Panama Papers looms large as Iceland votes for president


REYKJAVIK: Iceland goes to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president, with voters hoping the country can turn over a new leaf after the Panama Papers scandal tainted part of the political elite.

A tranquil country better known for its breathtaking landscapes than its politics, Iceland made headlines around the world in April when angry masses protested in the streets for days to demand the resignation of their prime minister, implicated in the scandal over offshore accounts.

The prime minister ultimately stepped down and legislative elections are due in the autumn. In the meantime, the country will elect a new head of state on Saturday, in a single round of voting.

Nine candidates are in the running to succeed Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, who is stepping down at 73 after five straight terms spanning 20 years.

Two candidates have dominated the campaign: Gudni Johannesson, a 47-year-old historian, academic, and political commentator with no party affiliation or political experience, and David Oddsson, a 68-year-old former prime minister and central bank chief.

Before the start of campaigning, Icelanders only knew Johannesson as a political analyst. But he quickly emerged as the frontrunner, leading in opinion polls from the start.

The most recent survey, a Gallup poll from June 15, credited him with 50.9 per cent of votes, almost 35 points ahead of Oddsson, his closest rival.

Oddsson, who served as Conservative prime minister from 1991 to 2004 and central bank governor from 2005 to 2009, will forever be associated with the excesses of the Icelandic banking boom that led to the country’s devastating 2008 financial crisis.

“They are representatives of different times. Oddsson belongs to the old conflict politics” while Johannesson “puts emphasis on presenting himself as a neutral candidate”, said Gretar Eythorsson, a political science professor at the University of Akureyri.

Johannesson’s calm, conciliatory tone and stated desire to restore Icelanders’ faith in the political system has appealed to voters.

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

Oddsson’s campaign has meanwhile been more combative and “is all about trying to harass Johannesson and find weak spots”, said Eythorsson.

“That effort has at times gone quite far and it is obvious that Johannesson has a few times had to control himself under the fiercest attacks.”

Sigurdur Ragnarsson, a 49-year-old voter, said he backed Oddsson. “I think it is sensible to vote for a candidate with his experience. Iceland is still dealing with the aftermath of the crash,” he said.

But many others are loathe to see Oddsson return to power and would rather see a fresh face like Johannesson, an academic who embodies a break with the tainted establishment.

“I think he is the future, not the past like Oddsson for example, and I think he has a healthy view on the role the office holds in this country. I simply trust him to do well,” said 33-year-old Anna Sigurdardottir.

Establishment under fire

In Iceland, politicians are not exactly in favour these days. They were heavily criticised for their role in Iceland’s 2008 financial collapse that plunged the country into a three-year recession.

And the publication in April of the leaked “Panama Papers” revealed that a shocking number of Icelanders had assets in tax havens, including several top politicians, first among them the then-prime minister who was forced to resign amid a public outcry.

Disillusionment with the political establishment has recently swept a number of new faces to the top echelons of politics, including Pablo Iglesias in Spain, Beppe Grillo in Italy, Donald Trump in the United States and Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila.

But Johannesson stands out for his softer, more consensus-oriented and conciliatory approach.

Although his support in the polls has not maintained its initial highs, he remains well ahead. Voter support has dropped late in the campaign, probably because it was at unreasonably high levels to start with, peaking at 69 percent early on.

“Polls show that he is very well ahead, so he has everything to lose and needs to focus on avoiding saying controversial things,” said Gretar Eythorsson, a political science professor at the University of Akureyri.

And that’s just what Johannesson has done. His political programme, focused primarily on modernising politics, states clearly: “The president should stand outside debates in society.”

After studying at Oxford and earning his PhD at Queen Mary University of London, he has spent most of career in academic auditoriums and libraries. He presents himself as an ordinary father who likes to read, jog and play football. He has one daughter from his first marriage, and is now raising four children under the age of 10 with his second wife, Canadian historian Eliza Reid. He is also the Icelandic translator of four books by American horror writer Stephen King In Iceland, the president is supposed to be non-partisan and act as a guarantor of the constitution and national unity. He also represents the country in some diplomatic functions.

Despite polls crediting him with a near certain win, Johannesson is keeping a cool head. “I am, and have been, very grateful for the great support I have enjoyed, but I know as a sports enthusiast that you can never celebrate victory until the match is over,” said Johannesson.—AFP