Skip to main content Accessibility help

Distrust in Utopia? Public Perceptions of Corruption and Political Support in Iceland before and after the Financial Crisis of 2008

  • Gissur Ó. Erlingsson, Jonas Linde and Richard Öhrvall


In the middle of the first decade of the twenty-first century Iceland was ranked as the least corrupt country in the world by Transparency International and enjoyed top positions in most comparative indices of governance and development. In 2008 the banking system collapsed and the country found itself in a serious financial crisis, a crisis which some observers believe was caused by clientelism and other forms of behaviour related to corruption. This article sets out to analyse how the crisis affected general political support and, in particular, the importance of perceptions of corruption in that process. Using survey data we show that political support plummeted after the crisis and that public evaluations of the extent of corruption became the most important determinant of support. The results have implications for how we ought to approach the issue of corruption, even in so-called ‘least corrupt’ settings. The findings also call into question the validity and reliability of frequently used measures of corruption and governance.



Hide All

Gissur Ó. Erlingsson is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Municipal Studies at Linköping University. Contact email:

Jonas Linde is a Professor in the Department of Comparative Politics at the University of Bergen. Contact email:

Richard Öhrvall is a doctoral student in the Department of Management and Engineering at Linköping University and a Research Fellow at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics, Stockholm. Contact email:



Hide All
Aarts, K. and Thomassen, J. (2008), ‘Satisfaction with Democracy: Do Institutions Matter?’, Electoral Studies, 27(1): 518.
Anderson, C.J. and Tverdova, Y.V. (2003), ‘Corruption, Political Allegiances, and Attitudes toward Government in Contemporary Democracies’, American Journal of Political Science, 47(1): 91109.
Andersson, S. and Heywood, P. (2009), ‘The Politics of Perceptions: Use and Abuse of Transparency International’s Approach to Measuring Corruption’, Political Studies, 57(4): 746767.
Booth, J.A. and Seligson, M.A. (2009), The Legitimacy Puzzle in Latin America: Political Support and Democracy in Eight Nations (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Curini, L. (2010), Satisfaction with Democracy and the Winner–Loser Debate: The Role of Policy Preferences and Past Experience, Working Paper 03/2010 (Milan: Dipartimento di Studi Socili e Politici, Universita degli Studi di Milano).
Dalton, R.J. (2004), Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices: The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
Doorenspleet, R. (2012), ‘Critical Citizens, Democratic Support and Satisfaction in African Democracies’, International Political Science Review, 33(3): 279300.
Easton, D. (1965), A Systems Analysis of Political Life (New York: John Wiley and Sons).
Easton, D. (1975), ‘A Re-assessment of the Concept of Political Support’, British Journal of Political Science, 5(4): 435457.
Erlingsdóttir, I. (2009), ‘Iceland: The Nordic Zimbabwe’, Washington Post, 5 January.
Erlingsson, G.Ó., Linde, J. and Öhrvall, R. (2014), ‘Not so Fair After All? Perceptions of Procedural Fairness and Satisfaction with Democracy in the Nordic Welfare States’, International Journal of Public Administration, 37(2): 106119.
Esaiasson, P. (2010), ‘Will Citizens take No for an Answer? What Government Officials Can Do to Enhance Decision Acceptance’, European Political Science Review, 2: 351371.
Eythórsson, G. and Kowalczyk, M. (2013), ‘Explaining the Low Voter Turnout in Iceland’s 2010 Local Government Elections’, Samtíð, 1: 114.
Eythórsson, G., Gylfason, T. and Jahn, D. (2011), Sustainable Governance Indicators 2011: Iceland Report (Gütershloh: Bertelsmann Schtiftung).
Fieschi, C. and Heywood, P. (2004), ‘Trust, Cynicism and Populist Anti-Politics’, Journal of Political Ideologies, 9(3): 289309.
Fuchs, D. (2007), ‘The Political Culture Paradigm’, in R.J. Dalton and H.-D. Klingemann (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Political Behavior (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 161184.
Galbreath, D.J. and Rose, R. (2008), ‘Fair Treatment in a Divided Society: A Bottom-up Assessment of Bureaucratic Encounters in Latvia’, Governance, 21(1): 5373.
Global Corruption Barometer (2010/11; 2007) (Berlin: Transparency International).
The Guardian (2008), ‘No Wonder Iceland Has the Happiest People on Earth’, The Guardian, 18 May.
Gylfason, T. (2014), Iceland: How Could this Happen?, CESifo Working Paper No. 4605 (Munich: Ifo Institute, Centre for Economic Studies).
Heidenheimer, A.J. and Johnston, M. (2002) (eds), Political Corruption: Concepts and Contexts (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers).
Heywood, P. (1997), ‘Political Corruption: Problems and Perspectives’, Political Studies, 45(3): 417435.
Heywood, P. and Rose, J. (2014), ‘“Close but no Cigar”: The Measurement of Corruption’, Journal of Public Policy, published early online, April, doi:10.1017/S0143814X14000099.
Jain, A.K. (2001), ‘Corruption: A Review’, Journal of Economic Surveys, 15(1): 71121.
Johnson, J.E., Einarsdóttir, Þ and Pétursdóttir, G.M. (2013), ‘A Feminist Theory of Corruption: Lessons from Iceland’, Politics & Gender, 9: 174206.
Johnston, M. (2005), Syndromes of Corruption: Wealth, Power, and Democracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Klingemann, H.-D. (1999), ‘Mapping Political Support in the 1990s: A Global Analysis’, in P. Norris (ed.), Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 3156.
Kristinsson, G.H. (2012), ‘Party Patronage in Iceland: Rewards and Control Appointments’, in P. Kopecky, P. Mair and M. Spirova (eds), Party Patronage and Party Government in European Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 186205.
Leigh, A. and Wolfers, J. (2006), ‘Happiness and the Human Development Index: Australia is not a Paradox’, Australian Economic Review, 39(2): 176184.
Linde, J. (2012), ‘Why Feed the Hand that Bites You? Perceptions of Procedural Fairness and System Support in Post-Communist Democracies’, European Journal of Political Research 51(3): 410434.
Linde, J. and Ekman, J. (2003), ‘Satisfaction with Democracy: A Note on a Frequently Used Indicator in Comparative Politics’, European Journal of Political Research, 42(3): 391408.
Linde, J. and Erlingsson, G.Ó. (2013), ‘The Eroding Effect of Corruption on System Support in Sweden’, Governance, 26(4): 585603.
Lipset, S.M. (1960), Political Man: The Social Bases of Politics (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company).
Manzetti, L. and Wilson, C.J. (2007), ‘Why Do Corrupt Governments Maintain Public Support?’, Comparative Political Studies, 40(8): 949970.
Montinola, G.R. and Jackman, R.W. (2002), ‘Sources of Corruption: A Cross-Country Study’, British Journal of Political Science, 32(1): 147170.
Newton, K. (1999), ‘Social and Political Trust in Established Democracies’, in P. Norris (ed.), Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 169187.
Nord, L. and Shehata, A. (2013), Finanskrisen, förväntningarna och förtroendet (Sundsvall: DEMICON, Mid-Sweden University).
Norris, P. (1997), ‘Representation and the Democratic Deficit’, European Journal of Political Research, 32(2): 273282.
Norris, P. (1999), ‘Introduction: The Growth of Critical Citizens?’, in P. Norris (ed.), Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press): 127.
Norris, P. (2011), Democratic Deficit: Critical Citizens Revisited (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
Oscarsson, H. (2010), ‘Mutor och korruption’, in S. Holmberg and L. Weibull (eds), Nordiskt ljus (Gothenburg: SOM-institutet): 225260.
Oscarsson, H. and Holmberg, S. (2011), The Eight Party Election: The 2010 Election Study (Stockholm: Statistics Sweden).
Önnudóttir, E.H. and Harðarson, Ó.Þ. (2011), ‘Policy Performance and Satisfaction with Democracy’, Stjórnmál & Stjórnsýsla, 7(2): 417436.
Rose, R., Mishler, W. and Haerpfer, C. (1998), Democracy and its Alternatives: Understanding Post-Communist Societies (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press).
Rothstein, B. and Holmberg, S. (2012) (eds), Good Government: The Relevance of Political Science (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar).
Rothstein, B. and Teorell, J. (2008), ‘What is Quality of Government? A Theory of Impartial Government Institutions’, Governance, 21(2): 165190.
Seligson, M.A. (2002a), ‘Trouble in Paradise? The Erosion of System Support in Costa Rica, 1978–1999’, Latin American Research Review, 37(1): 160185.
Seligson, M.A. (2002b), ‘The Impact of Corruption on Regime Legitimacy: A Comparative Study of Four Latin American Countries’, Journal of Politics, 64(2): 408433.
Seligson, M.A. and Muller, E.N. (1987), ‘Democratic Stability and Economic Crisis: Costa Rica, 1978–1983’, International Studies Quarterly, 31(3): 301326.
Sung, H.-E. (2004), ‘Democracy and Political Corruption: A Cross-National Comparison’, Crime, Law & Social Change, 41(2): 179194.
The Telegraph (2009), ‘Iceland Corruption Investigator Joly May Quit in Frustration’, The Telegraph, 11 June.
Tyler, T.R. (2006), Why People Obey the Law (Princeton: Princeton University Press).
Tyler, T.R., Casper, J.D. and Fisher, B. (1989), ‘Maintaining Allegiance toward Political Authorities: The Role of Prior Attitudes and the Use of Fair Procedures’, American Journal of Political Science, 33(3): 629652.
United Nations (2008), Human Development Report 2007/2008 (New York: United Nations).
Vaiman, V., Sigurjónsson, T.O. and Davídsson, P.Á. (2011), ‘Weak Business Culture as an Antecedent of Economic Crisis: The Case of Iceland’, Journal of Business Ethics, 98(2): 259272.
Viken, B. (2011), ‘The Birth of a System Born to Collapse: Laissez-faire the Icelandic Way’, European Political Science, 10: 312323.
Villoria, M., Van Ryzin, G.G. and Lavena, C.F. (2012), ‘Social and Political Consequences of Administrative Corruption: The Case of Spain’, Public Administration Review, 73(1): 8594.
Wade, R. and Sigurgeirsdottir, S. (2010), ‘Lessons from Iceland’, New Left Review, 65: 529.
Wagner, A.F., Schneider, F. and Halla, M. (2009), ‘The Quality of Institutions and Satisfaction with Democracy in Western Europe: A Panel Analysis’, European Journal of Political Economy, 25(1): 3041.

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Distrust in Utopia? Public Perceptions of Corruption and Political Support in Iceland before and after the Financial Crisis of 2008

  • Gissur Ó. Erlingsson, Jonas Linde and Richard Öhrvall


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed.