26/06/2004 - D-7
On 2nd June last Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, President of the Republic of Iceland, vetoed the law on the media that had been voted in on 25th May by Parliament, the Althing. Thirty-two representatives from the majority (Independence Party, SSF and the Progress Party FSF) voted in favour, the 24 members of the opposition parties (the Alliance Party, SF, and the Liberal Party FF) voted against it; the six Red-Green Alliance MP's (VG) abstained. The presidential veto, a first in Iceland's history, since no other President of the Republic had used this power granted to him by the Constitution, had the effect of a thunderbolt on the island. This decision creates a conflict between the legislative power just as it does between the two heads of the executive: the government and the President of the Republic. The former President (1980-1996), Vigdis Finnbogadottir, had regularly warned about the dangers of division and abstained from vetoing laws with which she did not agree.
Halldor Blondal, President of the Parliament maintained that the President's decision comprised an attack against parliamentary democracy. However the opposition parties believe that Olafur Ragnar Grimsson's veto strengthens democracy and Icelanders' rights. "There is no doubt that the President wants to oppose Parliament via this veto", declared Prime Minister David Oddson. "There is no reason rejoice in the fact that the right of veto granted to the President be used on such a subject. No president has used this right in sixty years; it might have been thought that it would be used on a subject of primary importance, such as for example the death penalty or on Iceland's accession to the European Union. I cannot however understand why the President has used his veto on the law on the media", he added. He also accused the President of fulfilling his own personal interests by defending the Baugur group, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson's daughter works there.
According to PM David Oddson the law on the media was supposed to fight against monopolies in the media sector since these might have restricted the consumer's freedom on both an economic and political level. In Iceland, apart from the State service (Rikisutvarpid), that has two radio stations and a TV channel, there are various private companies. According to some critics the present law seems designed to prevent Jon Asger Johanesson, owner of the food-store chain Baugur, in investing in the media. The Baugur group controls Northern Lights (Nordjulos) that heads the TV channel Stod 2, several radio stations and publishes two newspapers, Frettabladid and DV.
In a speech the President of the Republic laid emphasis on the freedom of expression and the need for Iceland to have free media. He justified his decision to veto in that the law voted in by Parliament was too controversial. "The people have the right to say what they think of a law by referendum", he maintained. Article 26 of fundamental Icelandic law does stipulate that if the President refuses to sign the text of a law then it must be submitted to referendum as quickly as possible. The decision, therefore, lies with the Icelanders who will vote either in favour or rejection of the law on the media. Parliament will meet on 5th July next in order to prepare for the referendum that might be organised in the first fortnight in August. The Independence Party has decided not to invest any money in the upcoming electoral campaign.
According to an opinion poll published by the newspaper Frettabladid at the beginning of June, seven Icelanders in ten (74%) said they were in favour of the presidential veto and wanted to vote on the media law. At the end of May around thirty thousand people had signed a petition asking the President not to sign.
Olafur Ragnar Grimsson is placing his presidential mandate on the line on 26th June. Contrary to Icelandic tradition that decrees that no one should compete against a President in office and who wants another mandate, two other candidates are standing for election. These are Asthor Magnusson, a businessman and pacifist militant, who won 2.6% of the vote in the presidential election on 29th June 1996 and Baldur Agustsson, who makes his fortune by leading a security company in the UK, but who is totally unknown to the man on the street. All opinion polls place Olafur Ragnar Grimsson in the victor's seat, with Asthor Magnusson winning, according to the polls, 1.5% of the vote and Baldur Agustsson around 5%.
The participation rate will comprise the only real stake in this presidential election. Indeed, if only a few Icelanders turn out Olafur Ragnar Grimsson's re-election will be considered to be a failure. The President will only be truly victorious if the participation rate goes beyond 70%.