Published January 2, 2016
[EDITOR’S NOTE: In his New Year’s address yesterday, January 1, 2016, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced he would not be seeking re-election this year].
The campaign for next year’s presidential election has commenced, and it could not have started in a more bizarre way. Generally, people announce they are running for Iceland’s highest office with a speech, or at least a press release. In this case, a hoaxer made a Facebook page announcing the candidacy of Þorgrímur Þráinsson, a former footballer, best-selling children’s book author, and notorious anti-smoking campaigner.
That poor man! Now people will tease him about wanting to be president.
Soon they can donate money too. Þorgrímur responded to the hoax by saying that he had been thinking about running, and that while he had not made a final decision, he was 95% certain that he would. This premature declaration has not brought forth a rush of candidates. Most people contemplating a bid for the presidency are waiting for a decision by the current president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, as to whether he will run for a sixth four-year term. In the past, he has enjoyed keeping people waiting. In 2012, he did not declare he would run until early March, less than four months before the election.
Oh good, election campaigns are much too long these days.
Ah, but the pre-election campaign was interminable. Even though it was clear to everyone by January that he was going to run for re-election, he refused to comment. Eventually some people started a petition urging him to run, which collected thirty thousand signatures. This led to an event at Bessastaðir, the presidential residence. Guðni Ágústsson, a conservative politician justly famous for kissing a cow, gave a speech praising the president’s virtues and thanked God for mackerel, cod and the high quality of Icelandic farm produce.
And you said this year’s campaign had started in a bizarre way.
The president won reelection with 53% of the vote, the lowest vote total for a reelected president in Iceland’s history. The previous time he was up for reelection, he won with 67% of the vote. The only other time a president faced a reelection battle, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir received 93% of cast ballots.
Wait, if Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is a five-term president, why has he only been up for reelection twice?
The office of the Icelandic presidency is a bit weird and has limited authority. The main political powers are the choice of who gets to lead negotiations to form a coalition government after a parliamentary election, and the ability to veto laws passed by Parliament, thereby triggering a national referendum on the bill. It was only in 2004 that the latter power was first used. Before that, the office was considered ceremonial. The president was thought of as the nation’s symbol of unity. It was considered impolite to run against a sitting president.
Usually it’s only bloodthirsty dictators who consider it impolite to have to run for reelection.
While the current president has not said whether he will seek another term, he has seemed like he is campaigning for office in recent weeks. After the terrorist attacks in Paris, he has spoken a great deal about the threat of radical Islamists. Which, you know, fair enough, few people like terrorists. However, he has tied this to the planned building of a mosque in Reykjavík. He has claimed that the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to Sweden told him that the Saudi government would donate one million US dollars towards building a mosque in Reykjavík. The Muslim congregation in Iceland said they had never heard of this money. The president connected this alleged gift with the idea that a mosque would prove an ideal place to convert young Muslim men to radical Islam, thereby linking the free expression of Muslim belief with terrorism.
Everybody knows you never go full racist.
Prior to this latest bit of stupidity, his most infamous moment was a speech he gave in 2005 where he linked the apparent success of Icelandic entrepreneurs to their Viking heritage. The idea that a group of humans will produce good businesspeople because of their culture is not really any different from thinking that another group will produce terrorists because of their culture. Unfortunately for all concerned, the complete and total failure of the Icelandic Business Vikings did not lead the president to reconsider his habit of drawing sweeping conclusions about large groups of people.
At least democracy allows large groups of people to draw sweeping conclusions about him.
Another strange facet of the office of the Icelandic president is that only a plurality of votes is needed to win a presidential election. Only one Icelandic president has ever won a first term with a majority of the popular vote. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir won her first term with only 34%. The worry is that someone could campaign on a racist platform and win, even if only receiving 20-30% support, though that would require many candidates splitting the vote. Hopefully the unknown hoaxer who got Þorgrímur Þráinsson to announce his 95% candidacy stops there.