As hard as it may be to believe, Iceland has only had five presidents since first gaining independence from Denmark in 1944. Since then, while the vast majority of Icelanders believe they should have a president, the question of what the role entails, or should entail, has been a subject of great contention in recent years. The two poles in these debates are usually the concept of a ceremonial figurehead versus that of a political leader who might even act against the wishes of Parliament. In fact, the President of Iceland has always been a political office, and often a controversial one.
Iceland’s very first President was Sveinn Björnsson, whose presidency was thrust upon him by the Nazi invasion of Denmark in 1940. At that time, Iceland was a Danish colony, and the German occupation effectively granted Iceland autonomy. That being the case, Sveinn was elected Regent, a position designed to perform all the tasks the Danish king would have. In 1941, he invited American troops to occupy Iceland and protect it from possible German attack—a move that sparked criticism that would last for decades, shades of which you can see to this day in discussions about Icelandic sovereignty.
Ásgeir Ásgeirsson would follow, being elected in a hotly contested race in 1952 after the death of Sveinn, who passed away before completing his term. Ásgeir was truly a dark horse candidate, as many assumed it was a foregone conclusion that Minister in the Reykjavík Cathedral Bjarni Jónsson was going to clinch the vote. But even with the support of Iceland’s governing parties, Bjarni could not come out on top. Ásgeir managed to edge a nose past the finish line, with 46.7% of the vote against 44.1% for Bjarni.
The presidency grows up
After him, Dr. Kristján Eldjárn would assume power, and was arguably Iceland’s first media-savvy presidential candidate. Prior to his political career, he hosted a very popular educational television show, broadcast on RÚV, making him a familiar face to much of the population, even before his run. Kristján was another dark horse, facing polls that largely favoured ambassador Gunnar Thorroddsen, and yet beating him soundly with 65.6% of the vote. While he once considered forming a government without parliamentary support when party leaders reached a legislative impasse, his presidency was largely smooth sailing.
The President of Iceland that would follow would end up putting the country on the international map: the world’s first democratically elected female president, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir. Her presidency is notable for more than this reason, though, and she arguably ushered in the modern era of the Icelandic presidency. Prior to running for office, she was active in the anti-NATO movement that arose in the wake of Sveinn’s decision to allow the occupation decades previous. The women’s movement in Iceland picked up considerable momentum throughout the 1970s, and after some convincing, she agreed to run in 1980. Although she only narrowly won, she would prove not only hugely popular but also very political, focusing on environmentalism, and was instrumental in Iceland hosting the historic talks held between Reagan and Gorbachev in 1986. She was fond of the motto “Never let the women down,” and became the face of the growing political power of Icelandic feminism. She has, since her retirement, been UNESCO’s ambassador of languages.
Welcome to the modern era
Iceland’s fifth and current President needs little introduction: Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the first to use his presidential authority to influence legislation. Ólafur was largely a ceremonial figure through most of his presidency, but that changed in 2004, when he refused to sign a controversial media bill crafted by the Independence Party. The move was unprecedented, and the common wisdom of the day was that as the bill was largely specially crafted by Independence Party chairperson Davíð Oddsson to specifically target the corporation Baugur Group, who owned a considerable stake in Iceland’s media industry, Ólafur’s refusal to sign the bill was a strike back against Davíð, his ideological foe. Davíð would never forget this (more on that later), but Ólafur was far from finished. He also refused to sign the Icesave agreement in 2010 and 2011, on both occasions referring the matter to public referendum, where it was also defeated.
Ólafur has been a controversial figure, and not solely for spending twenty years as head of state—virtually unheard-of in a democratic society. He is also well-known for speaking very frankly in interviews with the international press, sometimes expressing opinions that are diametrically opposed to the policies of the Icelandic government, often causing confusion abroad as to where Iceland stands on issues such as joining the European Union. He also spent a considerable amount of time and energy taking part in private and public speaking engagements, touting the savvy and can-do spirit of Icelandic venture capitalists. This extensive cheerleading would come back to haunt him, as the Special Investigative Commission report on the causes of Iceland’s 2008 financial crash cited, in part, the President’s enthusiastic promotion of Icelandic financiers. His stance on Icesave was so popular, however, that this barely made a scratch on his image, and he was re-elected in 2012 to what he promised would be his last term.
But do we need a President?
Which brings us to today. While we all assumed that Ólafur would be stepping quietly into the shadows to finish his term and let someone else take the helm, he emerged in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal to announce he was running again. This caused considerable agitation, especially as it looked like he had a decent chance at being re-elected. However, invoking the Panama Papers ended up being a bad move when it came to light that his wife Dorrit Moussaieff, and her family, have considerable connections to offshore tax shelters. As he dodged the press and gave short, evasive answers, one candidate emerged that no one and yet everyone expected to run: Davíð Oddsson. Rattled by the Panama Papers, on the defensive against the media, and now clearly intimidated by his old political rival running against him, it wasn’t long before Ólafur announced his withdrawal from the race.
Today, aggregate polling currently shows historian Guðni Th. Jóhannesson as the person most likely to be Iceland’s next President, with a comfortable lead of about at least 30% over the others. His closest competitor is Davíð, who has been trailing far behind at a rather even keel since he announced his candidacy. Amazingly so, considering that Morgunblaðið, of which he is co-editor, has been repeatedly delivered free to homes all over the country throughout the campaign season, touting Davíð’s virtues while downplaying or dismissing all other candidates. Anything could happen between now and Iceland’s election day of June 25 but, barring some miracle, it looks like Iceland has already made its decision.
It’s a curious thing that an office that started as a stop-gap stand-in for the king should have survived to the present day. Especially as we have a Prime Minister, and especially as the official political duties—namely, signing bills into law—can be performed by the Parliamentary President. For now, the office continues to generates controversy as it always has, but for better or worse, most Icelanders want a president. Whether or not future generations of Icelanders want a president is something they’ll have to decide for themselves.
- Meet The Presidents! A Very Short TImeline
Iceland will be electing its sixth President since independence on June 25. Whoever ends up taking Bessastaðir, they’ll have some mighty big shoes to fill. So just who exactly were these five people who helped make the presidency what it is today? LET’S GO!
President #1: Sveinn Björnsson
Years in office: 1944-1952
Fun fact: Is the great-grandfather of Icelandic journalist Anna Margrét Björnsson and Singapore Sling frontman Henrik Björnsson.
Not-so-fun fact: Had a son who fought in World War II… for Germany.
President #2: Ásgeir Ásgeirsson
Years in office: 1952-1968
Fun fact: First president elected by popular vote!
Not-so-fun fact: Arguably the father of the Icelandic banking system.
President #3: Kristján Eldjárn
Years in office: 1968-1980
Fun fact: Hosted an educational TV show, researched pagan burial sites in university.
Not-so-fun fact: Died getting treated for heart disease in the United States.
President #4: Vigdís Finnbogadóttir
Years in office: 1980-1996
Fun fact: First democratically elected female president in the world.
Not-so-fun fact: It is actually pretty difficult to say anything not-so-fun about her tenure in office.
President #5: Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson
Years in office: 1996-present day
Fun fact: Used to be a staunch leftist, and once debated Milton Friedman.
Not-so-fun fact: Kept flip-flopping on whether he was running or not, was BFFs with Iceland’s venture capitalists.