From Iceland — President Leaves Legacy, Unanswered Questions In His Wake

President Leaves Legacy, Unanswered Questions In His Wake

Published January 2, 2016

Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
OddurBen/Wikimedia Commons

Outgoing President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson leaves behind uncertainty after two decades in office, both in terms of who will be the next president, and what the purpose of the office is.

As the current president unambiguously announced yesterday that he will not be seeking a sixth term in office, this leaves the question open as to who could replace him. RÚV reports that, with elections only just over six months away, only two people have so far made definite announcements that they are running: authors Elísabet Jökulsdóttir and Þorgrímur Þráinsson.

Numerous others – including businesswoman Halla Tómasdóttir and author Andri Snær Magnússon – have given indications that they are considering running, but have not made formal announcements to that effect.

In many ways, Ólafur Ragnar changed the purpose of the office. While long considered a largely ceremonial position, he was the first president to exercise the power to refuse to sign a law passed by parliament. Such a move gives parliament the option to withdraw the legislation, or to offer it up for national referendum. In 2004, after refusing to sign a controversial law on media ownership, the Independence Party chose to withdraw the bill. However, it was in 2011 when he refused to sign the Icesave III agreement, referring the matter to national referendum where it was overwhelmingly defeated, that he truly made his mark in terms of presidential power.

Spending 20 years in office has also had its effects. Icelanders have only voted for a new president four times since Iceland gained its independence in 1944. Due in part to the tendency of Icelanders to not vote against an incumbent, Ólafur Ragnar remaining on for five terms also greatly reduced how accustomed Icelanders are to choosing a new head of state.

In fact, as associate professor of political science Stefanía Óskarsdóttir pointed out for RÚV, most of those who ran for president in 2012 only received around 10% of the vote. However, the 2012 elections did see a relatively high voter turnout, with over 80% of eligible voters casting ballots.

Whoever the next president will end up being when Icelanders go to the polls on June 25, there is cross-partisan agreement that Ólafur Ragnar made the office more of a political one than a ceremonial one.

Not everyone will be sad to see him go, either. Pirate Party MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir told RÚV that the announcement came as a relief to her. Pointing out that the president was a cheerleader of sorts for the same Icelandic entrepreneurs who contributed to the 2008 financial collapse, Birgitta said that the office itself is a “child of its time”; a leftover from the days when Iceland was ruled by the king of Denmark, which perhaps has no real purpose in a modern republic.

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