Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

Archive for September, 2017

A fallen government and breach of trust

make a comment

The Icelandic government has fallen due to lack of trust – Bright Future has decided to leave the government. That is the simple fact. The story behind this is a tad more complicated, based on a horrid story of sexual abuse, a strange system of “reviving honour” after an ended prison sentence and connections to the father of prime minister Bjarni Benediktsson leader of the Independence party. Benediktsson, the Teflon man of Icelandic politics, again has a case that raises questions but so far, he has not lost the trust of his party. He now wants to call elections in November. – This is not a case of pedophilia but of politics and trust.

The shortest lived government in the history of Iceland and the third government led by the Independence party to fall has now come to an end, greatly challenging the party’s claim to be the great stabiliser in Icelandic politics. The only government after the 2008 banking collapse that so far has lasted its full parliamentary term is the left government, which did manage to sit the full 4 years though struggling at times.

In spring last year, Bjarni Benediktsson pulled his party out of government led by the Progressives’ leader Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson; the reason was lack of trust. Gunnlaugsson, named in the Panama papers, had for weeks known of the infamous interview where confronted with evidence he walked out. When Benediktsson saw the interview he walked out of government.

This time, the story could not be more different but at the bottom is, again, lack of trust. Benediktsson did not inform his fellow ministers that his father had signed a statement of character for a sentenced pedofile seeking to rehabilitate his honour and thereby seeking to reclaim civil rights lost due to his long prison sentence.

The sordid origin of a political story

Róbert Árni Hreiðarsson is a lawyer, earlier convicted for grooming under-aged girls in a particularly vicious case. After ending his sentence he changed to name to Robert Downey (apparently taking up the name of his American father). A convicted lawyer can’t enter the legal profession again unless he goes through the process of rehabilitating, “reviving his honour” as it is called in Icelandic.

The process can be initiated five years after ending a prison sentence and implies inter alia getting someone to sign a statement confirming that this person is indeed a sound and good person. Though not without exceptions, this has mostly been a rather mechanical process where the rehabilitation is rarely denied.

The fact that Downey seemed so easily to get his place in society again caused a widespread disgust in Iceland. The father of one of his victims aired the distress of the family, shared by many Icelanders. Rúv, the Icelandic state broadcaster, tried for months to get minister of justice Sigríður Andersen, also an Independence party MP, to inform who had supported Downey in “reviving his honour.”

The very Icelandic story of a pedofile connected to the PM’s father

As a side story, the attention was also on others sentenced for sexual abuse and who had helped them to rehabilitate. One of them is a Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson, sentenced for years of abusing his under-aged stepdaughter. It now turns out that one of those who assisted Hauksson was a well known businessman Benedikt Sveinsson, father of PM Bjarni Benediktsson.

Mostly, those who assist ex-prisoners to regain their full civil rights are people who have some standing in society and who known the convicted people for a long time. So what are the connections between Sveinsson, firmly in the centre of power and money in Iceland, and a sentenced pedofile?

In a press release, Sveinsson says that Hjalti Sigurjón Hauksson was for a while related to acquaintances of him and his wife from their school years and that Hauksson had over the years sometimes sought his help, mostly related to financial matters or work. Last year, Hauksson had brought him a letter for Sveinsson to sign, in order to use for his process of regaining his honour. Sveinsson signed the letter as it was, thereby signing off that Sveinsson now merited to be rehabilitated.

Hauksson has worked as a bus driver, also working for a bus company owned by Sveinsson and his family. This bus company has the license to operate on the very lucrative route Reykjavík – Keflavik airport.

Nagging suspicion and belated acknowledgment 

With the focus on Downey there had been some political manoeuvre, which caused suspicion and the media kept asking for more information. In hindsight, some media probably hard heard of a connection to the PM’s family that kept the Downey case alive in the media.

Following a Rúv Freedom of Information request, which ordered the ministry of justice to release information, Sigríður Andersen was just about to release information not only on Downey but all similar cases since 1995. On Monday, PM Benediktsson informed the two other coalition leaders that his father was implicated in one of these cases.

According to Óttarr Proppé leader of Bright Future he was then of the understanding that this information was about to be released. But when he then understood yesterday that Andersen had informed Benediktsson in July about his father’s involvement with the known pedofile, Proppé and his party concluded that this was such a breach of trust that leaving government was the only option.

Benediktsson adds to his list of political mishaps

There is no allegation of any connection between Benediktsson and a sentenced pedofile and this case has nothing to do with pedophilia, contrary to headlines in foreign media. The government did not fall due to a case of pedophilia but due to breach of trust, how Benediktsson had handled the case and if the minister of justice had acted properly by informing the PM of his family connections to this specific case.

But this case adds to Benediktsson’s list of mishaps that have so far not tainted his standing as a political leader. His father was connected to a banking collapse case, called the Vafningur case, related to illegal use of funds of Sjóvá, an insurance company where the family has for decades been a major shareholder. The case was not prosecuted. Benediktsson gave a witness statement where he claimed he had not known the details.

In 2014 Benediktsson was the minister of finance when the state-owned Landsbanki sold a credit card company to a consortium of businessmen. It later turned out the bank had grossly undervalued the company leaving a huge windfall to the consortium. Again, Benediktsson had been wholly aware of the whole thing.

Last, but not least, Benediktsson figured in the Panama Papers. He had owned an offshore company, holding failed investments in Macao. By saying this had all been only losses and was long gone, Benediktsson was able to move on and keeping his position as an undisputed leader of his party.

The political aftermath

So, what now? The first reaction was that the government had now fallen and there would be a quick election though there have also been rumours of other options. There are theoretical options for the government to continue operating for a limited time – for two months or so, long enough for the government to pass the budget, or if its live could be stretched until spring. Benediktsson has said he would prefer to call elections in November.

Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson leader of the Progressive party, an old coalition partner of the Independence party, denied quite harshly today that he was interested in filling Bright Future’s seats in government. At the same time, the rumour mill claimed the party was indeed interested in this option. Less easy now after Jóhannsson’s firm denial.

One mealy-mouthed politician today is Benedikt Jóhannesson minister of finance and leader of “Revival,” partly a splinter party out of the Independence party touting itself as a liberal euro-phile party contrary to the old party of anti-European sentiments and special interests. Contrary to other Revival MPs, Jóhannesson was remarkably unwilling to criticise Benediktsson and unwilling to mention breach of trust. In a country where blood is thicker than water, all Icelanders know full well that Jóhannesson is closely related to Benediktsson.

Quite remarkably, Iceland has in many ways done all the right things following the banking collapse in 2008 – it investigated the collapse, prosecuted bankers and shareholders and its economy turned to growth already in summer of 2011. Yet, it has not yet found political stability or political strength. That however has perhaps more to do with the times we live in: in Iceland, the widespread demand for transparency keeps running against political love of opacity.

The Independence party and its loss of claim to stability

Given that the world has lately seen Brexit and Trump victory, I’ve been saying tongue in cheek that if there will be elections soon Iceland might wake up to a government of Independence party, the Progressives and a new anti-immigration populist party called Party of the People. So far, it is a joke (albeit not funny).

The new party has caught the favour of voters always looking for a new solution to the world’s ill. The Pirate party has held much of these votes but seems to be losing them to this new party. Compared to other European countries, anti-immigration sentiments have not surfaced as a political force in Iceland. Not for lack of trying: the Progressives have flirted with these sentiments but so far, no success. However, as we have seen, such a party can pull other parties in its direction. Remains to be seen.

In terms of political reputation, the greatest loser from this debacle is so far the Independence party: it has for decades laid claim to its central part in Icelandic politics as the great stabiliser. Now, the party has set a new record: the three last government is has sat in – after elections in 2007, 2013 and 2016 (with government formed in January 2017) – have fallen.

But as the Independence party knows better than any other party it can normally rely on its voters, no matter what. It has been hovering around 25% of votes in opinion polls lately, record low compared to its earlier glory of close to 40%. Our times of flimsy voters might test this but other parties have a lot harder battle, especially the two other coalition parties who are in danger of not getting any MP though Bright Future might have created some political sparks by walking out of government. All to be tested in November…

Follow me on Twitter for running updates.

Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

September 15th, 2017 at 6:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorised