Some background is needed. The position of president is best defined as a paradox. The role was created at the same time that the country had fought for and gained its independence from Denmark in 1944. Perhaps typically, for a country fond of its idiosyncrasies, it did so at a time when it was still under the occupation of a foreign power, the United States of America, as was Denmark, which had for several years been governed from a jack-booted Berlin.
Whatever the timing, it was one of the most significant moments in the nation’s history and huge efforts were made in drawing up the constitution to ensure that the country had a government that reflected the independent nature and needs of its people. Merit was seen in a Head of State and the position of President was created to fill the void left by the role previously played by the Danish King. But significantly, all powers given to the president were simultaneously vested back to the Prime Minister. It has been said that the president was essentially created to be ‘a king without a crown’.
“Don’t mess with government and we won’t mess with you.”
The constitution gave the president the authority to decline to sign any bill put forward. If he did so then a national referendum would be held to settle the matter. This article has been left untroubled for the last 60 years as there have been two essential ‘traditions’, which have been followed by the four men and one woman who have held the post since its inception.
Firstly, no competitor will stand against a president seeking a new mandate, and secondly, the president will not refuse to sign bills put before him by the government of the day. These traditions have created a relationship between president and country that can best be described as ‘don’t mess with government and we won’t mess with you.’
All that changed in June when Ólafur Ragnar declined to sign the media bill. This is not the time to go into the rights and wrongs of this particular bill, (for now. Ed) but suffice it to say that it was controversial and by its very nature dominated papers, radio and television for many weeks in the build up to the debate. Accusations of personal vendettas and vested interests flew back and forth between the antagonists, some of which were close to libelous. The debate itself, which coincided with the beginning of the Presidential Election campaign, saw the bill passed, and it duly went across the water to Bessastaðir, only to be returned with a large blank where normally a signature should be.
Off went the fireworks. The papers, who had already been pushing the obituaries further to the backpages as they published letters from all who would send them, pushed them further back still. Discussion programmes were extended and it seemed for a while that Euro 2004 would be forgotten altogether, as people readied themselves for the inevitable clash between Davíð Oddsson and his troublesome president. We sat and waited for the bell, like spectators at the ringside. We were to be disappointed.
Two masters of the skills of politics decline to join battle
The president read a short statement saying that he had not signed the bill as he felt that to do so would create disunity in the country. More importantly, he declined to go into detail, take questions or make any further comments. For a while there was no response from the prime minister who, when he finally did speak, gave a dignified statement about the need to hold a referendum and that, as this had never been done before, some time would be needed to prepare for it.
The sense of anticlimax was palpable. Here we were at the very moment when the debate, which to this point been waged with venom and fury, had now become political history. At this same crucial moment the two protaganists, both masters of the skills of politics, declined to join battle.
I’m sure that the interests of unity and the impending June 17th Independence Day celebrations had much to do with the stand-off, but stand-off it was and of an almost Mexican kind.
It is against this background that Ólafur Ragnar is seeking re-election for his third term of office. Ólafur Ragnar, unlike his predecessors, is a politician to his core; a former political science professor and then leader of the People’s Alliance, he subsequently enjoyed office as Finance Minister between 1988 and 1991. A family man with a popular wife, Guðrún Katrín, he was seen as a needed change of image from the independent single mother that the previous incumbant, Vigdís, had successfully given the role. With the marriage to his second wife Dorritt, he has been more active in recent years on the international stage, supplying the media with a rich diet of international parties and celebrities. Icelanders have lapped it all up. There is genuine concensus that he, along with Dorritt, are doing a good job in promoting the country abroad, that he is fulfilling the role as unifier at home. All seemed set for a long and happy presidency for as long as he wanted the job.
A politician, not a diplomat
Timing is of importance, because the media bill was due for signature the day after nominations closed for prospective candidates to run against Ólafur Ragnar. In one sense the timing could not have been better for the President. It effectively meant that he could block the bill, thereby entering the political arena, but no new opposition could be mounted against him for doing so until the next presidential election in 2008. What he was risking was that if the country felt that he was wrong over the bill and decided to galvanise behind either of the two candidates, then he could lose all. It was the considered risk of a politician, not a diplomat.
It is widely felt that Ólafur Ragnar will be re-elected on 26th June, that he will brush aside the two sparring partners who have entered the arena, but he cannot be assured an easy ride for his next term of office. In refusing to sign the media bill, he has crossed the line and there is no doubt that when Davíð finally decides to leave the corner he will come out swinging. It will be all too easy to accuse Ólafur Ragnar and his first lady Dorritt of having ambition of the sort that in a Shakespearean context, is always the prelude to a downfall.
For his part, Ólafur Ragnar will have to persuade the country in the build up to the election that he has made a brave decision based upon conviction. As a professor in the science of politics he will be more than aware that to thwart the will of an elected government is to enter a battle, which goes to the very soul of democracy.
What is unarguable is that the Ólafur Ragnar’s refusal to sign the Media Bill has meant that the two traditions that have lasted these sixty years have now been relegated to the history books. He could not be much clearer about his intentions for the future; the former finance minister and political leader wishes to see the presidency play a fuller and more active role in the government of the country.
Does Iceland have a king in search of a Crown? Is the country now ready to give him one? We will find out the answers in the months to come.