From Iceland — Meet The New Mayor Of Reykjavík

Meet The New Mayor Of Reykjavík

Published February 23, 2024

Meet The New Mayor Of Reykjavík
Photo by
Joana Fontinha

From journalism to politics, Einar Þorsteinsson pledges a new chapter for Reykjavík

“Trust me, I’m a reporter,” reads the mug Einar Þorsteinsson is holding in his office overlooking Tjörnin on a gloomy January afternoon. However, Einar is no longer a reporter — these days, he’s wearing much bigger shoes as the mayor of Reykjavík. A fresh face in Icelandic politics, Einar’s political career began practically overnight. Or so it seems — in fact, he postponed taking office for 18 months, opting to learn the job from his predecessor, Dagur B. Eggertsson, Reykjavík’s longest-serving mayor, who left this very office earlier in January. Can Einar’s journalistic past prepare him to effectively run a city? Will we see any radical changes in the capital during his tenure? Einar is optimistic, however only time will tell.

I started very young in journalism — working on the radio at RÚV. Serving the public as a journalist quickly became my calling and has been my goal throughout my professional career. In U.S. politics, they always say, “he entered public service.” We don’t really have a word for that here. We go into politics. But for me, it’s public service.

After eighteen years in journalism, I decided that my time was coming to an end. I had done many of the things that I wanted: I had been in radio, television, doing investigative journalism, and then the talk shows, political news programs and the candidates’ debates for all the elections year after year. I had the feeling that it was enough. At that time, I was 43 years old and decided, “Let’s open a new chapter.”

I entered into politics quite unexpectedly. I’ve never been affiliated with any political party or imagined myself going into politics. But then I saw that the Progressive Party, Framsóknarflokkurinn, which is the central party, can work with both sides. For me, it was a very big factor. When you’re a journalist, you always have to take notice of both sides in every topic and be fair and balanced. As a centre politician, you can work with people from the right and from the left. Being in the middle is very important in today’s politics, where we see the democratic process more and more polarised. You need someone to build bridges and speak with a cold head and a warm heart, addressing the problems that we’re facing and trying to depolarise the political environment. I believe people both need and want that.

“I felt that it was a responsible way to split the term because I had never been a city councillor before.”

When you’re covering society, you’re talking to people about what’s happening in their lives. Sometimes, people are being treated unjustly. You’re reporting it, people talk about it, but you don’t feel like you’re really doing anything. If you want to change society, you have to go into politics. That was my feeling as I went along.

I ran for a party that had not been successful in the last term, with no city representative and no city councillors. It was a big project to establish a campaign and run, but we did it. We got the best election result this party has ever had in Reykjavík and now the first mayor, which is odd because we are one of the oldest parties in Iceland.

We have a coalition government here — political parties are running for 23 seats in the city council. After the election, the leaders of the political parties negotiate and try to find ways to work together. The four political parties forming the coalition then split responsibilities between themselves. Historically, the strongest party usually gets the mayor’s seat. 

We ran with the message that we needed a political leadership change in the city hall and people came by the thousands. The mayor, who just stepped down had been a mayor for 10 years. We made a deal that he would serve the first 18 months and then I would take the remaining 30. 

I felt that it was a responsible way to split the term because I had never been a city councillor before. This is the biggest company in Iceland; we have many employees and provide a very important first-touch service to many citizens. You have to know what you’re talking about to run a company like that. You have to earn trust as a leader. 

First headaches

During most of our time here, we’ve been trying to fix the budget. It was in a much worse state than we thought. If we have an unsustainable budget, we cannot improve the services and grow. That’s been my main task. My vision is that we need to fix the basics — clearing the snow, for example. People need to get around the city easily, especially children, elderly people and people with disabilities. Then the garbage system. This is just something that needs to work. We shouldn’t have to be talking about that over a cup of coffee, wondering why they’re not picking up the trash.

No one’s born to do anything. Every leader is shaped by the challenges that they’re faced with. As the current mayor, I step into a situation where we’re in a housing crisis in the whole capital area. We need affordable housing for people from Grindavík, housing for immigrants, and housing for groups of refugees coming here. We have a growing population. We need more space for children in preschools and kindergartens. 

“It’s not an easy task to run Reykjavík right now.”

It’s hard for me to evaluate what kind of a mayor I will be. I just hope I will be judged fairly on the basis of my promises and actions. I’m very humble towards this task — I know I don’t have all the solutions myself. You always have to work with others. It’s not an easy task to run Reykjavík right now. But I hope my leadership and cooperation with the majority and the minority in the city council will provide us with a better city in 2026.

Reykjavík that listens

Having worked closely with Dagur for the past 18 months, I think I know this job pretty well by now. But it’s a busy job. You have to go around the city every day, meeting people, giving speeches and going into new situations where you have never been before. As a former journalist, I’m kind of a curious type. I like to meet and chat with people. 

Comparing running a city to being a minister or being in the parliament where they’re proposing legislation and starting many initiatives, we are closer to the people. I love being able to make decisions that truly change the lives of the people in Reykjavík. It’s a good feeling to be in direct contact with the citizens and listen to them. This weekend, I’m going to Grafarvogur and Breiðholt. I’m having town hall meetings where I’ll ask, “What do you like about your neighbourhood? What do we need to fix? And what do you want me to do?” I’m just opening up my persona, and I want to listen to the people because I feel that the City Hall needs to listen. 

Public transit, community and rotten shark

The only way to grow as a capital area is to create the Bus Rapid Transit system. If we don’t do that, cars will be useless, because we will be stuck in traffic. We need the BRT, but we also need bike paths and infrastructure for privately owned cars and lorries around the city. This is the task that the Progressive Party put in place in 2019. The chairman of my party led that work, trying to have a joint coalition between all the mayors in the capital area to figure out how we can fix the traffic, reduce emissions and save people’s money. Public transport is a key factor here. 

I do not use public transport often. In this period of my life, I have to drive one of my daughters from Seljahverfi to Garðabær in the morning because the public transport between the two places and the school is not good. This is the reality for so many families in Reykjavík. 

I use the swimming pools and the green areas in my neighbourhood a lot. In each period of your life, you use the city in a different way — when I was younger, I used to go to the bars downtown, now I’m in the period of life where I’m using green areas and playgrounds a lot. I have a 16-year-old, a 10-year-old and a two-year-old. Picking a movie for movie night is really hard.

What I love about Reykjavík is seeing everything that’s going on in the neighbourhoods — the social activities of the parent groups related to the schools and sports clubs. It’s awesome. Now, when we go into Þorrablót, the whole community comes together, eating very strange food like the rotten shark. There’s a sense of community and I like being a part of it.

IZ: As the mayor, could you ban rotten shark?

EÞ: No, definitely not. We will never ban that. 

Meet more interesting people from all over Iceland with our Islanders series.

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