Protests bring down Iceland’s government

by Chris Bambery

The government of Iceland became the first to be driven out of office in this recession by a wave of popular protest this week.

Weeks of demonstrations forced prime minister Geir Haarde and his cabinet to resign.

Some 10,000 people converged on parliament when it re-opened after the Christmas break.

Protesters pelted the prime minister’s car with eggs. They surrounded the vehicle and banged on it with cans.

Haarde was rescued by riot police, who used tear gas for the first time since 1949.

The demonstrations targeted Iceland’s parliament, government ministers and the country’s central bank.

Iceland has been hit badly by growing unemployment as well as sharp rises in food and petrol costs following last October’s bank collapse. Interest rates are now nearly 20 percent.

People know they will be expected to pay for the huge foreign debts amassed by the banks.

The resignation of Haarde, who belongs to the right wing Independence party means his coalition partners, the Social Democrats, will head the new government, probably in coalition with the Left-Green Movement.

The collapse of the Icelandic government follows the announcement that European Union (EU) leaders are to hold emergency talks in March about mounting social unrest caused by the economic crisis.

Just two weeks ago 10,000 protesters laid siege to the Latvian parliament over austerity measures demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and EU.

Protesters hurled eggs, paint and ice at the parliament, demanding the government resign.

Police attacked the crowd with tear gas and rubber-tipped bullets.

There have also been riots and protests in Lithuania, Bulgaria, Hungary and Greece as well as Latvia.

One Latvian diplomat posted the following comment on the EU observer website, “Latvians are normally very quiet. People are seeing what is happening in other countries… such as Greece, and they thought: ‘Why are we so calm?’”

The IMF-imposed austerity measures come at a time when personal debt is far higher in eastern Europe than it is in western Europe and governments preside over huge budget deficits.

The Financial Times talked of mounting unease among EU officials: “In Brussels there is growing concern that the public protests could spread across the entire region where many governments depend on narrow majorities or are based on shaky coalitions.”

Meanwhile French president Nicholas Sarkozy is facing a mass strike on Thursday of this week which will bring together public and private sector workers.

Rail workers, bank staff, air traffic controllers, lecturers, postal workers, supermarket employees and school students are just some of the groups set to take part in protests against Sarkozy’s free market reforms and mounting job losses.

Unemployment is particularly high among young people.

A recent opinion poll found that 70 percent of French people either support or sympathise with the strikes.


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