Iceland President Front-Runner Seeks Post-Crisis Democracy Jolt

  • Contender wants constitutional article on referendums
  • Says intends to use powers given to president in constitution

The leading candidate to become Iceland’s next president says the recipe to avoid another economic disaster is to put more power into the hands of the people.

Gudni Th. Johannesson, an Oxford-educated historian at the University of Iceland who is backed by 69 percent of voters ahead of next month’s presidential election, says he will work to insert an article in the nation’s constitution that will give voters the right to demand a referendum on pressing issues.

Gudni Johannesson
Gudni Johannesson
Photographer: Haakon Broder Lund

"Voters shouldn’t need to go to Bessastadir with a torch in one hand and a petition in the other, asking the president to step in to activate the rights of the people," the 47-year-old said in an interview last week, referring to the home of the president.

Johannesson, a father of five who’s married to a Canadian journalist, is tapping into a rich vein of popular discontent across a Europe that is still struggling in the aftermath of the financial crisis. While right-wing nationalism has become one of its main symptoms on the continent, outsiders such as the Pirate Party and Johannesson advocating more direct democracy have emerged in Iceland, a nation of 330,000 people.

Johannesson’s efforts would formalize how major political change has de facto been pushed through in Iceland since its three-biggest banks collapsed in 2008 to trigger the nation’s worst economic crisis in history.

Raucous street protests in otherwise tranquil Reykjavik booted out the government and central bank governor as economic malaise spread in 2009. Citizens then successfully petitioned President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson to twice refuse to ratify a deal between the government and the Netherlands and the U.K. on depositor guarantees. As recently as April, Icelanders pelted their parliament with yogurt and bananas to force out Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson after revelations that he and his wife kept an offshore account.

The depositor deals, stemming from so-called Icesave accounts, have once again become an election issue. In particular for Johannesson, who ended up voting for the last deal struck with the Netherlands and the U.K. His support was for the best deal on the table, just as “40 percent of voters" and the "majority of lawmakers," he told broadcaster Bylgjan earlier this month.

While the Icelandic presidency is a largely ceremonial post, it does wield some power, as Grimsson’s refusal to accept the depositor deals showed. Grimsson is stepping down in August after five four-year terms.

If Johannesson follows him into Bessastadir after the June 25 election, he will be unlikely to let the country once again backslide into a haven for fast finance and questionable deals. While he does intend to wield the powers given to the president in the constitution -- once considered only theoretical powers -- he also says the president’s role needs to be clarified.

The country is now one of the fastest growing nations in Europe, expanding at more than 4 percent and unemployment has slipped to below 3 percent.

"We created an image of us being better than other countries in international finance, partly because we were the descendants of Vikings and explorers," said Johannesson. "In reality, we were just much better than others in borrowing money and then we found it difficult to repay it. This is something we need to be careful of."

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