News in Brief Late May 2014

11.6.2014
Words by Larissa Kyzer
With the municipal elections on June 1, many politicians scrambled at the end of May to tilt public approval in their favour, even if it meant appealing to some voters’ worst tendencies. Five days before the elections, polls showed that the Progressive Party was not predicted to earn a seat on the city council. But following Sveinbjörg Birna Sveinbjörnsdóttir’s statement that if she were elected she’d revoke the plot of land intended for Reykjavík’s first mosque, party support rose from 5.3% to 6.8%—which would be just enough for the Progressives to get that seat, and they actually wound up getting two.

As it happened, voter turnout was at a record low for the election, with just under 63% of those eligible casting their ballots in Reykjavík. As predicted, the Social Democrats—led by Reykjavík’s soon-to-be mayor Dagur B. Eggertsson—won the largest share of the vote (31.9%), earning them five seats on the city council. The Social Dems will likely form a four-way coalition with Bright Future (two seats), the Left-Greens (one seat), and the Pirates (one seat).

Following the election, Jón Gnarr remarked that he was worried that results were evidence of disturbing nationalism and xenophobia. “We have seen this movement become more powerful in Europe, with a great deal of fear and suspicion of foreigners,” he said. “This has shocked me and I find it tedious. I would find it awful if Icelanders went in the same direction. It would make me ashamed as an Icelander."

Although clearly, issues related to the rights and treatment of foreigners are far from being resolved here, but some positive changes might finally be afoot. At the end of May, parliament approved a series of significant changes to how asylum applications will be handled in Iceland. For one, a three-person committee will be appointed to review asylum applications instead of these being handled by the Directorate of Immigration or the Ministry of the Interior. The committee will be appointed for five years, and two of the appointed members will be from Iceland’s Human Rights Office. These changes come at a particularly good time: Iceland has just agreed to accept refugees fleeing the crisis in Syria—particularly injured and ill children and their families.

At the national level, many are hopeful that the Progressive Party’s Household Debt Relief package will bring some positive relief for homeowners struggling with mortgage debt. The Household Debt Relief package went into effect this month, allowing individuals to access their own tax-free, private pension holdings in order to pay down up to four million ISK in debt. People can apply for these debt write-offs via the Icelandic/English website leiðrétting.is until September 1.

Alternative modes of transportation continue to be a hot topic, and we may very well see some big developments in carless travel in the near future. For one, the town of Reykjanesbær’s Environment and Planning Department has applied to construct a bike path to the Keflavík airport, about five kilometres away. This path is hoped to improve commuting options for the 750 Reykjanesbær residents who work at the airport, as well as “tourists who increasingly opt to cycle from the airport, down Reykjanesbraut and on to Reykjavík.”

More locally (but perhaps less practically), Reykjavík resident Eysteinn Þ. Yngvason applied to operate a fifty-seat train alongside the Reykjavík harbour. The train would run at walking speed and stop at various points around the old harbour. If the application is successful, the train could be running by early June.

Also on the move was Sigríður Sörensdóttir, who opted to take a four-day horse trip rather than be forced to celebrate her 90th birthday. “I decided to go on this trip so I wouldn’t have to throw a party or participate in all that birthday hassle,” she told reporters, noting that she also has a ten-day riding trip planned for July.

Guðríður Guðbrandsdóttir, who turned 108 last month, was also reflective on her own birthday, saying that the biggest change she’s experienced since her birth in 1906 was the introduction of electricity, and that the worst part of growing old was seeing her friends, 10 siblings and three children pass away. However, being only one of four Icelanders (all women) to reach 108, Guðríður did have some tips on how to live a long life: be cheerful and easy-going.

Elsewhere, the Pig Farmer’s Society of Iceland came under fire for illegal practices this month, namely for castrating pigs without the use of anaesthetic. The Animal Protection Association of Iceland called for a boycott of Icelandic pork until the practice was abolished and, following a public outcry, the association issued a statement that it would immediately adopt more humane methods, using local or general anaesthetic. Eventually, the goal is to stop gelding pigs entirely.

As it happens, reports of animal abuse in Iceland have skyrocketed in recent years. In 2012, 50 possible cases were reported to the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority. Last year, however, this number jumped to 50 complaints per month. Chief Veterinary Officer Sigurborg Daðadóttir has suggested that this increase is not due to the actual increase of animal abuse cases, but rather an increase in Icelanders’ concern about animal welfare.

Case in point: Dalvík resident Ólafur Hauksson was outraged this month when Goggur (“Beak”), a goose he raised from the egg, was dyed blue by unknown assailants. “That’s my goose,” read the captions on a YouTube video he made of the bird being cleaned. “Her name is Goggur. What the fuck is wrong with you people?”

Shortly after, the City of Reykjavík issued its annual public service announcement asking residents and tourists not to feed bread to the ducks and swans at Reykjavík’s pond. Primarily this is because the bread attracts seagulls, which prey on duck eggs and ducklings. But bread also has virtually no nutritional value for ducks and can lead to significant health problems for the birds. So if you can’t control your urge to throw them a snack on your next walk around the pond, you’re advised to opt for halved grapes, cracked corn, or thawed (frozen) peas. (Or just go to the Reykjavík Zoo, guys.)

And, finally for the cuddly bit. The nation sighed a collective “aww” in May when a message in a bottle, written by four-year-old Henrik Hugi from Hafnarfjörður, was discovered halfway around Iceland from where it was thrown in the ocean a year ago. "I put this in the sea with the help of my grandmother, grandfather and mom," Henrik’s message read, along with his phone number, address, and the date. The bottle was found by county councilperson Andrea Kristín Jónsdóttir in Steingrímsfjörður, in the Westfjords. In a particularly nice twist, Andrea Kristín is herself originally from Hafnarfjörður.

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