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After crash, modesty a virtue in Iceland politics

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

No rallies, baby-kissing or even posters: If you weren't told there was an election underway in Iceland this week, you wouldn't know it from walking down the streets of central Reykjavik.

The campaigning ahead of Saturday's parliamentary poll has been a far cry from the last pre-crash vote of 2007, when the island nation's bloated banks poured money into the parties' coffers.

"Some candidates came to the university. Otherwise I haven't seen any of them. Maybe they're shy," suggested Skuli Stinn Vilbergsson, a 29-year-old student.

He wouldn't know any of this year's candidates for parliament by looking at them, he added.

Part of the reason is that the election campaigning has been going on in cyberspace, with all major parties using social media to reach a highly wired electorate.

Extravagant campaign rallies and glossy advertisements fell out of fashion in the aftermath of Iceland's financial crisis in 2008, when the collapse of its banking system threatened to capsize its economy.

"As a collector of election posters I can say that they have become increasingly rare," mused Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson, a political science professor at the University of Iceland.

Still, campaigning through word of mouth and by meeting constituents in the workplace very much remain part of political tradition in this tiny nation of 320,000 people.

Indeed they have become even more important as politicians seek to distance themselves from profligate spending, with some fearing even a poster could be viewed as a sign of political corruption.

"We gave up on everything expensive. In my constituency, to give you a rough estimate, our resources are 30 percent of what they were for the 2009 election," said Magnus Orri Schram, who stood for the social democratic Alliance Party.

A major platform this year has been Facebook, reflecting Iceland's high level of Internet penetration.

That's where the Social Democrats rallied supporters to thank outgoing Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, who is retiring, by gathering on the lawn outside her office carrying a rose.

"Voters are suspicious of too much campaign spending. They link it to potential corruption," said Stefania Oskarsdottir, another political science professor at the University of Iceland.

Since 2010, Icelandic law limits how much money can be given in political donations by private individuals and corporations.

Voter discontent has spawned an unprecedented number of political parties with no less than 15 vying for the 63 seats in the Althing, or parliament which is elected by proportional representation.

One of them, the online file-sharing activist movement Pirate Party, could be the first of its kind elected to a national parliament.

The party has pledged to spend literally nothing on its campaign, but is the third biggest party on Facebook by number of "likes" received.

"We don't spend anything on campaigning. We keep everything to launch initiatives that will enable voters to participate in politics after the election," said co-founder Birgitta Jonsdottir.

In an era of parsimony and electronic communication, the political flyer has become a rarity. Fridrik Atlason, running for the socialist Rainbow Party, was one of few handing them out in central Reykjavik on Friday.

"We need to be seen because we're under five percent," the election threshold, he said. As for his rivals, "I saw them in malls. Maybe they're afraid of the cold," he quipped.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130427/after-crash-modesty-virtue-iceland-politics