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Iceland - Presidential Election

Journalist Thora Arnorsdottir is the favourite in the Icelandic presidential election, to be held on 30th June

Journalist Thora Arnorsdottir is the favourite in the Icelandic presidential election, to be held on 30th June

29/05/2012 - Analysis

Until only very recently the Icelandic tradition held that no competitor stood against the outgoing President of the Republic if the latter was seeking a further mandate. The current head of state, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, elected for the first time on 29th June 1996 with 40.9% of the vote, was renewed in his functions in June 2000 without any ballot being held. In 2004, however, there was a break with tradition (for the second time since 1988): although the President of the Republic had announced that he wanted a third mandate, two other people stood against him: the businessman and militant pacifist Asthor Magnusson (who had already stood in the 1996 presidential elections, when he obtained 2.6% of the vote) and the businessman Baldur Agustsson. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson was however easily re-elected, with 86.50% of the vote. In 2008, no presidential election was organised since no candidate stood against the outgoing President.
On 4th March, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson announced his decision to stand for a 5th mandate at the presidential election to be held on 30th June, after receiving a petition signed by 31 733 people in favour of his candidature. In his New Year speech in December 2011, the head of State had announced that he wanted to devote his time to other work, although he did not officially announce that he was not gong to stand. "The desire expressed by some Icelanders that I should stay at my post is due to the growing uncertainty with regard to government of the country and the position of the President of the Republic in the Constitution", he declared. "It is important to remain vigilant in terms of the place of our nation on the international stage" added Olafur Ragnar Grimsson.

The role of the President

In Iceland the role of the President is essentially honorific. The head of State, often qualified as a "king without a crown" is however a symbol of national unity and he exercises moral authority amongst his fellow citizens. The presidential mandate lasts for 4 years and there is no limit set on the number of mandates.
All candidates for the role of president must collect at least 1 500 signatures in order to be able to stand in the elections. The ballot takes place over a single round and the candidate who wins the largest number of votes to his name is elected president of the Republic. Voters usually decide according to the personality of the candidates rather than their political leanings.

On 2nd June 2004, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson used his veto against a law on the media which sought to combat concentrations deemed liable to restrict consumer liberties in economic and political terms, which had been voted on the previous 25th May by the Althing, Parliament's single chamber. This first presidential veto in the country's history had the effect of a thunderbolt on the island. The head of State, who had recalled the importance of the freedom of expression and the necessity for the media in Iceland to be free, justified his decision by the fact that the law voted by Parliament was highly controversial. According to article 26 of the Constitution, the law should have been put to referendum but the text was finally abrogated on 22nd July 2004.
On 2nd January 2010, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson announced his refusal to sign the law on the Icesave agreement, voted by Parliament during the night of 30th to 31st December 2009. A referendum was organised on 6th March 2010 which saw the Icelanders follow their head of State and reject the Icesave agreement by 93% of the vote. Almost a year later, on 20th February 2011, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson again announced the organisation of a referendum on the new law on the Icesave agreement, voted by the Althing four days earlier. The following 9th April, 58.9% of voters rejected the text.

The candidates

There are 8 official candidates in the presidential elections:

– Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, 69, head of State since 1996, standing for a 5th mandate.
– Thora Arnorsdottir, 37, journalist for the State TV channel, announced her candidature on 4th April, after collecting the 1 500 signatures required in just one weekend. The first candidate to campaign whilst pregnant, she took a few days off to give birth to a baby girl on 18th May.
– Asthor Magnusson, businessman and militant pacifist with the international organisation Fridur 2000 (Peace 2000). He was unlucky in the presidential elections held on 26th June 2004 (1.9% of the vote) and is now seeking to ensure that his presidency acts as a symbol of peace.
– Herdis Thorgeirsdottir, 58, a solicitor and law professor at Bifröst University in Northurárdalur. She is president of the European Women Jurists Association and represents Iceland at the Venice Commission (European Commission for Democracy through Law at the Council of Europe).
– Ari Trausti Gudmundsson, 63, writer, geophysicist, former communist who now declares himself to be independent.
– Jon Larusson, originally from Selfoss (South), a police inspector in charge of tax fraud since 2008; he declares himself to be apolitical and is opposed to Iceland joining the European Union.
– Hannes Bjarnason, a farmer from Skagafjödur who has lived in Norway for 14 years, wants to put morality at the centre of the debate and promises to safeguard the nation's interests.
– Adrea Olafsdottir is president of the Hagsmunasamtök heimilanna association (the Coalition of owners), and pleads in favour of paying the minimum wage (193 krona, i.e. € 1163) to the president of the Republic and members of parliament.

A duel between Olafur Ragnar Grimsson and Thora Arnorsdottir

The outgoing head of State, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, justifies his repeat candidacy by his desire to work in the people's interests at a time of particular upheaval. In the newspaper Morgunblathith he has indicated that if he is re-elected he may leave his post before the end of his mandate. If Olafur Ragnar Grimsson were to be re-elected on 30th June, he would become the longest-serving President of the Republic ever at the head of the country.

Opinion polls still give the current resident at Bessastathir, the name of the Icelandic presidential residence, about one third of the vote, a high percentage after 16 years in power. Most Icelanders nevertheless express their desire to see a new face in the role of President, which is why, a month before the vote, the favourite in the polls is Thora Arnorsdottir. Olafur Ragnar Grimsson is well aware of this fact and concentrates all his attacks on the journalist. He had no hesitation, for example, in saying that his adversary is "dangerous for the country" stating that she "will do nothing but follow the government's will, particularly in terms of foreign policy", whereas Iceland will have to negotiate its membership of the European Union (the current government, led by Johanna Sigurdardottir (social-democratic alliance party) is favourable to membership whereas Olafur Ragnar Grimsson has expressed his reservations on the subject). The outgoing President accuses the Icelandic media of giving Thora Arnorsdottir preferential treatment.

The latest opinion poll carried out by the Institute of Social Sciences at the University of Iceland, and published on 21st May, shows the journalist coming out on top in the presidential election on 30th June, with 46.2% of the vote, ahead of the outgoing head of State who would receive 37.8%. The gap is tending to narrow between the two, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson has come back strongly and Thora Arnorsdottir has lost a few points. One should not forget, however, that she has been forced to put her electoral campaign on hold over the past few days, to give birth to her daughter. The outgoing President took advantage of this temporary withdrawal to occupy the whole of the stage.
If Thora Arnorsdottir wins the presidential election on 30th June she will not be Iceland's first female head of State (Vigdis Finnbogadottir held the position between 1980 and 1996), but Iceland would find itself in an absolutely unique position: the country's top four positions in its political hierarchy would be held by women: President of the Republic, Prime Minister (Johanna Sigurdardottir), the Speaker (Asta Ragnheithur Johannesdottir, Social-democratic alliance party) and, finally, the head of the Church of Iceland (Sera Agnes Sigurdardottir will become the country's first woman bishop on 1st July).
The President's mandate comes to term on 31st July 2012.

Source : Site du ministère de l'Intérieur islandais
Source: Icelandic Interior Ministry website
Publishing Director: Pascale JOANNIN
The authors
Corinne Deloy
Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).
Fondation Robert Schuman
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