From Iceland — The Long Political Journey Of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

The Long Political Journey Of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

Published March 12, 2012

The Long Political Journey Of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has decided—after insinuating in his New Year’s Address that he would not run and then dodging the question for two months—that he will in fact seek re-election this summer.
There are no limitations on how long a president can stay in office. Thus, we’ve only had five presidents in the 68 year history of the republic: Sveinn Björnsson for the first six years, Ásgeir Ásgeirsson for sixteen years, Kristján Eldjárn for twelve years, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir for sixteen years and now Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson for sixteen years.
Until now, limiting the number of presidential terms in Iceland didn’t seem necessary. The president has traditionally been a figurehead—a ceremonial person, a host for dignitaries, a giver of rather empty speeches on Icelandic nationality.
The presidency has been quasi-regal in the sense that it has been considered bad form to run against a sitting president. Thus a real challenge has never been mounted against an incumbent in the history of the republic, and presidents have been able to sit as long as they pleased.
There have been elections, but those who have dared to oppose our presidents have always been far from the mainstream in politics—some of them have actually been considered quite mad.
It is noteworthy that presidents have invariably been chosen from opponents of the right wing Independence Party, which has otherwise dominated Iceland’s political history. In 1968, Kristján Eldjárn—an archaeologist, curator at the National Museum, and the son of a farmer in the far north—won a landslide victory against Gunnar Thoroddsen—a scion of the Reykjavík bourgeoisie, the former mayor of Reykjavík and Minister of Finance. Many believed that they were really socking it to the ruling class.
At this time the major question was whether the candidates had been for or against the US Naval Air Station in Keflavík—the defining rift in politics for decades. However, candidates did not discuss this because it was considered bad form for presidents to raise real political issues.
The process repeated itself in 1980 when a left-leaning theatre director, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, was elected president. She had also, at one point, been an opponent of the US Naval Station. Whereas Kristján Eldjárn had been rather shy as president and mostly concerned with the country’s cultural heritage, Vigdís became very popular as a symbol for the fast emerging women’s movement. As was the rule of the game, both of them became completely apolitical upon entering office. Both enjoyed very high approval ratings and were seen as symbols of national unity.

Enter an altogether different species: Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. Whereas Kristján Eldjárn and Vigdís Finnbogadóttir were people of culture and learning, Ólafur Ragnar could be described as a political adventurer. Easily the most ambitious young politician of his generation, he started out in The Progressive Party, a rural centrist party, which had long been the second most powerful political force in Iceland. Ólafur became a leader of the leftist fraction of the party. It was closely linked to The Co-operative Movement, which had abandoned its roots and become a business conglomerate with many interests, not least of all the lucrative and corrupt trade with the US military. Eventually Ólafur and his followers were kicked out of the party.
For a while he seemed to have no place to go in politics. He dabbled in radio and television—his broadcasts were aggressively critical, which was a novelty at the time. The government controlled the airwaves and he was soon banned from broadcasting. He was also one of the first political scientists in the country and, despite his impertinence, became professor at the University of Iceland.
In the mid ‘70s Ólafur Ragnar joined The People’s Alliance, a socialist party, which could trace its roots back to the now defunct Communist Party of Iceland. Ólafur Ragnar was surely no Communist, and maybe not even a Socialist, and much of the old guard loathed him for being an opportunist. However, with the support of young people, he managed to become leader of the party and Minister of Finance in a left wing government that was in power from 1988 to 1991. There he earned the moniker “Skattmann” (meaning “Taxman”), and was feared for his sharp intelligence and ruthlessness.
In 1996, a new version of Ólafur Ragnar emerged. He was running for president and the nation saw a milder, more humble character. Many of his old opponents, both from the right and from within his own party, were dismayed. What playacting is this, they asked? But Ólafur Ragnar managed to win the elections with 40 percent of the vote, again beating a candidate fielded by The Independence Party.
Even if Ólafur Ragnar still got on the nerves of his old foes, especially the conservative newspaper Morgunblaðið and then Prime Minister Davíð Oddsson—who made a point of leaving him out of official functions—he was soon accepted as president. His approval ratings were high. He travelled a lot, and he seemed to be in his element among foreign dignitaries. His hair whitened and he became more distinguished looking. It also helped that he was married to elegant women, first to Guðrún Katrín Þorbergsdóttir, who had no little part in getting him elected in the first place, and then, after her death, to Doritt Moussaief, an extremely lively heiress and socialite from Israel.
Ólafur was also the first president to embrace the emerging tabloid press. Unlike the former more reticent presidents, he was always in the eye of the media—he seemed like a new kind of man for new times.
The Icelandic economic boom, which ended with the crash in 2008, started in the late 1990s. Here Ólafur found natural allies in the financiers and businessmen, who became welcome guests at Bessastaðir. He flew in their jets and hung medals on their jackets. One might even claim that Ólafur Ragnar became their chief ideologue: he formulated their ideas of world conquest and a specifically Icelandic way of doing business. Many of Ólafur Ragnar’s utterances from this time are cringe worthy—he spoke of the Icelandic “business-Vikings” as a special, almost chosen breed of people. When it turned out that the Icelandic boom had been a debt fuelled speculative bubble—mixed with a certain degree of fraud—most people thought that Ólafur Ragnar was finished.
After the crash Ólafur was mocked in a way no Icelandic president has ever been mocked. In a popular New Year´s comedy show on television, Bessastaðir was portrayed as a den of cocaine snorting scoundrels. All the sanctimony of his office had been stripped.
But never to be underestimated Ólafur Ragnar came back with a vengeance. Early in 2010 he refused to sign a law stipulating how much Iceland should pay back to the UK and Holland for the so-called Icesave saving accounts. The law was then put to a general referendum and the people voted against it. Ólafur Ragnar was victorious in the eyes of many who felt that he had saved the nation from debt and disgrace. This repeated itself in early 2011 when a second Icesave bill was also vetoed by him and voted down by the people.
Thus the government seemed weak and willing to give in, whereas Ólafur Ragnar was defiant. He did interviews with media outlets from all over the world—seemingly totally in his element on CNN, BBC and al Jazeera—and for the first time, an Icelandic president was not just echoing the standpoints of the government.
Ólafur’s supporters were originally mostly from the left, but now the leftists stayed with the government, nominally the most left wing in Icelandic history: a coalition between The Social Democrats and Left Greens.
So Ólafur had suddenly become a darling of the right—well, not everyone loved him, but they liked the way he stood up to the government of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, leader of the Social Democrats, and Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, leader of the Left Greens. Jóhanna and Steingrímur were horrified by Ólafur’s conduct—they are not really on speaking terms with him anymore. Ironically they both sat in government with him from 1988–1991.
While Ólafur has decided to run in the upcoming election, some more interesting questions remain. Ólafur Ragnar has dramatically changed the nature of the presidency. He is the first to use the presidential veto, a power that has always been in the Constitution, but was considered outmoded. Ólafur Ragnar, the political scientist, has not been unconstitutional; he just started using the powers that were written into the Constitution. In fact, it could be argued that the president has even greater powers than Ólafur Ragnar has used—the president is allowed to present bills to the parliament and can even dismiss parliament and form a government.
The Constitution is, however, very unclear on these points, for it also says that a government minister wields the power of the president. A Constitutional Council has been working on rewriting the constitution, and the outcome is still unclear but it is interesting that its proposals are in line with Ólafur Ragnar’s interpretation of the president’s role as a balance to the parliament and government.
One question that might be partly answered in the elections is whether we will go back to the days of having an apolitical, symbolic president, less divisive than Ólafur Ragnar. Many of the possible candidates who have been named would fall into that category. They are proper, well respected people, who wouldn’t rock any boat. It is certain that much of the political class would like to have such a president again.
To some has become impossibly full of himself, referring to himself as a manifestation of the nation’s will—a term he often uses—talking about himself in the third person, and constantly stating what a big man he is outside of Iceland. Ólafur will be 70 next year, but he still seems to be full of energy. It will be interesting to see where his long political journey is heading.
In all likelihood the Independence Party will take power in Iceland next year. Among its ranks Ólafur Ragnar has earned some grudging respect, but it has always been the view of the party that the president should stay in his place and obey. Old hatreds might flare up again if Ólafur is re-elected and keeps on improvising with his presidential powers.
Some of his former left-wing friends might even think it worthwhile to vote for him to see the conservatives wrestling with his rather inflated ego. Time will tell.  

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


Power In Numbers

Power In Numbers


Show Me More!