Iceland centre-right scores clear election victory

Iceland's centre-right opposition has scored a clear victory in the island's parliamentary poll, allowing the two parties to kick off negotiations for a coalition government, a final count Sunday showed.

The right-wing Independence Party was ahead in the popular vote with 26.7 percent, giving it 19 seats in parliament, and its leader Bjarni Benediktsson was expected to seek a government with the support of the agrarian-centrist Progressive Party, which got 24.4 percent of the vote and also 19 legislative seats.

The opposition had already declared victory as voters punished the incumbent leftist government for harsh austerity measures during its four years at the helm.

The success marks a return to power for the two parties, which both want to end the Atlantic island nation's European Union accession talks.

"The Independence Party is called to duty again," Bjarni Benediktsson, the party's 43-year-old leader, told supporters, saying he was ready to negotiate a coalition that would lead the country.

"The situation now calls for change," he said. As of early Sunday, a count of 95 percent of the votes suggested his party would get 19 seats in parliament, up from 16.

The two parties have staged a remarkable comeback since they were ousted in a 2009 election after presiding over the worst financial crisis to ever hit the small nation of 320,000 people.

Before the crisis, the mortgages offered by Icelandic banks were linked to inflation, resulting in spiralling borrowing costs for homeowners when the krona collapsed against other currencies.

After four years of tax hikes and austerity designed to meet international lenders' demands, the Independence Party has offered debt-laden voters tax credits.

The Independents' historic coalition partner, the Progressive Party, which is set to more than double its number of seats to 19 from nine, has vowed to go even further by asking banks to write off some of the debt.

"We will change Iceland for the better very fast in the coming months and years," said the party's leader, 38-year-old Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson.

The biggest party traditionally picks the prime minister, and polls in the final weeks of campaigning had put the two parties neck-and-neck. With 95 percent of the votes counted, the Independence Party was ahead in the popular vote, with 26.7 percent against 24.3 percent for the Progressive Party.

The incumbent social democratic Alliance Party was looking at a drop in parliamentary seats from 19 to nine. The party leader, Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, who is 70, said prior to the poll she was retiring.

The election was largely seen as a protest vote, and few members of the electorate had anything positive to say about their politicians as they left the polling booths on election day Saturday.

"The government was no good. They were elected for us, the people, and they didn't do anything for the nation," said Thordur Oskarsson, 73.

Another voter, 49-year-old Anna Katrin Kristiansdottir, said "everything was in ruins" when the leftist government took office, and accused voters of having a short memory.

"That's why the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, which led us to the disaster, are coming back already," she said.

The opposition victory could spell the end of EU membership negotiations, as both the Progressives and the Independents are in favour of putting a halt to Iceland's bid.

But the issue has taken a backseat to Icelanders' falling spending power and sliding living standards.

"I think there is a broader lesson from Iceland in that if the goal is to preserve living standards, reduce unemployment and so on, then following a policy of strict austerity is not the way to go," said Kolbein Stefansson, a sociology lecturer at the University of Iceland.

The social democratic-led government had been "quite successful in restoring the economy", but failed to make that point to the electorate, he argued.

"I think a lot of people feel that the government has been representing the system more than the interests of the families and people in Iceland," he said.

Voter discontent has spawned an unprecedented number of political parties. One of them, the online file-sharing activist movement Pirate Party, looked likely to win three seats in parliament.

This would make it the first of its kind elected to a national parliament. This development, if confirmed, would be "historic for the Pirate movement," said Birgitta Jonsdottir of the Pirate Party.

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