From Iceland — A Smooth Rendition Of Taking Responsibility

A Smooth Rendition Of Taking Responsibility

Published October 15, 2023

Photo by
Art Bicnick

A reflection on the resignation of Bjarni Benediktsson

On the morning of October 10, Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson held a press conference where he announced his resignation following a ruling by the Parliamentary Ombudsman stating that the minister had not been qualified to handle to 2022 sale of shares in the state owned bank Íslandsbanki to private investors. More specifically, because one of the buyers of those shares was Bjarni’s own father.

Bjarni stated that while he disagreed with the ruling and thought its premise was wrong, he felt he must respect its conclusions and resign, saying in the process that “with power comes responsibility.”

During the press conference, questions were raised as to whether Bjarni will simply swap his finance file for another ministry, whether he will continue as a member of parliament or stay on as the chairman of the Independence Party. How his resignation affects the ruling coalition, of which he is a key member, remains to be seen. Bjarni did not elaborate further than to say that he would be discussing matters with the coalition members and with members of his own party in the coming days.

So while what happens next remains to be seen, a few things are evident.

First of all, this resignation is a novelty in the history of Icelandic politics. Since Iceland gained its independence in 1944, only seven ministers have resigned and it could be argued none of them, until now, did so willingly nor promptly. Bjarni, however, as the leader of the largest political party in a coalition government, seems not to have had his hand forced in the matter, so his decision must be viewed in that light – as perhaps a tactical political decision, rather than a up-against-the-wall last resort.

Second, this is the second time Bjarni loses his ministerial standing because of the actions of his father, Benedikt Sveinsson. The first instance was in 2017, when the coalition government of that time, of which Bjarni was the Prime Minister, imploded due to a scandal that involved Bjarni’s father providing a recommendation letter of “restored honour” for Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson, a man convicted of having raped his stepdaughter almost daily for 12 years.

Third, the list of other scandals in which Bjarni has been involved since first being elected member of Parliament back in 2003 – that in many other countries might each have ended a political career – is long and eventful, making his resignation now seem out of proportion. Amongst those are his many shady business dealings related to Iceland’s 2008 financial collapse; the fact that he and his father managed to sell their shares in Glitnir (Íslandsbanki’s predecessor) just days before said collapse; the fact that he turned up in the Panama Papers; that the sale of Íslandsbanki was not the only state owned company sold under Bjarni’s tenure as finance minister that his family members managed to buy shares in for a bargain, with another case being the sale of a state owned payment processing company back in 2014. The list goes on.

Fourth. It must be admitted that Bjarni’s survival thus far and his performance now proves that in the Icelandic “game” of politics, now former finance minister has been “playing” that game two leagues above everybody else.

Case in point is the timing and execution of his Tuesday resignation. It is reported that on Friday, Bjarni received a ruling from the parliamentary ombudsman stating that he had not been qualified to handle the 2022 sale of shares in Íslandsbanki to private investors.

Preempting the official publication of the ombudsman’s ruling with his resignation, Bjarni saved himself from what probably would have been a long week of negative press and harsh criticism from everybody able to publicly have an opinion on the whole affair. A shit storm of bad PR.

Instead, proving his status as king of the dunghill that is Icelandic politics, Bjarni turned the table and has received much praise from political allies and enemies alike. And if you think he’s actually shouldering any responsibility in the way you think responsibility works, then think again. What will most likely happen is that Bjarni will continue as MP, he’ll continue as chairman of his party and by the end of next week he’ll be at the head of another ministry and the whole thing will have somehow added not a stain, but polish on his political aura. A masterstroke.

What is probably more important to Bjarni and his political party, the sale of Íslandsbanki will continue, the shares going for what they deem the right price, to whom they deem the right people.

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