Iceland: A Comparative Politics Case Study

The Politics of Iceland have always been fascinating, from the public disapproval of the EU to the history of parliament in a national park.

I recently visited Iceland, and found some incredible secrets held on the small Atlantic islands. From political history to geopolitical context, the country makes a fantastic case study for comparative politics to the UK, and this article will look at the fascinating history, geography and politics of Iceland.

Key Figures & Info

DimensionFigureWorld Ranking
Population Density3.5/sq km190th
GDP per person$65,2737th
Gini Index23.22nd
Democracy Index9.372nd
Happiness Index7.5544th

Capital City: Reykjavík
Legislature: Unicameral parliament called Alþingi
President: Guðni Th. Jóhannesson
Prime Minister: Katrín Jakobsdóttir


Initial Icelandic settlers had travelled from Scandinavia (particularly Norway) and the British isles over the late 9th century. Vikings inhabited Iceland as additional land for farming, and many settled on the island in the following years, mostly in the area surrounding what is now known as Reykjavik.

A system of governance was established in 930 known as Alþingi, which is still the name of the Icelandic parliament today. It was at this time that Iceland entered its Commonwealth status as a free country.

Due to its geographic position for fishing and use for farmland, Norway took control of the country in the late 13th century, and this remained until 1380, when Denmark took control of Norway, Sweden and Iceland. Denmark retained control of Iceland until 1944, when Iceland voted 97% in a referendum to become an independent state. Denmark gave little resistance to this decision, probably because of its efforts during World War Two. This was the start of the modern politics of Iceland


Iceland has some of Europe’s most unique and unbelievable geography which help us to understand the background to the politics of Iceland. It is located in the Atlantic Ocean, on the boundary of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. This plate boundary is known as a constructive boundary, as the two plates are moving away from each other. When this happens, lava rises through the gaps that appear, and the island of Iceland was created this way. The Þingvellir National Park is located on the plate boundary, and you can travel between the two continents by car or by foot.

Due to being on a plate boundary, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions are regular, with 500 earthquakes occurring a week, but most are too minor to notice. The most notable geologic activity in recent years was the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, a volcano in the south of the island. This caused havoc to air travel and cancelled flights across Europe and North America for many days. However, our tour guide Magnus noted that this was probably the best thing to happen to Iceland, as tourism as a result of the eruption has similarly exploded!

Iceland is also located between the UK and USA. This means that most tourists fly from these two countries. Keflavik Airport, the main airport in the country, is also used as a stopover for flights between Europe and the US, which is important for Iceland’s economy.



Iceland uses a presidential democracy system, meaning their Head of State is elected separately to the legislature. There is somewhat separation of power, with judicial power being exercised independently, executive power in the hands of the government, and legislative power vested in both the parliament (Alþingi) and the government.

Iceland is commonly known as the oldest democracy in the world, with the Alþingi dating back to the 10th century, with the new building in Reykjavik occupied since 1881. However, the Politics of Iceland have surprisingly kept up-to-date with social changes.


Icelandic elections take place every 4 years, with the most recent occurring in September 2021. It uses a closed list proportional representation system, similar to how European Parliament elections used to work in the UK. It has one of the highest levels of female representation in the world, with nearly 50% of members being female.

Iceland Political Parties
Iceland Election Results


Iceland gets around 85% of its energy from domestic renewable sources, mostly geothermal due to its location on a tectonic plate boundary, along with hydroelectric. It is therefore one of the greenest economies in the world. Around 40% of Iceland’s economy is from fishing, but this has been in decline for many years.

Iceland had the highest HDI of any country in the world until the late 2010s, as a result of a huge financial crisis. All three of Iceland’s privately owned banks defaulted in 2008 following short-term debt issues. There were significant protests and huge recession. The graph shows the value of the Icelandic Krona compared to the US dollar throughout the 21st century, and you can see the huge slump in the late 2010s.

Icelandic Krona to US Dollar

International Relations

The Politics of Iceland extend very far globally. Iceland maintains strong International Relations with most countries, being a member of the UN, NATO and the Nordic Council. The Nordic Council is an inter-parliamentary body between Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, along with the territories of Greenland, the Faroe Islands and Åland. There is strong co-operation on many issues between these countries.

Iceland is also a member of the European Economic Area, along with Norway and Liechtenstein. This means that it is not a full EU member, but does have some benefits, including access to the single market. Iceland had applied to join the EU in 2009, but the majority of Icelanders are against EU membership, and the threat of a referendum meant the application was withdrawn. The main reason for opposition to EU membership is due to the importance of fishing to Iceland’s economy, something that the Common Fisheries Policy of the EU would complicate.


This article has detailed the differences in governance, economy and other areas of the Politics of Iceland in comparison to the UK. It is interesting to see the impact that physical geography can have on different areas of life for the people of Iceland. I would highly recommend anyone to visit the country. The views are breath-taking, and I spent most of my times in awe at what I was seeing. There are lots of secrets that can be easily found when exploring the politics of Iceland!

Table of Contents

The Politics of Iceland

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