreed to protect vulnerable groups, prioritise children and young people, focus on public communication, make sure the municipality follows a sustainable strategy and so on. 

Hilda Jana “We decided to see whether this would work. It does not mean that everyone has to agree on everything, but both the majority and minority must be heard. There are no blocks along party political lines, everyone votes according to their own conscience,” she says.

A previous unity government

Professor Grétar Þór Eyþórsson says Akureyri city councillors have a good history when it comes to cooperating. The political atmosphere has been good and without conflicts. A unity government was formed once before in 1946. In fact, party politics in smaller municipalities rarely dominate.  

Grétar Þór Eyþórsson“There are often few disagreements and they do not follow party political lines in municipalities and smaller cities. But you do find differences in opinion between different councillors on different issues,” the Professor explains. 

Councillors in Iceland’s largest cities have been working along party political lines, however. The parties have their candidates and the parties have had their councillors in the councils. But in municipalities of less than 1,000 to 2,000 citizens, party politics are less visible. People have had their own independent electoral lists. Professor Grétar Þór Eyþórsson thinks this reduces the numbers of problems in district councils.

Politics as theatre

Hilda Jana is happy with the Akureyri experience of a unity government so far. She thinks politics is often presented as a play with winners and losers. Politics has so far been about trying to secure as much power as possible. She thinks many voters experience politics as a theatre piece with not enough information.

“That is not the way it should be,” she says.

“That is why we have used to vote for those we agree with. But in politics, the politicians are sat in a room with information which they do not want to share. That is also not the way it should be. Everyone knows that we need to change politics.” 

Discussing solutions

The Akureyri unity government is a pilot. Hilda Jana thinks mistakes will be made but the aim is to find ways in which to make politics better. The unity government pilot will not necessarily solve the economic problems by itself, but it will hopefully become easier to find solutions and make good decisions.

Professor Grétar Þór Eyþórsson does not think unity governments will become popular in Iceland going forward, despite the Akureyri initiative. He does not believe it will be possible to establish unity governments in the capital region. But it will be exciting to see how things pan out in Akureyri. He guesses that this winter’s snow clearing will be the first hot potato for the city councillors – where and how fast should the snow be cleared?

Snow clearing

Winters can be rough in Northern Iceland. Snow clearing is one of the areas where Akureyri aims to save money. Photo: Akureyri municipality.


Akureyri is a university city with nearly 19,000 citizens. The municipality is not among the hardest hit from the Corona crisis. But tourism is a considerable part of the local economy and it has nearly been wiped out. The deficit for the year’s first six months alone was 1.3 billion Icelandic kronor (€8m). The aim is to balance the books within five years.

Akureyri government

Presentation of the Akureyri unity government 

According to the coalition parties want to establish a new municipal bus network, introduce parking fees in central Akureyri, sell off property, reduce the costs of snow clearance and review wages for municipal top management and elected officials.


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