Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Presidential elections: fighting old debates or looking ahead? – Updated

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It’s no exaggeration to say that Icelanders are stunned to see another old politician throwing his gauntlet into the presidential ring: Davíð Oddsson is running for president, competing with Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, his old political adversary from decades ago. There are several other candidates but the most serious threat to the political oldies is Guðni Th Jóhannesson lecturer in history. Icelanders will now be invited to watch a battle as if stuck in the 1990s or watching ahead with Jóhannesson and the younger candidates. 

“Davíð” is a common name in Iceland but an Icelander hearing the name “Davíð” without further qualifications will know who is being referred to. Davíð Oddsson has been a fixture in Icelandic politics since elected mayor in 1982. Born in 1948 he is five years younger than president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. As a leader of the conservative Independence party (1991-2005) Oddsson often fought ferociously against Grímsson the leftie in the 1980s and the 1990s until Grímsson moved to Bessastaðir, the presidential residence. – After all, the most famous description of Oddsson, that the at the time prime minister had a “shitty nature” (“skítlegt eðli” in Icelandic sounds much ruder), came from Grímsson.

Formally Grímsson left the political scene in 1996 but others claim the old politician has never left politics, just adapted his tactics to his role. All of this seemed history – until today when Oddsson announced he would run against Grímsson. Icelanders now feel they are being dragged into the political battles of earlier decades. Both Grímsson and Oddsson feel they “won” the Icesave dispute, a clear example of dragging the past into the present. The question is if Icelanders want to look back or onwards.

Oddsson brings the distant past and the banking collapse into the present

As a prime minister from 1991 to 2004 Oddsson became the longest serving PM in Iceland. After a year as a foreign minister he moved to the Central Bank of Iceland, serving as a governor until early 2009 when he was hounded out by public protest and the left government. He was then offered the post of editor of  Morgunblaðið, the newspaper once Icelandic strongest private media.

Among his supporters Oddsson is seen as a strong and fearless politician. Albeit, it’s likely that his supporters are losing numbers, not because they change their mind but because they are mostly old and are slowly leaving this world. These people see him as the best PM ever, later ignominiously treated in 2009 by “the loony left” and activists.

Younger people remember his time as a governor where the CBI lost around ISK270bn on repro deals with the banks in the year before the 2008 banking collapse: the CBI knew what was going on but didn’t want to stop the merry-go-round. Again, others will claim nothing else could be done. However, the loss was large and real.

On the the day the banking collapse became a reality, 6 October 2008, Oddsson decided to lend €500m to Kaupthing – this lending is one of the very few unexplained and inexplicable actions related to the banking collapse (see my blog on this loan).

Oddsson: writing for the fishing industry and his own irritation

Morgunblaðið is owned by two large and powerful fishing companies and has been seen as an untiring campaigner for the fishing industry’s interests, against the European Union, against taxing the fishing industry etc.

As a PM Oddsson did lead Iceland into the European internal market by the agreement on the European Economic Area in 1993 but has grown ever more EU-sceptic. As editor, he has in addition cultivated his own unrelenting irritation against Rúv, the public broadcaster. Oddsson’s pen is sharp and merciless, in the latter years often more fierce than funny.

By deciding to run Oddsson brings all of his past into the present, both the deeds he’s still admired for by some conservative voters and the more questionable time, i.e. as a governor. Facebook has been ablaze in Iceland today, inter alia bringing up that the Time Magazine named Oddsson as one of 25 leaders from the world of banking and politics responsible for the banking crisis in 2008: he was earlier an avid campaigner for regulation-light and oversaw the privatisation of the banks, in  addition to the repo lending.

Icelandic presidents and changing public taste

The first Icelandic president, Sveinn Björnsson, was a politician voted by parliament as the Icelandic republic was founded in 1944. When Björnsson died in 1952 the second president Ásgeir Ásgeirsson, a social democrat was duly elected, remaining in office until he retired in 1968.

Before Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s victory in 1996, Icelanders had twice rejected politicians in favour of non-politicians. In 1968 the director of the Icelandic National Museum Kristján Eldjárn was voted president, beating Gunnar Thoroddsen, a conservative politician and Ásgeirsson’s son-in-law; in 1980 Vigdís Finnbogadóttir lecturer in French became the first Icelandic female president, also writing international history as the first woman democratically elected as president. The two had reached national fame through television, Eldjárn with a TV program on Icelandic archeology, Finnbogadóttir by teaching French on TV.

In 1996, times had changed and a politician won over several non-politicians. Grímsson, a divisive politician who started his political career in the Progressive party before moving farther left, to the People’s Alliance, won, much aided by his very charming Icelandic wife Guðrún Katrín Þorbergsdóttir. She died in 1998, after which he met the British-Israeli Dorrit Moussaieff, born into a wealthy family owning a jewellery business where she has later worked. They got married in 2003.

Surreal choices

It was already surreal to see a sitting president running for the sixth time. To see one of his political rivals from Grímsson’s political past conjures up a situation, which is beyond weird. Oddsson’s candidacy is not wholly surprising: it was frequently mentioned as a possibility in 2012 and this time there have been persistent rumours.

A four(!)-page article in Morgunblaðið, by an old friend of Oddsson on Oddsson, richly adorned with photos of the glorious leader with other glorious leaders, appeared last week, out of the blue; it now makes greater sense though the tone is no less comic. Think of the Guardian running four pages on Alan Rusbridger or the Financial Times on Lionel Barber…

The day Grímsson repeated his 2012 act by changing his mind and announcing he would run, contrary to his declaration in his New Year address, Morgunblaðið published a particularly vitriolic editorial about the man who couldn’t leave power. It was widely thought that part of the anger stemmed from the fact that Oddsson had been planning to run but hadn’t planned on challenging Grímsson.

Grímsson’s decision was however not as well received as in 2012. Lately, his wife’s links to offshore companies have done little to enthuse voters. Oddsson might think this paves his road to Bessastaðir. In addition, some are guessing he counts on Grímsson withdrawing – all of this are pure guesses.

As Oddsson rightly said this morning, politicians can no longer count on the party allegiance of voters; Icelandic voters have been extremely fickle lately. It was however remarkable how tepid the answer was from Bjarni Benediktsson leader of the Independence party when asked if he would support Oddsson: “I think the answer to this question is partly, no actually let us say wholly self-evident. But I believe Davíð will appeal to people far beyond the party.”

Oddsson has time and again scolded, reprimanded and denigrated Benediktsson in Morgunblaðið. From this point of view Benediktsson’s tone is understandable. Oddsson hasn’t made life easy for the party leadership; there will be many there who will feel no reason to show any allegiance at all. There will be those who see Oddsson as an earlier leader who time and again has made life very difficult for the party leadership by his comments; he has repeatedly be seen as a very vocal backseat driver, unhappy about his seat, certain of knowing what’s best for the party as the leader in more glorious times of much greater support.

Who could beat Grímsson and Oddsson?

Not an easy task because of the electoral system: the candidate getting the greatest number of votes will be president; there is no second round in case no one gets a clear majority. There are now around ten candidates running, some have already withdrawn, unclear what happens with these two political titans… or dinosaurs, depending on the point of view.

Andri Snær Magnason is a well-known writer and environmental campaigner in Iceland, born in 1973. There was some buzz around his candidacy but he only seems to appeal to a small group of “latte-licking” 101 inhabitants, i.e. hipster in the centre of Reykjavík.

Born in 1968, Guðni Th. Jóhannesson has been a vocal public intellectual in the Icelandic political debate, not taking political sides but a voice of reason and historical oversight. With a Canadian wife and four young children and a daughter from a previous relationship he represents something entirely different from the two old politicians.

Both Grímsson and Oddsson argue for their candidacy by claiming that Iceland is going through perilous times and need an experienced captain. Johannesson doesn’t recognise the peril, any more than most Icelanders seem to do, and he propagates optimism and a firm belief in the future of Iceland.

Grímsson and Oddsson might to a certain extent appeal to the same voters leaving most likely Jóhannesson as a choice for those who want to tear themselves from former political debates and of problems. But because of the peculiarity of the electoral system, it’s not entirely easy to predict the outcome.

*Updated: after flip-flopping on earlier decision president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson has now withdrawn his candidacy. Davíð Oddsson, rumoured to have known or had an inkling that Grímsson would leave the race, is now the only candidate of the old political guard in Iceland. The question is if Icelanders still want the old… or prefer new faces. It seems that Guðni Johannesson has a strong following. Remains to be seen, the elections are 25 June.

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

May 8th, 2016 at 6:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorised

4 Responses to 'Presidential elections: fighting old debates or looking ahead? – Updated'

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  1. To an outsider it seems inconceivable that anybody would vote for Grimsson with his track record, or Oddsson for that matter.
    Perhaps not a surprise that Gimsson has now withdrawn.

    Tony Shearer

    9 May 16 at 4:56 pm

  2. It seems that the old guard hasn’t realised that their time might have run out…

    Sigrún Davídsdóttir

    9 May 16 at 9:40 pm

  3. So is Oddsson that unpopular within the IP and so desirous of putting Bjarni in his place, that he would chance public humiliation?

    Andy jackson

    11 May 16 at 10:49 pm

  4. Oddsson stepped down as Independence leader in 2005 and 11 years is a long time out of politics. Which means that many IP voters will see no particular reason to vote for him. That counts for some of the party’s MPs as well. In addition, as editor Oddsson has been a harsh critic of his old party – often making it feel he’s being less a truth telling friend and more like an unjust foe to his old party and far from loyal to it.

    Sigrún Davídsdóttir

    12 May 16 at 12:54 pm

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