26/06/2004 - Analysis
On 26th June next the Icelanders will elect the President of the Republic by universal suffrage.
In Iceland tradition has it that no competitor stands against a President in office seeking a new mandate. The present Head of State Olafur Ragnar Grimsson was thus elected a first time round on 29th June 1996 with 40.6% of the vote; he then renewed his function in June 2000 without the organisation of an election. Recently the President announced his desire to undertake a new mandate but two other people also said they would be standing as candidates in the 26th June election - businessman and militant pacifist Asthor Magnusson, who won 2.6% of the vote in the presidential election on 26th June 1996 and Baldur Agustsson, unknown to the general public. Four years ago Asthor Magnusson had tried to stand but did not succeed in winning the number of sponsors required by the electoral law. Although there is no doubt about Olafur Ragnar Grimsson's future victory it will be interesting to see what the electoral participation rate is in this presidential election as well as the number of votes won by the outgoing Head of State.
All candidates standing for the Presidential position must have 1,500 sponsors. The election takes place in one round, with the candidate who takes the lead being elected President. The election is not political with the electorate choosing rather more according to the candidates' personality, who do not undertake a political campaign but try to rally citizens together and appear as a living symbol of national unity. Originally Olafur Ragnar Grimsson came from a leftwing organisation and his present popularity level which is very high amongst the rural population, rises above party differences.
The length of the presidential mandate is four years and the number of mandates is unlimited.
On the announcement of his candidature Olafur Ragnar Grimsson wanted the renewal of the presidential mandate to be an occasion to open up a debate on the role of the Head of State. At present the President of the Republic of Iceland has very little power since he does not make use of those granted him by the Constitution. He mainly exercises a moral authority amongst the citizens and is often qualified as "a king without a crown", being compared to the Danish sovereign who reigned between the two Wars. Although the Head of State has the right of veto over a law he believes contrary to national interest, to date no President has applied this measure. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson seems to regret that the presidential function is reduced to a purely honorary feature but the parties in the present government (Prime Minister David Oddsson's Independence Party, SSF, and the Progress Party, FSF) do not seem enthusiastic about this being the centre of a debate.
Last week, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson came back early from Mexico where he was on a diplomatic trip. He had obviously been urged by some members of his entourage to veto a law on the media that is being discussed at present at the Althing, the Icelandic Parliament. Back home the President did not leave Reykjavik and did not go to Prince Frederick of Denmark and Mary Donaldson's wedding to which he had been invited and where he was to represent Iceland last weekend.
With the law on the media Prime Minister David Oddsson intends to fight against monopolies in this domain. According to the head of government the media are in a position to restrict consumer freedom, not only on an economic level but also on a political one. In addition to the state service (Rikisutvarpid) that has two radio and one TV stations there are various private companies in Iceland. The biggest of these is Nordurljos that comprises five radio, five TV channels and several newspapers. For the last few months another group, Skjar 1, also has two TV channels. But the law that is being discussed at present in Parliament and which is criticised by some lawyers, who believe that it is contrary to the Constitution, and that has also, according to the opinion polls been rejected by 80% of the population, mainly seems designed to prevent Jon Asger Johanesson, owner of the food store chain Baugur, from investing in the media. The Baugur group recently entered the capital of two newspapers, Frettabladid and DV, as well as the TV channel Stod 2. As far as the possible veto of the law by the President is concerned Prime Minister David Oddson recently declared that this was invalid since Olafur Ragnar Grimsson's daughter works for the Baugur group and also because one of the Head of State's former assistants now works for Nordurljos, owner of several media.
The main opposition party, the Alliance Party (SF) is pushing the President for a veto just as the Red Alliance- Greens, who are firmly opposed to Prime Minister David Oddson. In the majority camp the leader of the Progress Party Halldor Asgrimsson, linked by an agreement with the Independence Party in June 2003 after the general election, would more than anything, like to safeguard his chance of becoming Prime Minister and is supporting David Oddson whom he would replace if he were to withdraw from power.
The President of the Republic and the Prime Minister met on 17th May but no one yet knows the final decision that Olafur Ragnar Grimsson will take. The placing of a presidential veto on the media law would comprise an exceptional event in Iceland by creating a conflict between the legislative power, the government and the President, otherwise known as the "head" of the executive. The risk of dividing the country had notably been revealed by Mrs Vigdis Finnbogadottir, former president of the Republic (1980-1996), since she refrained from placing her veto on the laws with which she did not agree.
Reminder of the presidential elections on 29th June 1996
Participation rate: 85.9%
Source: Embassy of Iceland in the USA