Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is the current head of State, elected to the office in 1996 with 40.6% of the vote. His second term was uncontested in 2000.
But how would he define his role?
“There are many roles. The formation of government, encouraging the nation to join hands to work together and promoting the business and cultural communities abroad.
The Icelandic presidency has changed very much over recent years. It is a very dynamic role, it is not an end result of absolute traditions or defined thinking, it moves and grows with the times. But its position is enshrined in the constitution which states that there is joint legislative power and makes it clear that parliament is not the sovereign body, but the nation. Parliament can never be above the nation and on critical issues it is the decision of the nation that is supreme. The essence is that the nation chooses the individual who is capable and will if necessary exercise his or her judgement on issues of fundamental rights. Any person who is not ready to exercise that responsibility, for whatever reason, cannot really carry on his or her shoulders the expectations, trust and responsibility that the nation has put in the presidency and should not put themselves forward for candidature. This is the cornerstone of the Icelandic constitution, but of course the most desirable thing should be that these occasions never arise.”
How would you answer those who say that instead of unifying the country you have disunified the country?
“I would say that the president has many roles. One of the roles is to unify the country certainly, but the president has responsibility in the constitution. He has to exercise his rights as part of the legislative process, he may have to enter negotiations with respect to forming a government, and his responsibilities might contradict with his unifying role. There often is no solution that will make everybody happy. We live in a time when people seek a president who is actively involved. It is absolutely clear that as a 21st century president I have to be much more active than some of my predecessors.”
Is there any need for change in the constitution?
“I don’t think that there is any doubt in the constitution about the current position. But there are those who argue for a stronger president and those who would see the position weakened. I’m sure we will enter into some deliberations about this in the coming months and years, and I welcome that.”
Ólafur Ragnar enjoys a high level of media exposure, so we asked whether the timing of the media bill had benefited his presidential campaign.
“The timing was not of my choosing. Other candidates have had four years to mount campaigns. I surely cannot be criticised for taking the most difficult decision to refer the media bill to a referendum shortly before an election. It means that the country has the power to react not only through the referendum but also the ballot box. And at a time when the matter is still fresh in everyone’s mind.”