From Iceland — The Amazing Political Acrobat

The Amazing Political Acrobat

Published March 18, 2011

The Amazing Political Acrobat

For many generations of Icelanders there hasn’t been a time when Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, wasn’t around in some form. He is a man of extraordinary political skills—he might even be called a political acrobat—but many doubt whether this is matched by convictions or integrity. All the same, his career is an interesting case study in political acumen and survival.
Ólafur Ragnar was born and bred in the West fjords of Iceland. People there are known to be argumentative and very interested in politics. Stories are still told of legendary political meetings that took place there decades ago. Social Democrats were always quite strong in the region, and Ólafur Ragnar’s father, who was known simply as Grímur the barber, was a leading Social Democrat in the town of Ísafjörður.
There is a famous photograph of Ólafur Ragnar standing at the harbour in the village of Þingeyri, where his grandparents lived. He is a rather chubby boy, standing alone beside the limousine of then president Sveinn Björnsson, who was visiting the village. This is in some ways prescient, indicating his great ambitions from the outset and the fact that he has nearly always been a lone wolf in politics.
Ólafur Ragnar went to England to study political science. Upon returning, he founded the University of Iceland’s Political Science department and became its first professor. He was also active in television. He was the presenter of a series of very controversial programmes; in one of them he interrogated a group of the country’s most eminent bankers—all political appointees—as if they were crooks. This was very extreme in the political climate of early ‘70s Iceland, and Ólafur Ragnar was promptly booted from television.
In this period Ólafur Ragnar presented himself as a young man who wanted to reform the Icelandic party system, bringing together various left parties and factions. His first attempt was within the Progressive Party, traditionally a farmers’ party that sometimes veered to the left, sometimes to the right. Ólafur and his group of young men wanted to steer the party to the left and start working with the Social Democrat party of that time (Alþýðuflokkurinn)—then in government with the large right wing Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) and the socialist People’s Alliance (Alþýðubandalagið).
The leaders of the Progressive Party were mainly interested in guarding prominent party members’ business interests and had limited tolerance for Ólafur Ragnar and his antics. Finally, most of his group left the party, many never to return to the political sphere. Ólafur Ragnar, however, resurfaced within the aforementioned People’s Alliance, the strongest party on the left, which dated back to the Socialist Party of Iceland (which dated back to Iceland’s Communist Party).
The party had mostly shed its communist past—it had been in government from 1971 to 1974—and Ólafur Ragnar surely was no communist. Still, he wasn’t altogether popular among party members. Many considered him an outsider and an opportunist. So even if he eventually became party chair, quite a large faction had great loathing for him, even if he was tolerated for practical reasons.
During that period, Ólafur Ragnar was in many ways the most unpopular politician in Iceland. Sure, he had a group of supporters, mostly young people who wanted to move the old socialist party to the right and forge alliances with the Social Democrats, but he was also detested by the right.
This was somewhat due to his manner of making politics. He was always outspoken, definitely clever, and considered as arrogant and ruthless. Even after losing his seat in Alþingi, Ólafur Ragnar became Minister of Finance from 1988-1991. This earned him the moniker ‘skattmann’ (“taxman”). There was little love between Ólafur Ragnar and Davíð Oddsson, the up and coming strong man of the right (and future Prime Minister of Iceland for thirteen years)—in one instance Ólafur Ragnar described Davíð as having “a shitty nature” in a  speech in Alþingi. The feud between the two has been a mainstay of the Icelandic political scene for decades (until recently, when they found common ground).
Thus it was quite a surprise when Ólafur Ragnar ran for president in 1996. He had kept quiet for a year before it and duly resurfaced as a new man, astoundingly fair and balanced. Gone was the political fighter. His main asset was his charming wife, who everyone liked—up to that point almost no focus had been placed on politicians’ wives in Iceland. The right was quite shocked when Davíð Oddsson and the Independence Party tried to field a candidate against Ólafur Ragnar, a High Court judge who came from a very illustrious family was dubbed their candidate. But compared to Ólafur Ragnar he seemed very boring. What then secured him the election was when a group of business leaders published an advertisement in the media, stating that Ólafur Ragnar was unfit to be president. This had exactly the opposite effect on the voting population.
Even if he only got 41 percent of the vote, that was enough to beat the other three candidates.
The Icelandic President is elected by a general referendum. However, he is a ceremonial figure by tradition. Before Ólafur Ragnar, presidents never got involved in politics. And for the first years, Ólafur Ragnar was on his best behaviour, even though he was still detested by the right and its main newspaper, Morgunblaðið. He looked the job, being tall, grey and distinguished and seemingly getting fitter as he grew older. His wife, Guðrún Katrín Þorbergsdóttir, sadly died from cancer in 1998. A few years later, he went on to marry Dorrit Moussaieff, a wealthy socialite from London who brought an air of glamour to his presidency. The couple were a regular feature in the local gossip press—which would have been considered a ‘faux pas’ with previous presidents.
Then came the time of the Business Vikings, the tycoons that made Iceland a fabulously hip place for a while and then promptly bankrupted the country. Ólafur Ragnar became the great friend and patron of these young men. They were often invited to his residence at Bessastaðir, he rode in their private jets, he gave speeches at parties and ceremonies describing them in the most glowing terms, often dubbing them ‘modern day wizards’. It is generally agreed that he went too far in his support, and he himself has admitted to it. After the crash of October 2008 Ólafur Ragnar became a figure of ridicule, mocked in the media as no other Icelandic president before him.
Traditionally, the Icelandic President can sit peacefully as long as he likes. It is considered bad form to run against a president in office—there are zero instances of ‘real candidates’ doing so. This underlines the quasi-regal nature of the job. But, then, presidents have traditionally never rocked the boat. Ólafur Ragnar had larger ambitions, he is a man who enjoys power and has an eye on history.
When he first ran for president, Ólafur Ragnar indicated that he might use a dormant clause in the constitution stating that the president can veto bills passed by Alþingi. After a presidential veto, bills are to be subjected to a general referendum. Eight years in office, President Ólafur Ragnar struck, vetoing a media bill that was a key issue for his old foe, then-PM Davíð Oddsson. Davíð, by then becoming increasingly erratic, simply withdrew the bill and there was no referendum. But his party strongly advocated that the power of veto be taken from the president.
After the airing of a particularly biting edition of comedy programme ‘Áramótaskaupið’ on New Year’s Eve 2008—a show traditionally watched by every Icelander—Ólafur Ragnar definitely seemed a lame duck president with little hope of restoring his reputation. After a year of quiet humility, he struck again on January 5 2010, vetoing a bill that Parliament had narrowly passed during the last days of 2009 (the bill revolved around the hotly debated Icesave debt, supposedly owed by Iceland to the UK and Holland). This was much to the chagrin of the current left-wing government, manned to a certain extent by Ólafur Ragnar’s old party comrades, friends and foes alike. A national referendum followed, resulting in a resounding no to that particular Icesave bill. Ólafur Ragnar was suddenly hero of the day, not the least to his old enemies on the right who were overjoyed with the government’s debacle.
The government had to re-negotiate on Icesave, and in the last months of 2010 reached a new agreement, one admittedly far superior to the one voted down in the referendum. A large parliamentary majority passed ‘Icesave 3’ after heavy discussion, but on February 20 Ólafur Ragnar also struck down that bill. Thus, we now await another referendum on Icesave, this one set for April 9.
This has completely changed the President’s situation. Ólafur Ragnar has claimed that he is the guardian of the people’s will against an Alþingi sadly lacking in trust. He has also moved about the world, giving candid interviews to the international media, often saying things the government does not approve of. Some compare this to a ‘coup d’état’, saying that Ólafur Ragnar is taking powers into his hands that his predecessors traditionally did not have, thus jeopardising our representative democracy. But in the present political climate, the government is too weak to confront him.
Interestingly, Ólafur Ragnar’s base of followers has also shifted. According to recent polls he is most popular on the right, among those who oppose the present government. Even his old enemy, Davíð Oddsson, has grudgingly become one of his, well, not admirers, but temporary supporters. Aside from opposing Icesave, the two also share an attitude of suspicion regarding Iceland’s application to join the European Union.
Presidential elections are due in the summer of 2012. There is talk that Ólafur Ragnar has his eye on a fifth term. But this time there might be a real candidate opposing him. The elections could prove quite confusing, for there is no agreement on the president’s role anymore. Do we want a president who takes power into his own hands, as Ólafur Ragnar has done—a politician? Or do we want a president like the old ones, a figurehead, on good terms with everybody, basically minding his or her own business, planting trees or promoting the cultural heritage.
This will eventually have to be resolved; in fact this was supposed to be one of the topics discussed by a Constitutional Assembly that was to convene this winter. Elections for the assembly were held in November, but due to technicalities they were annulled by Iceland’s High Court. So here we are, basically at square one, with a president who makes his own rules as he goes along and an outdated, muddled constitution.
But Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is an interesting phenomenon. He is a consummate political actor who has an uncanny ability to reinvent himself. Nowadays he basically has no real friends or allies in politics, but still he goes on. He is viewed by some as a folk hero who stood by his nation when the political class failed, others have not forgotten his past and his close ties to tycoons, viewing him as a populist who has no agenda, save for himself and his vainglory.

Support The Reykjavík Grapevine!
Buy subscriptions, t-shirts and more from our shop right here!


Ísafjörður Calling

Ísafjörður Calling


Show Me More!