Iceland's Early Election Prime Minister Steps Down amid Violent Protests

Icelandic Prime Minister Geir Haarde on Friday called early elections following violent protests on the streets of Reykjavik. Meanwhile, Europe's top politicians are on edge following clashes in Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Greece.

Icelandic Prime Minister Geir Haarde, rattled by the financial crisis and widespread anti-government protests, called early national elections for May 9 on Friday and announced he was stepping down.

Haarde, 57, said he would not seek re-election because he has a throat tumor. The new timetable brings forward elections which were due in 2011.

Iceland, the epicenter of the banking crisis, saw huge debts toppling its banks last autumn. Its fragile economy is expected to contract by 10 percent this year. Faced with rocketing unemployment and rising inflation, Icelanders have increasingly taken to the streets to voice their anger.

Tensions in Reykjavik peaked on Thursday night when police used tear gas to control rioters for the first time since 1949. Demonstrators say the ruling Independence Party have brought financial ruin to a once wealthy island. In recent days, crowds of 2,000 -- from a population of 320,000 -- have gathered in front of the parliament to rail against the government.

Polls suggest a new election would likely spell a swing to the left with the Left-green party profiting from the tide of anti-capitalist sentiment.

Icelanders haven't been the only ones in Europe taking to the streets to voice their disgust at worsening economic conditions. People in Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary and Greece have likewise been voicing their frustration.

Indeed, with the European wave of social unrest gathering speed, there have been signs of concern among top European Union politicians. In March, a summit of European leaders will focus on the rising protests, a senior European Union source told the British newspaper The Daily Telegraph on Thursday. "There are concerns. The EU shares them. It is one of the major challenges for the Spring Council," the senior European source said.

In December, French President Nicolas Sarkozy even went so far as to warn of "May 1968" protests spreading across Europe. Since then "intensive sharing of information" is under way among a number of EU governments, including France and Germany. Concern has risen as riots in various countries in Europe have grown more dramatic among soaring unemployment and slashed government spending.

Last week, Lithuanian police fired tear gas at demonstrators who threw stones at the parliament in protest at government social spending cuts. Meanwhile in Bulgaria, hundreds protesters smashed windows, fought police and damaged cars when an anti corruption protest escalated into a riot.

jas -- with wire reports


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