Presidential debates broadcast on Stöð 2 last night have provoked some strong reactions from the public, and prompted one commentator to say “a more embarrassing television show has hardly been seen in Iceland”.
The debates were marked by trouble from the start. Initially, only incumbent Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson and leading challenger Þóra Arnórsdóttir were invited, despite there being other candidates running for the office. This prompted Þóra to announce that she would not take part in the debates, as she felt it was undemocratic. Stöð 2 then apparently had a change of heart, and invited the other candidates onto the show.
However, three of the candidates – Andrea Ólafsdóttir, Ari Trausti Guðmundsson and Hannes Bjarnason – walked off of the show, as they felt Stöð 2 was still giving undue preference to Ólafur and Þóra. This left Ólafur, Þóra and Herdís Þorgeirsdóttir.
The debate underway, questions were posed to the three remaining candidates. Predictably, when asked about the Special Investigative Commission report on contributing factors to the 2008 economic collapse, Ólafur disagreed that he had anything to do with it. The report pointed out that he repeatedly used his office to promote private bankers in other countries in Europe. Ólafur responded that he had not overstepped any boundaries.
When asked if he felt 16 years was long enough to be in office, he responded by saying that “under normal circumstances” it would be, but that the current situation of “uncertainty” in Iceland demands an exception, and that he should remain on. Þóra disagreed with the notion that Iceland was in some unstable state, saying “I don’t see any tanks,” and that she believed the future of Iceland looked bright. Herdís disagreed, saying she also believed Iceland was in a state of uncertainty.
The subject of the European Union was raised, and all three candidates took some degree of opposition to joining. Þóra said that to join the EU now would be “like renting a room in a burning house.” Herdís also expressed doubts about the benefits of accession. Ólafur took matters a step further, saying he was against Iceland joining the EU, and that Þóra’s position was unclear – despite her having made the room-in-a-burning-house metaphor moments earlier.
When the three were asked what they would want to be remembered for as president should they be elected, Þóra said she would want to be known for having served the public well, reached out to them and made them feel better about themselves. Herdís said she wanted to be known for service and increasing human rights. Ólafur said he wanted to be known for increasing democracy and helping young people spread roots in the country.
Reaction to the debates from several public figures was one of humour and embarrassment. Numerous people on Facebook expressed bafflement that despite their being multiple candidates invited, there were in fact only two podiums – originally intended for Ólafur and Þóra alone – with the three remaining candidates sharing the two of them. Media commentator Egill Helgason said of the debates “a more embarrassing television show has hardly been seen in Iceland”. Björg Eva Erlendsdóttir, who is a director at RÚV, wrote on Facebook, “Actually always skip Stöð 2, and the debates showed that that’s a good thing.”