Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

The presidential puppet master

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When president Olafur Ragnar Grimsson gave his New Year speech January 1 Icelanders were waiting in suspense. Was the president running for election the fifth time or was he stepping down? Then came this:

My conclusion may sound like a paradox; it is, nevertheless, that the situation in Iceland is now such that I can be of greater assistance if my choice of action is subject only to my own will, free of the restraints which the office of the Presidency always imposes on speech and action. Without the duties of a head of state on my shoulders, I shall have more scope to devote energy to cherished goals and causes that have long been dear to me; I shall be able to make a contribution of a different kind towards progress and prosperity, science, research and economic activity. New avenues will open up for me to support the battle against climate change and to promote the use of green energy, to develop collaboration in the circumpolar region and foster our relations with leading nations in 7 other parts of the world, and to expand the opportunities open to our young people and support democracy in our society. Thus, my decision does not mean a farewell, but rather the beginning of another journey, a new phase of service to the ideals that have long guided me; at greater liberty to act and enriched by the experience which service as President brings to every individual chosen by the nation.

Grimsson clearly thought that Iceland and Icelanders were in a good place and he, as the paternal figure, could safely leave his children on their own. Icelanders nodded, saying that well, this was it – the president was going to leave office. Some were surprised that he was stepping down instead of setting a new record of time in office. Others said that clearly he was going to leave little Iceland to explore his global opportunities in the market for former presidents.

After a few days, people woke up to the thought why the president hadn’t said more clearly that he was leaving. His predecessors had, at this point in their career, declared that they were not running for office again. Clear and unequivocal. Not Ragnarsson. He didn’t say he wasn’t running. Just that he had other things to attend to.

People started debating what he had meant: was he or wasn’t he running again? Why hadn’t he said these words “not running again.” The president was asked what he really meant. He didn’t want to say. He just meant what he had said – but that didn’t really answer the question, which is why it was being asked again.

Some thought it utterly unbearable to see him go. No one else could possibly such a good president. No one else could be the president of Iceland. An ad hoc group led by former ministers Gudni Agustsson (Progressive Party) and Ragnar Arnalds (from a left party no longer existing) set up webpage for people to sign the following petition: “We signees challenge you, Mr Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, to run for office this summer. We trust you better than any other person to protect the interests of the people in this country in the difficult times ahead.”

The first flood wave of signees dried up very quickly. A week ago, Agustsson handed Grimsson 31.000 signatures. “I can’t hide,” Grimsson said, “that such an occasion wasn’t in my mind nor was it part of what I had thought would happen, especially not after my New Year’s speech at the time.” Contrary to earlier presidents, he said, there was an obvious will among the people to keep him – a rather insulting remark towards his predecessors.

Grimsson took a whole week to ponder on his next move but today the suspense ended (his statement, only in Icelandic): in spite of what Grimsson calls his “clear words” in the New Year’s speech he now bows to the will of so many Icelanders and is running again, adding: “It’s my sincere wish that the nation will understand that when there is again a constitutional and governmental stability in the country and our standing among the nations is more clear I will decide to turn to other projects before the end of term, so presidential election might then be held earlier than anticipated.” – The short and concise meaning of this that he is staying until a better offer pops up.

Abroad, he champions himself as a leader who paved the way for the democratic process  in Iceland, portraying the Icesave referenda as a “yes” or “no” to bailing out the banks. In Iceland, many remember him being a willing host to bankers and business men, literally their fellow traveller, and an avid messenger of the innate and superior brilliance of Icelandic banking and business acumen.

By his little show, the presidential puppet master has, yet again, shown himself to be a master plotter, this time playing on many strings. By creating the uncertainty of him running or not he has kept other possible candidates at bay. Or discouraged them to step forth. It’s long been clear that he is not in favour of Icelandic membership of the European Union and, having vetoed the Icesave agreement twice, he feels he has saved Icelandic democracy.

Any candidate will have to declare his standing on both issues, which means that, unless he is the only candidate, the election will ia be on Icelandic EU membership and Icesave. This is the clearest evidence of the changes of the presidential office Grimsson has instigated during his presidency: from a formal but non-political office to just the opposite.

In his New Year speech, Grimsson talked about going on a new journey. Right he was. It’s a new journey. But it’s not a journey he’s undertaking by himself. He’s taking the whole of Iceland along. It remains to be seen where this journey leads to – and if there is any credible candidate that can make Icelanders leave Grimsson by the roadside. For the moment, Grimsson is pulling all the strings.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

March 5th, 2012 at 3:46 am

Posted in Iceland

One Response to 'The presidential puppet master'

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  1. President Ollie brings to my mind Bertrand Russell’s observation: “Every man would like to be God if it were possible; some few find it difficult to admit the impossibility.”

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