The Presidency At A Crossroads

14.6.2012
Words by Egill Helgason
Iceland is one of the few nations in Europe that holds general elections to choose a president who is basically a figurehead. Most presidents of this kind in Europe are elected by parliaments. But Icelanders have a lot of feeling invested in the presidency, even if their past presidents wielded no political power.

The Icelandic presidency has in many ways been akin to the kingdoms of Scandinavia, where kings and queens are ornamental figures. It has been considered bad form, and even rude, to run against a sitting president, so presidents have essentially been able to remain in office for as long as they like. Ásgeir Ásgeirsson was president for 16 years between 1952 and 1968; followed by Kristján Eldjárn, who served for 12 years; and Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who served for 16 years. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has now been in office since 1996 and will become the longest standing president if he is elected for a fifth term this June.

A POLITICALLY NEUTRAL POST

In the days of former President Vigdís, one foreign analyst of Icelandic politics described her as “a queen without a crown.” This was not far off. Presidents, once elected, could look at the office as their own, and they were treated with great reverence. At the same time they were not supposed to have real opinions on anything political. Kristján Eldjárn was a former director of the National Museum who made speeches on things historical and cultural, and Vigdís was a former theatre director who planted trees and talked generally about the meaning of being Icelandic.

Kristján Eldjárn and Vigdís did not play politics. They had both been against the US military base in Keflavík—for long the single most divisive issue in Icelandic politics—but when they became presidents they never talked about this. They were well loved by the population, even if their speeches tended to be rather boring. No one really dreamed of having a president who behaved otherwise.

ENTER ÓLAFUR RAGNAR 
GRÍMSSON

In 1996, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was elected president. He had been an active politician since the late sixties, and had not been very popular. During the elections, however, he managed to transform into something modest and reasonable, somewhat in the vein of Kristján and Vigdís. Gone was the political warrior. Most of his votes came from the left wing; in fact, he was elected by only 40% of the vote. According to tradition, he was soon accepted by most as president, though a part of The Independence Party never forgot his political past and still had it in for him.

Behind his modest façade, Ólafur Ragnar was still a politician who craved power, and as a former professor of political science, he was also more knowledgeable about the constitution than most others. When it comes to the presidency, the constitution is horribly muddled. Since its adoption in 1944, when Iceland became a republic, there have been plans to change it, but a consensus has never been reached.

LATENT POWERS AWAKENED

Ólafur Ragnar realised that the constitution gave him certain powers, and that if he used them in cases where he would have a majority of the population behind him, Parliament would not be able to resist. He first exercised these political powers in 2004, vetoing an unpopular media bill passed by Parliament, and then again in 2009 and 2010, in both cases vetoing on bills stipulating how Iceland should repay the UK and Holland for losses incurred as result of the banking crash in 2008.

This proved to be immensely popular. Parliament was bereft of trust after the crash and Ólafur Ragnar came through as a guardian of public interest. This was also a case of self-reinvention, because just after the collapse Ólafur Ragnar was a despised figure for having cavorted with the financiers who brought ruin on Iceland, entertaining them at his residence and decorating them with medals.

 
Now there was no stopping Ólafur Ragnar. He did interviews with foreign media such as the BBC, Al Jazeera and CNN, in which he expressed viewpoints that were totally opposed to government policy. The government was mortified and opinions shifted: his old voters and admirers from the left abandoned him in droves, and instead he gained a large following on the right wing and from those with nationalistic sentiments. Now Ólafur Ragnar enjoys the support of about 60% of Independence Party voters, while less than 20% of the ruling Social Democratic Party says it is willing to vote for him.

THE GUARDIAN OF THE PEOPLE

Ólafur has made himself out to be a guardian of the people. Unlike Parliament, which has a 10% approval rating, Ólafur enjoys more popularity. So he keeps pushing the limits. Now he speaks as if it is normal for a president to have his own foreign policy, something that would have been unthinkable in the days of Kristján and Vigdís. He is vocally against Iceland joining the EU, which is embarrassing for a government that is negotiating terms of accession.

There has even been talk that the constitution gives the president further powers. Ólafur Ragnar has only broached this subject, but some of his followers have started talking openly about it. They claim that the president could actually dismiss a government and nominate a new one, though many would probably regard such a move as a coup d'état. Iceland is a parliamentary democracy and Parliament would most likely rise up to defend itself. Admittedly this is an unlikely scenario, but Ólafur Ragnar has indicated that this is something he pondered in January 2009 in the wake of the crash.

AN UNPRECEDENTED RACE

Will Ólafur Ragnar be re-elected for the fifth term? Possibly. But there are things that play against him. Many think he has been in office too long, and perhaps he thought so too, not announcing that he would run again until March. His hesitation was rather awkward. Others point to his behaviour during the bubble years, when he was a sort of a chief spokesman for the financiers, espousing their ideas in speeches, which many now think are outrageous.

Also, for the first time in history, a reigning president faces real opposition. There are five candidates running against Ólafur Ragnar in the elections, which will be held on June 30. Only one of them seems to have a real chance of beating him: Þóra Arnórsdóttir, who was until recently the host of a popular television quiz show. Þóra is quite young, she is the mother of young children, including one born just a few weeks ago, and she is blond and somewhat reminiscent of the beloved president Vigdís. Politically, she is tabula rasa. It has really not been properly explained why she is running.

An overwhelming majority of those who support the present left-wing government intend to vote for her. This might be a weakness, as the government is extremely unpopular, and Ólafur Ragnar has tried to exploit this by linking Þóra to Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir.

True, Þóra was once a member of the 
Social Democratic movement, and she once was a member of the movement to join the EU. Nowadays this sentiment is not a vote winner, as 70% of the voters are against Iceland joining. Ólafur Ragnar has placed himself firmly in the anti-EU camp now and demands that Þóra explain her foreign policy. She resists, saying it is not the president’s job to have views on such matters.

A RETURN TO THE PAST?

Þóra is very careful with her statements and thus it is uncertain what she stands for—many who say they plan to vote for her seem to do so mainly because they dislike Ólafur Ragnar. It is clear that she would not be using the powers of the president as Ólafur Ragnar has done; she might even hark back to the days of Kristján and Vigdís who never touched the presidential veto. But after the economic collapse and the two Icesave vetoes, this might not be the flavour of the year, and Þóra seems uncertain about this crucial matter.

It remains to be seen whether Ólafur Ragnar will get a mandate to keep on in this vein or if we will backtrack, which is really what the elections are about. It is said that the president should be a symbol of national unity—in the past this has sometimes taken the form of boring speechifying—but the moment a president starts using the veto power, some part of the nation will start disliking him.

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