When the Faroes went to the polls this autumn, a whole Rubik’s cube of issues was at stake.

That is because in these islands, as in Scotland, politics are divided along two spectrums: from left to right and from unionist to nationalist.

Today the Faroes, 170 miles or so north-west of Shetland, belong to the realm of Denmark. But they run most of their own affairs.

Now, in a debate that will be familiar to Scottish readers, the 49,000 islanders continue to mull whether to foster the Danish bond, or move towards full independence.

HeraldScotland: The Faroe Islands

A referendum in 1946 brought a narrow Yes for the latter, but Copenhagen quashed any follow-up.

The current self-rule agreement lets the Faroese decide whether and when to seek a split.

But public opinion seems nicely balanced on the matter, with many even on the pro-independence side favouring baby steps, in an echo of the gradualist wing of the SNP.

The last government, elected in 2011, had a clear-cut stance.

It was centre-right on the left-right scale and based its economic policies on austerity.

On sovereignty issues it tried to move closer to Copenhagen, though failing to win an increase in Denmark’s subsidy to the Faroese budget (now around seven per cent of public income).

It abolished a separate foreign ministry, bringing Faroese diplomats directly under control of the prime minister, Kaj Leo Holm Johannesen, pictured below.


Politics have been rough in the Faroes in recent years.

Originally with four parties, this coalition lost one in 2013 when a minister was accused of improperly handling an expensive tunnel-building project.

Opinion polls began to shift, favouring rather the main left-wing alternative, Social Democrats, and the pro-independence Republic party. A Progress party that split off from the traditional conservatives, with a more open policy on social issues and autonomy, also did well in opposition.

The beginning of the end came in mid-2015 when the prime minister was accused of complicity in the tunnel affair.

Johannesen decided to call new elections. He maintained his innocence, however, and led his Union party into the election campaign.

The outcome was more dramatic than many expected.

A clear swing to the Social Democrats (SD), Progress party, and the two pro-independence parties (Republic and New Self-rule) made the SD leader Aksel Johannesen (no relation) the obvious Prime Minister.


Mr Johannsen, pictured above, formed his coalition with the Republic and Progress Parties.

A majority of Faroese voters thus opted for the left-centre platform of a more socially balanced and pro-welfare policy.

The new coalition promised long-term stability through guided economic development, combined with reforms in the dominant fisheries sector to maximize public as well as private benefit.

While the SDs as largest party are not pro-independence overall, the election results included clear prompting for further moves on the autonomy front.

But the vote also showcased another issue that surprised many observers. Faroese society has long been depicted as conservative with a small "c", partly because of strong Lutheran Church influence.

On gender issues and notably LGBT rights, it has lagged behind the typically open-minded Nordic norm.

In the new elections a prominent lesbian called Sonja Jógvansdóttir – incidentally living with a female former minister – was the second most popular candidate on the SD list, gaining half as many personal votes as the new prime minister.

HeraldScotland: Sonja Sonja

Overall one in three of the new MPs are women, an all-time record.

Their small scale notwithstanding, Faroese politics can be as volatile as any others. When the new coalition failed to include a gay marriage provision, Ms Jógvansdóttir quit her party, while offering firm support for all other government measures. The new prime minister meanwhile gave a record four out of seven ministerial posts to women.

A string of other personal and party moves has left Mr Johannesen’s coalition with 16 firm seats out of the parliament’s 33, but with three further pledges of support.

What of the independence issue? An SD-led government won't go for it outright, but there is a strong whiff of change. The coalition programme calls for freezing and then reducing the Danish subsidy and re-establishes a foreign office under a pro-independence minister.

The government will move fast on drafting a new Faroese constitution and put a draft to a national referendum as early as 2017. That vote may well signal how strong and lasting the current move to greater autonomy really is.

By Alyson Bailes