On June 17th 2016, Iceland celebrated its National Day (Þjóðhátiðardagurinn) thus commemorating 72 years of independence from Danish Rule. Icelanders are now preparing for their next Presidential elections which will be held in less than a week,on June 25th 2016. Surprisingly for some, Iceland has only had five Presidents thus far; the first one was Sveinn Björnsson who held office from 1944 to 1952, followed by Ásgeir Ásgeirsson from 1952 to 1968, Kristján Eldjárn from 1968 to 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir (the first woman in the world elected President in national elections) from 1980 to 1996 and Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson who has now been holding office for a record time of twenty years, that to say five terms.
The incumbent President is especially well known abroad for having withheld the approval of the Parliament’s agreement to cover payments for deposit guarantees to governments of the UK and the Netherlands (Act No. 1/2010, commonly referred to as the Icesave Dispute or Act) following the collapse of Landsbanki Íslands, one of the three main Icelandic banks that collapsed during the disastrous financial crisis of 2008. Instead of signing the bill into law, President Grímsson sent the issue to a public referendum in 2010, which became the very first referendum held in the Republic since its foundation. The Icesave Act was overwhelmingly turned down by 93 per cent of the voters, and the scenario repeated itself in 2011 at which time about 60 per cent voted (again) against it. By that time, the Parliament (Althingi) figured it was useless to continue negotiating with the UK and the Netherlands as the population was nowhere close to accepting the debt absorption from the nationalization of previously privately owned commercial banks.
Meanwhile, the European Free Trade Association Surveillance Authority (EFTASA) was requesting Iceland to repay the full amount to the UK and the Netherlands, a ruling which the Icelandic Minister of Economics rejected, thus forcing the EFTASA to bring the matter to the EFTA Court (see Case E-16/11). The issue was finally settled when Iceland received, in January 2013, a favourable ruling that rejected all claims suggesting it was in breach of the European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement, proving the Icelandic nation right and the Althingi wrong.
The Icesave saga has much to do with President Grímsson’s last term; he originally declined to run for the 2012 presidential election in his New Year’s address, but then announced that he would seek a fifth term shortly after receiving a petition with over 30,000 signatures representing nearly 10% of the Icelandic population asking him to run again. This petition along with ongoing uncertainties in the Icelandic administration and potential constitutional changes highly influenced his change of heart. He won his fifth election with nearly 53 per cent of the vote against his main rival, Thóra Arnórsdóttir, who won 33% of the vote. History repeated itself when Mr. Grímsson announced in his 2016 New Year’s Address that he wouldn’t run for a sixth term, changed his mind mid-April and decided to seek re-election following the resignation of PM Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson and the Panama Papers scandal, only to withdraw his candidacy a few weeks later.
Nevertheless, the Icelandic nation isn’t outdone as it still has plenty of presidential candidates to choose from. The current leader in the polls is Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson, an independent candidate who believes that the President should both “stand outside debates in society” and be “a symbol of unity”. The runner-up is Davíð Oddson, member of the Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) who was the mayor of the Icelandic capital, Reykjavík, from 1982 to 1991 and served as Prime Minister of Iceland from 1991 to 2004 and as Chairman on the board of governors of the Central Bank of Iceland from 2005 to 2009; He was pressured into resignation following the financial collapse and has since been working as one of two editors of Iceland’s most popular newspaper, Morgunblaðið. In third place is Andri Snær Magnason, an acclaimed writer who’s who’s nationalistic discourse presents strong advocacy for the protection of language, literacy, environment, and democracy. In fourth place is Halla Tómasdóttir, an independent candidate who’s an entrepreneur, HR & Organizational Development professional and a true polyglot whose presidential platform includes values such as equality, innovation, inclusiveness, and the environment. The remaining five candidates are below the 3 per cent mark in the most recent polls: Sturla Jónsson, Elísabet Jökulsdóttir, Ásþór Magnússon, Guðrún Margrét Pálsdóttir, and Hildur Þórðardóttir. While we are tempted to say “May the best man (or woman) win”, the polls are currently pointing towards an easy victory for Guðni Th. Jóhannesson… let’s see if Iceland can surprise us!