The president of Iceland used to be a largely ceremonial position. All we ever expected of our heads of state was to carry themselves regally, take foreign dignitaries to Gulfoss and Þingvellir, and put their signature on the laws Parliament passed. A law not signed by the president would either need to be put up to public referendum or be withdrawn, but no one ever really worried about this, because the president was not regarded as a political office so much as a symbolic and ceremonial one.
Those were simpler times, and they would come to an end in 2004.
Back in the early 21st century, there weren’t a lot of options in the Icelandic media landscape, and the most popular newspaper of the day was Morgunblaðið, a daily paper with a fairly obvious conservative bent that favoured the Independence Party. The Prime Minister at this time was Davíð Oddsson, a former Morgunblaðið correspondent himself and the chair of the Independence Party.
However, there was a new kid on the block: Fréttablaðið, a newspaper that was not only daily but also, unlike Morgunblaðið, free of charge. It was owned by the company 365 Miðlar, the CEO of which was a man named Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson.
Arguably Iceland’s first tycoon, Jón Ásgeir owned retail outlets, real estate companies, and a media conglomerate. Fréttablaðið was starting to perform really well, especially with a staff of hungry reporters who, unlike Morgunblaðið, actively questioned the conservative government. You probably see where this is going.
Davíð strikes back
The greatest sin a tycoon can commit is use his wealth to question political authority. The rich and powerful are supposed to be BFFs, after all, and Davíð was none too pleased with how Jón Ásgeir’s paper was threatening his beloved conservative mouthpiece, Morgunblaðið. So in his capacity as chair of the ruling government party, he drafted a bill that. while ostensibly designed to prevent media monopolies, was clearly designed to break up 365 Miðlar and shut down Fréttablaðið.
Polling showed some 80% of the population opposed the bill, but being submitted by the ruling coalition, it sailed right through anyway, passed comfortably, and landed on the president’s desk for his signature.
Only the president at the time, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, refused to sign it. The unthinkable had happened, and being well aware of the poll numbers about this bill, Davíð opted to withdraw the bill rather than put it up for public vote.
Many accused Ólafur Rangar of taking a political position—he was once not only an MP but also the chair of the parliamentary group for the People’s Alliance, a left-wing party—and, as mentioned, presidents were not supposed to be political. They were supposed to look great in livery collars.
The move was also bold because it was a presidential election year. While Ólafur Rangar was re-elected with 85.6% of the ballots, a lot of blank ballots were submitted, and voter turnout was a bit lower than usual, which could have been the result of disgruntled conservatives.
Ólafur Ragnar would exercise his veto powers two more times–in 2010 and 2011, both in connection to the failed online savings bank Icesave (the subject for a whole other article). He would continue to be re-elected until 2016, when he opted not to run again, having been in office for 20 years.
In 2009, Davíð Oddsson became co-editor of Morgunblaðið.
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