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Iceland's president seeks fifth straight term

28 june 2012, 16:27
Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grímsson. ©AFP
Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grímsson. ©AFP
Iceland votes in a presidential election on Saturday pitting veteran Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, who is seeking a fifth straight term, against a television presenter with no political experience, AFP reports.

Grimsson, 69, has enjoyed a wide lead in opinion polls since March, when he announced he would seek yet another term after 30,000 people signed a petition urging him to reconsider his earlier decision not to stand.

Until his announcement in March, the frontrunner looked to be Thora Arnorsdottir, a 37-year-old journalist, game show host and tour guide with no political affiliation.

The most recent Gallup poll last week gave Grimsson 44.8 percent of voter sympathies, while Arnorsdottir -- who halted campaigning for a few weeks in May to give birth to her third child -- garnered 37 percent.

"More than 30,000 Icelanders pleaded with me to carry on the watch in these uncertain times and ensure that in (the presidential residence) Bessastadir there would remain determination and experience," the energetic, silver-haired Grimsson, a socialist, told daily Morgunbladid recently.

Arnorsdottir meanwhile insists Iceland needs a change, after the 2008 financial and economic crash that saw its three biggest banks collapse.

The North Atlantic nation, which received a $2.1 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund, has now seen its economy return to growth.

"I think we have all felt a strong need for a change in this country. Iceland is a small country, and we pretty much agree on how this society should be," the statuesque blonde said in an interview with the Reykjavik Grapevine.

Arnorsdottir said she had decided to run after reading an official report on the crash and found that, especially when it came to "ethics and our political system, ... nothing had really changed."

"I think that now is an opportunity to learn from the experience we have been through ... and use it for a new beginning," she told Morgunbladid.

She acknowledged that the role of president is largely ceremonial, but said the position "has a great power of influence."

The role of the president is actually one of the main issues in the campaign.

Grimsson is widely popular for his refusal, twice, to sign a bill to use taxpayer money to compensate Britain and the Netherlands for the 2008 collapse of online bank Icesave.

While allowed to do so by the Constitution, no president had exercised that right until Grimsson did so in 2004 over a controversial media law, and campaigning has focused on what sort of president Icelanders now want.

The candidates opposing him -- trailing far behind Arnorsdottir in the polls are a 64-year-old geophysicist, a 41-year-old consultant, a 40-year-old activist and a 58-year-old law professor -- have all agreed the country needs someone who can unite Iceland after the crisis years, and promote reconciliation and trust.

Grimsson is known as a controversial figure.

He has been criticised for developing a strong relationship with China, despite Icelanders' disapproval of its human rights record, and is a stark opponent of Iceland joining the European Union for fear the country would lose its sovereignty.

Iceland applied to join the bloc in 2009 after the economic crisis, and is currently in the midst of membership negotiations with Brussels.

He has also been criticised for befriending the financiers who led Iceland's economic boom in the 1990s, which eventually led to the banking and economic meltdown.

After the crash he was mocked for this, but ultimately vindicated himself in the eyes of the public by blocking the highly unpopular Icesave bill.

A former university professor who was first elected president in August 1996, Grimsson has served four four-year terms, but has to date only won two presidential elections: in both 2000 and 2008 he was the only candidate and was granted a new term without a vote.

While having a 37-year-old mother-of-three like Arnorsdottir as a presidential candidate may be unusual in some countries, in Iceland, a pioneer in women's rights and gender neutrality, it is closer to the norm.

Vigdis Finnbogadottir, the world's first democratically elected woman head of state, served as president from 1980 to 1996; current Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir is an openly gay woman; and the country just ordained its first female bishop.

A total of 235,784 Icelanders are eligible to vote on Saturday. Polling booths open at 0900 GMT and close at 2200 GMT, and the first results are expected about an hour later.

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