Iceland PM Says He's Ready to Call Snap Electionby
Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson said he was ready to call early elections should his coalition partner urge him to do so amid mass protests following revelations that he allegedly benefited from offshore investment accounts in tax havens.
Police on Monday erected barricades around the parliament in Reykjavik as protesters beat drums and pelted the legislature with eggs and yogurt. Almost 10,000 people gathered, according to police, while organizers said the figure was twice as high. Thousands more had signed up on Facebook to attend a second round of protests due to take place on Tuesday afternoon.
Opposition lawmakers on Monday put forward a motion of no confidence and urged the prime minister to resign, a call that has since been supported by some of Gunnlaugsson’s own party members. The premier said on his Facebook page he wanted to continue but was ready to call snap elections if his coalition partner decided that was the best path forward.
President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson said Gunnlaugsson asked for permission to call elections, during a meeting at his residence on Tuesday. Grimsson said he didn’t want a vote to be held immediately, but will seek assurances from Gunnlaugsson’s coalition partner and the speaker of parliament that the government will be able to continue functioning under the current circumstances.
The confidence vote may take place on Thursday, according to Birgitta Jonsdottir, a spokeswoman for the Pirate Party, which brought the motion. Lawmakers weren’t due to meet on Tuesday. A group of nine local government politicians in the prime minister’s Progressive Party have signed a Facebook statement urging him to resign.
Gunnlaugsson, who rules with the backing of a party led by his Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, had earlier refused to step down. Instead, the 41-year-old premier urged parliament to approach the matter “calmly and honestly,” and told lawmakers he has never hidden funds in tax havens.
The finance minister said on Monday it isn’t clear that the government can survive, according to an interview by news site Kjarninn. Benediktsson, who was also revealed to have held a stake in an offshore company, has said he disclosed everything to the Icelandic tax authorities at the time. The company, which was formed to buy property in Dubai, didn’t make the intended purchases and was later de-registered, he said.
The opposition argues it’s no longer feasible for the current government to continue. Filling the square in front of parliament "is our only hope -- our only hope" in getting rid of Gunnlaugsson, said Jonsdottir of the Pirate Party, which polls show would win the most votes in an election.
More people turned up for Monday’s demonstrations than gathered in 2009, when protesters beating kitchen pots were part of a wave of political upheaval that forced then Prime Minister Geir Haarde to step down. “It’s incredible to say but nothing changed here during the Pot and Pan Revolution until the protests had become very powerful," Jonsdottir said.
Gunnlaugsson, who started his four-year term in 2013, is one of a handful of world leaders to be singled out after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or ICIJ, uncovered that he and his wife had an offshore account to manage an inheritance. His wife, Anna Sigurlaug Palsdottir, previously revealed the account in a Facebook posting in March after the premier was questioned about the money.
“It’s been clear since before I began participating in politics that my wife had a considerable amount of money,” Gunnlaugsson wrote on his website. “Some people find that in itself very negative. I can’t do much about that because I’m neither going to divorce my wife nor demand that she relinquish her family inheritance.”
His wife’s holdings included about $4 million in bonds in Iceland’s three failed banks, whose 2008 collapse brought the country to its knees, forcing it to seek a bailout and to shut itself off from international capital flows by imposing currency restrictions. The leaked documents therefore also raise questions about Gunnlaugsson’s role in overseeing negotiations with the banks’ creditors.
According to the ICIJ report, Palsdottir says she has always paid all her taxes owed on an account by the name of Wintris, which was confirmed by her tax firm, KPMG. ICIJ cited a leak covering documents spanning leaders and businesses across the globe from 1977 to 2015 from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, a top creator of shell companies that has branches in Hong Kong, Miami, Zurich and more than 35 other places around the world.
Wintris “is a company in my wife’s ownership and it has always paid taxes and been declared in our tax returns,” Gunnlaugsson told parliament on Monday.
The premier was one of 12 current and former world leaders to have offshore holdings revealed in the leak that has come to be called the Panama Papers. Offshore holdings can be legal, though documents show some banks and law firms failed to follow requirements to check their clients are not involved in crimes.
Gunnlaugsson’s coalition would stand to lose an election were one held today. A March MMR poll showed his government, which comprises the Progressive and Independence parties, getting only 36.2 percent backing. Meanwhile the opposition Pirate Party, which among other things targets splitting up the investment and retail operations of banks, would get 37 percent. Gunnlaugsson’s coalition currently holds 40 of the 63 seats in Iceland’s parliament.