Now pushing seventy, Iceland’s president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson gave a very ambiguous speech on New Year’s Eve that practically the entire Icelandic nation decided was a farewell after many years in the job. Then a few acolytes orchestrated a rather clunky campaign to persuade the old boy to stand again.
Practically with tears in his heavy-lidded eyes, he graciously announced that he would. Iceland’s hothouse media, which had been churning out the wildest speculation on who might or might not be tempted to stand for the job was suddenly confused. Hadn’t he said he was standing down..? Was there something we missed…? There was some backtracking through the tapes and, no, he hadn’t said anything of the sort but in true political tradition he’d left his options open.
ÓRG is a thoroughly political animal. Over the years he has gone from being a left-leaning political maverick to a champion of the out-of-control free-market economics that haven’t done Iceland too many favours. His greatest mistake was probably to back the banksters as enthusiastically as he did. Subsequently refusing to ratify parliament’s IceSave bills by sending the issue to consecutive referenda, he avoided making unpopular decisions and saved his own political skin while also dealing a couple of body blows to the already weakened government, made up partly of old opponents he doubtless has little affection for.
He has politicized the office of president, using the presidential veto for the first time. Previous incumbents had kept the presidency firmly clear of politics, refusing to take part in the divisive issues of the day and keeping a distance from the vicious political squabbles being fought out in parliament and the media.
Iceland has a tradition of not unseating a sitting president. It’s considered tasteless to stand against a president in office and those who have tried are normally seen as unelectable. Previous presidents have comfortably seen off rare rival candidates, but this time things look very different and the candidates are already lining up with half a dozen in the running. But the race is already looking to become a two-horse contest between ÓRG and Thóra Arnórsdóttir, a young, smart and generally well liked TV journalist.
She’s media-savvy, as befits a regular presenter of the state broadcasting station’s top news slot. Thóra already has a sizable head of steam behind her emerging campaign and she has a couple of aces. One is that she’s not ÓRG and as such doesn’t have the same weight of political baggage and the unspoken links with the old boys’ network of business and politics. The fact that she’s not a grey-haired man in a sober grey suit isn’t going to do her any harm.
In a race that looks like a battle of new blood vs the wily old guard, the ante is being upped as candidates for the presidency may have to enter the fray on an increasingly political footing, notably on the hugely divisive issues of fisheries and EU membership.
ÓRG has already rounded on Thóra with an outburst in an interview that could easily backfire against him among those who are uncomfortable with the politicization of the presidency. In return, she merely wished him a happy birthday on her Facebook page.
Two months is a very long time in politics and Thóra Arnórsdóttir’s campaign has got off to a flying start with the real danger that her visibility could peak and fade well ahead of the election itself – although her circumstances are awkward. She has taken a break halfway through the presidential campaign to have a baby. Outside the Nordic countries this would raise a few eyebrows, but in Iceland hardly anyone is going to turn a hair. The present government has at least three MPs, including two ministers, who have taken maternity leave during its present term.
In theory, Ólafur Ragnar should be eyeing his chances dubiously, maybe even regretting not having stepped down gracefully when the opportunity was there. Nobody would have thought any less of him for having done so, but the electoral machine is now fully engaged and gathering momentum.
Knowing how Iceland’s conservative voters tick, it’s a good bet that ÓRG may be able sit tight and watch his opponents split the opposing vote between them. In a three- or four-horse race, he’d probably come out on top. If the other presidential hopefuls can be whittled down to a single candidate opposing him and with a clear appetite for someone fresh and less political at Bessastaðir, he could find himself facing retirement. Not that the old fox is going to go quietly or without pulling a few rabbits out of his political hat.