Will he, or won’t he? by Quentin Bates

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Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson is now in his fourth term in office and so far hasn’t indicated whether or not he’s going to stand for a fifth term at Bessastadir, the presidential residence outside Reykjavík.

He’s been in the job since 1996 and plenty of water has flowed under bridges since then. Iceland has gone from being an island in the Atlantic surrounded by fish with one Nobel Prize winner and a very high per capita proportion of Miss Worlds to its name to (briefly) a financial powerhouse, to its present less than happy situation.

Icelandic presidents tend to be fairly unexciting creatures and Ólafur Ragnar more or less fits the mould. There are no marble swimming pools paid for by raiding the treasury, no presidential jets (ÓRG has been known to fly peon-class on scheduled flights), no endless rooms stacked to the rafters with unworn designer shoes, no gold-plated Kalashnikovs and no legions of stunning Karate-trained young women to guard the president’s person.

Previous presidents Kristján Eldjárn and Vigdís Finnbogadóttir (the world’s first female president), had been loved and respected figures who kept themselves clear of politics. Ólafur Ragnar hasn’t done that. With a background as an academic and more latterly in politics, serving for three years as Minister of Finance during which he was lampooned as ‘Skattmann’ (Taxman) as a tights-wearing Batman-like figure, he is a political animal to the core.

Considering his left-wing credentials as both a politician and a journalist, one of the controversial aspects of his presidency has been his championing of the Icelandic ‘Export Vikings’ during the boom years when he seemed to be an almost ubiquitous cheerleader for the smart young whizzkids who ‘made money by day and barbecued in the evening.’ It has left a sour taste and his ‘you ain’t seen nothin’ yet’ quip at a speech at a banquet shortly before the spectacular crash of 2008 was right on the money – just not in the way he had expected.

During his term in office he has lost one wife (tragically, to leukemia) and gained another, the Israeli-born Dorrit Moussaief, who reportedly did not entirely share her husband’s enthusiasm for the lightning speed at which Iceland’s rich young men accumulated their wealth. Back in 2004, when there were still no clouds on the Icelandic horizon, he went head-to-head with the government over a controversial media bill, invoking the president’s right to call a referendum. In the event, the bill was withdrawn and the referendum never took place, but in the aftermath of the crash, with Holland and Britain seen as a pair of circling vultures in the wake of the IceSave debacle, he twice called a referendum instead of ratifying bills that had gone through Parliament to settle the matter.

Both times the electorate voted down the government, which practically anywhere else would have been seen as enough of a vote of no confidence to trigger a general election. Not that anyone was all that keen for a general election, least of all the opposition who are apparently happy to wait for the present government to finish taking unpopular decision before moving in for the kill in a year or two.

Whatever damage Ólafur Ragnar’s double decision to call a referendum on IceSave has done to the government, it has done nothing to harm his own popularity and a cynical observer could suggest that he has taken the opportunity avoid making unpopular decisions, in the process manipulating the situation towards a fifth term if he so desires.

Unlike parliamentary elections that tend to be vicious skirmishes between warring factions, presidential elections are normally gentlemanly affairs that are mostly uncontested. If Ólafur Ragnar decides to stand again, it will be considered extremely bad form to stand against him, making it a one-horse race. If he doesn’t and there has to be an election for a new president, it’s anybody’s guess who will step into the ring and although a few names have already been bandied about, nobody has been so tasteless as to say they want to stand or take on the present incumbent.

Whatever happens when the next presidential election rolls around next summer, the gloomy truth is that the position will be filled by someone well connected and with a safe pair of hands. Former rock stars, racing drivers, porn stars and footballers need not apply. Not yet, anyway. The present mayor of Reykjavík is a better stand-up comedian than a politician, by all accounts. So maybe there’ll be room for Jón Gnarr at Bessastadir at the end of Ólafur Ragnar’s fifth term.

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