Iceland elects new president in vote eclipsed by Euros, Brexit
June 25 2016 12:46 PM
Iceland voting
Iceland voting


Iceland began voting in a presidential election Saturday, two months after the Panama Papers scandal tainted part of the political elite, with newcomer Gudni Johannesson seen clinching an easy victory.

Polling stations opened at 0900 GMT, with 245,000 Icelanders eligible to cast ballots. Polls were to close at 2200 GMT, with the first results expected shortly afterwards.

Johannesson, a 47-year-old history professor and political commentator who has never held public office, only decided to run after the Panama Papers leak in April detailing offshore accounts implicated several senior Icelandic politicians, including the prime minister who was forced to resign.

Johannesson has vowed to restore Icelanders' faith in the system after years of public anger toward politicians for miring the country in scandals and financial woes.

But while outraged Icelanders massed in the streets for days in April calling for the prime minister's ouster, that anger appeared to have dissipated somewhat with the final days of campaigning overshadowed by euphoria after the Icelandic football squad achieved a historic feat at the Euro 2016 football tournament.

A North Atlantic island of just 334,000 people, Iceland beat Austria 2-1 on Wednesday to qualify for the last 16 in the country's Euro debut, facing off against England on Monday.

The news dominated the headlines, with only sparse coverage of the looming election.

In an editorial published Saturday, centre-left daily Frettabladid said the campaign ‘has never really gotten off the ground and mostly been about past issues’ such as the Cod Wars and the 2008 financial crisis.

Johannesson ‘has not succeeded in pointing the debate towards today and the future. Perhaps it is the historian in him that is comfortable discussing the past. Another candidate, David Oddsson, is almost the embodiment of those long-gone events.’


- Commanding lead -

Britain's vote to leave the European Union also dominated the news on the eve of the election in Iceland, a country that itself applied for EU membership in 2009 but abandoned the bid six years later.

Like most of Iceland's voters, Johannesson is opposed to EU membership.

The president holds a largely ceremonial position, acting as a guarantor of the constitution and national unity.

The constitution does allow the president to dissolve parliament, as well as veto bills and put them to a referendum, though those powers have rarely been used.

Current president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, is stepping down at 73 after five straight terms spanning 20 years.

More important legislative elections are due in the autumn.

In opinion polls, Johannesson has held a commanding lead over the other eight candidates since announcing his candidacy in early May.

The latest polls credited him with between 45 and 49 percent of voter sympathies.

Johannesson's closest rival for most of the campaign was Oddsson, with between 12 and 16 percent of support.

The 68-year-old, who served as Conservative prime minister from 1991 to 2004 and central bank governor from 2005 to 2009, is a divisive figure in Iceland, inextricably linked to the excesses of the banking boom that led to the country's devastating 2008 financial crisis.

He was overtaken in the final days of the campaign by businesswoman Halla Tomasdottir, who was credited with just over 18 percent of votes in a poll on Friday.


- 'Neutral candidate' -

Johannesson was until recently known to Icelanders as one of the country's most prominent political commentators from the University of Iceland.

Unlike Oddsson, Johannesson is non-partisan, putting ‘emphasis on presenting himself as a neutral candidate,’ Gretar Eythorsson, a political science professor at the University of Akureyri, told AFP.

In a nation basking in a strong economy, low unemployment and robust purchasing power, Johannesson's views are generally seen as moderate and centrist.

His calm nature, conciliatory tone, and consensus-oriented approach, as well as his stated desire to restore Icelanders' faith in the political system, has appealed to voters.

He has also vowed to modernise political life and give voters more of a voice, by, among other things, introducing citizen-initiated referendums.

The president ‘is expected to unite the people rather than scatter them,’ Johannesson told AFP in an interview.


There are no comments.

LEAVE A COMMENT Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked*