Iceland Elects New President: Halla Tomasdottir

Culture - June 2, 2024

Iceland has an interesting constitutional history. This remote island in the North Atlantic Ocean was settled in 874–930, mostly from Western Norway, but also from Norse outposts in the British Isles. The settlers founded the Icelandic Commonwealth in 930, based on the old German tradition of government by a popular annual assembly defining and interpreting the law, which was mostly based on customs and precedents. The Commonwealth had no king, and the law was privately enforced by 39 chieftains. Farmers could choose in which chieftainship they would belong in their region. There was only one official of the Commonwealth, the Lawspeaker, whose task it was to recite and interpret the law at the annual popular assembly. In 1262, the Norwegian king persuaded the Icelanders, with a combination of threats and promises, to recognise him as their king and to pay tribute to him against an assurance that they would keep their own law and customs, whereas the officials replacing the Lawspeaker and representing the king would be Icelandic. The island was a Norwegian tributary until 1380 when the Norwegian crown passed to the Danish king. From then on Iceland was a Danish dependency and ruled from Copenhagen. The Danish king was king of Iceland and a flattened piece of cod, symbolising the country, was included in his coat of arms. A struggle for Icelandic independence began in the nineteenth century, and in 1918 the Danes recognised Iceland as a sovereign state in a personal union with the Danish king under an Act of Union.

Largely a Ceremonial Role

Possibly Iceland might have remained in a personal union with the Danish king, like New Zealand still is with the British king, if the Second World War had not forced Denmark and Iceland to go each her own way. Denmark was occupied by the Germans in April 1940 and Iceland by the British a month later. Icelandic political leaders took the position that Iceland had to be uncommitted at the end of the war, and they therefore decided to establish a republic in 1944 when the Danish-Icelandic Act of Union had expired. The nation overwhelmingly confirmed this decision. Only minimal changes were made to the Icelandic Constitution. The Danish king was replaced by an elected president, with even less power than the king had had: the king had been able to veto laws passed by Parliament, but the president could only refuse to sign such laws upon which they were still valid, but had to be submitted to a plebiscite. The first four presidents were prominent and respected personalities, Sveinn Bjornsson (1944–1952) a former diplomat, Asgeir Asgeirsson (1952–1968) a former prime minister, Kristjan Eldjarn (1968–1980) the Director of the National Museum, and Vigdis Finnbogadottir (1980–1996) the Director of the Reykjavik Municipal Theatre. They stayed out of controversy and played largely a ceremonial role, representing the nation home and abroad.

The fifth president, Olafur R. Grimsson (1996–2016), a former leader of the left-wing People’s Alliance, was much more assertive and abrasive. It was no secret that he disagreed strongly with the long-time prime minister David Oddsson, leader of the centre-right Independence Party, about the Icelandic oligarchs who had become rich through the extensive liberalisation of the Icelandic economy in the 1990s and 2000s. David wanted to restrain the power and influence of the oligarchs, whereas Olafur became their friend and ally, a regular host for them at his residence and a cherished guest on their private jets. In 2004 he used his presidential power and refused to sign a law intended to make it more difficult for the oligarchs completely to control the Icelandic media. Instead of holding a plebiscite, the government withdrew the law. The 2008 Icelandic bank collapse was widely blamed on the oligarchs, perhaps somewhat unfairly (as I have argued elsewhere). The result was that Olafur, their friend and ally, was discredited. The traditionally dominant Independence Party also suffered a great setback, and a left-wing government was formed. But Olafur regained his popularity by using his presidential power to refuse twice, in 2010 and 2011, to sign laws which the left-wing government had passed by which, unbelievably, it took responsibility for the financial obligations abroad of the (private) Icelandic banks. (The only reasonable explanation for the laws that I can see is that the Icelandic Left wanted to put the blame for the bank collapse on the Independence Party and had therefore little interest in lowering the cost for the nation from the collapse.) Unsurprisingly, the laws were rejected in the following plebiscites. Olafur triumphed. His former camaraderie with the oligarchs was forgotten.

Enter the Village Idiots

In 2016, Gudni Johannesson, a prolific historian and well-meaning commentator whom nobody disliked, was elected president and returned to the former tradition whereby the head of state stayed out of controversy and performed a largely ceremonial role. But the respect and even awe in which the office had initially been held was slowly disappearing. Before the presidential elections of 1956, some pranksters had almost succeeded in collecting enough supporters’ signatures for one of Reykjavik’s village idiots, Petur Hoffmann, who gathered and sold valuables from the rubbish dumps of the city. The collection was quietly stopped. After first being elected, the presidents ran unopposed until in 1988 when an obscure woman from a fishing village in Southern Iceland, Sigrun Thorsteinsdottir, stood against Vigdis Finnbogadottir and received 5.3 per cent of the votes. Her motivation was a mystery, except that she said she wanted world peace. Another attention seeker and would-be peacemaker, Asthor Magnusson, a retired businessman, has run in four elections, in 1996, 2004, 2016 and 2024, but was twice disqualified, in 2000 and 2012, because he could not collect the necessary number of signatures. He received 2.7 per cent in 1996, 1.5 per cent in 2004, 0.3 per cent in 2016 and now, in 2024, 0.2 per cent. His main objective seems to be to get television time and use it to rant against Iceland’s foreign policy.

The 2008 bank collapse greatly eroded trust in the traditional elites and institutions of Icelandic society and meant that not only certified village idiots, but also complete nonentities thought that they could become presidents. In the 2012 election, for example, five candidates stood against Olafur R. Grimsson, none of them a person of any prominence or distinction. In the 2016 election, nine candidates ran for president, including five persons who appeared obviously unqualified, and probably not even all of a sound mind, the inevitable Asthor Magnusson and four others. They received 0.3, 0.7, 0.3, 0.2, and 3.5 per cent of the votes, respectively. Now, in 2024, no less than twelve candidates stood in the election. It soon emerged that only five of them had any support. The others were the usual suspects, attention seekers, zealots, pranksters, and village idiots. The five serious candidates were Katrin Jakobsdottir, former leader of the Left Greens and prime minister, Baldur Thorhallsson, Professor of International Relations at the University of Iceland, Halla Hrund Logadottir, Director of the Institute of Energy, Jon Gnarr, a comedian who had for a while been Mayor of Reykjavik, and Halla Tomasdottir, a businesswoman living mostly in the United States (who had also stood in the 2016 election).

Katrin Jakobsdottir

I voted now for Katrin Jakobsdottir (born in 1976), although she had been leader of the most left-wing party in Iceland, the Left Greens. The reason was simple. She was the best qualified and most presentable candidate in my opinion, and although I do not know her personally, I trusted her to leave behind her political views and become a worthy head of state, able to hold her own in meetings with foreign dignitaries. She would, I thought, be a knowledgeable representative of Icelandic history, language and literature (a brilliant student, she graduated in Icelandic literature from the University of Iceland). Her political style has never been aggressive, and she comes across as a person who seeks mutual accommodation of ideas and interests rather than bitter confrontation. Nothing that she did in the election campaign changed my opinion on this.

However, in the campaign Katrin was viciously assaulted both from left and right. Hardcore leftists could not forgive her that she had been prime minister for seven years (1917–2024) in a coalition government with the Independence Party and the centrist Progressive Party. This government steered a cautious course between left and right which was not too difficult in Iceland, a country with almost no serious problems. The living standards are about the highest in the world, while poverty is negligible and the income distribution is more equal than anywhere else. On the other hand, hardcore rightwingers could not accept her left-wing opinions, especially on abortion. Needless to say, they also furiously attacked me publicly for ‘betraying the cause’. When Katrin was interviewed on government television, I was the only one of her supporters who was mentioned by name: she was asked what she thought about it. She replied that she was happy with enjoying support across the political spectrum. She received 25.2 per cent of the votes and came second. I am sure she would have received quite a lot fewer votes if I and some other well-known members of the Independence Party had not supported her publicly. A large part of the Icelandic Left had obviously decided firmly to reject her.

Baldur Thorhallsson

The candidate I knew best personally was Baldur Thorhallsson (born in 1968), my colleague on the Politics Faculty at the University of Iceland and a former deputy member of parliament for the Social Democrats. He is a friendly chap, but I did not support him because in my opinion he did not have what it takes to be president of Iceland. He has little ability to express himself well in the Icelandic language and scant knowledge of Icelandic history and literature. He is also rather naive in the very field which he teaches, international relations. He seems sincerely to believe that small nations are taken seriously in world affairs, just if they make long speeches at conferences. He also thinks that Iceland needs a ‘shelter’ and that this shelter should be the European Union. He has long been an ardent supporter of Iceland’s membership in the EU, playing down the two main arguments against it: that Iceland would have to hand over to Brussels the control of the Icelandic fishing grounds which have been well managed and that Iceland would as a rich nation have to contribute much more to the EU than she would receive (it is hardly a coincidence that the three richest countries in Europe, Norway, Switzerland, and Iceland, are not EU members). When Baldur was appointed by an EU affiliate as a ‘Jean Monnet Professor’ at the University of Iceland, I commented at a faculty meeting that this was good news: we could be sure that he would work hard for each and every euro he would get from the EU.

I also took exception to Baldur running as a specially gay candidate, emphasising the role that his husband, a very left-wing Icelandic actor, would play alongside him if elected president. There is consensus in Iceland that your sexual preference should not be an issue in how you are treated, not only legally but also socially. It is a non-issue which Baldur was trying to recreate and exploit in order to gain votes. The president of Latvia and the prime minister of France are both gay, and nobody cares. Baldur also made several blunders in the campaign, for example pretending not to remember how he had voted in the two plebiscites on Iceland’s financial obligations abroad after the bank collapse. He received 8.4 per cent of the votes, probably mostly from his fellow Social Democrats.

Halla Hrund Logadottir and Jon Gnarr

I had never heard of Halla Hrund Logadottir (born in 1981) before she ran for president, but her ambitions certainly seem to exceed her abilities. Upon completing a Master’s thesis at Harvard (not even a doctoral dissertation), I am told she suggested to the Icelandic Foreign Minister that now she should be appointed Iceland’s Ambassador to the United States! In the campaign, she spoke in cliches, and when she was asked real questions she revealed total ignorance of the Icelandic constitution, history, and literature. It also emerged during the campaign that as Director of the Institute of Energy she had paid huge sums of money for public relations advice to a company owned by a woman, Karen Kjartansdottir, who subsequently became her campaign manager. It is somewhat odd that the Institute of Energy would need some public relations advice. It is not selling anything to the public. I found it however surprising that another fact about her campaign manager was not brought up before the election. It is that Karen is an ardent activist for the Palestinian-Arab cause. She and her son organised, with others, protests which occasionally became violent. If Halla Hrund had won the election and Karen had subsequently been employed at the president’s office, she would have been a security risk. During the election campaign, according to opinion polls Halla Hrund had for a while considerable support, as she seemed a fresh new face, but her support gradually dwindled, not least as a result of her poor performance in television debates, and she ended up with 15.7 per cent of the votes, probably mostly from the Social Democrats.

Jon Gnarr (born in 1967) was on the other hand well known in Iceland as a comedian. In 2007, he had a leading role in a popular Icelandic television series The Night Shift where I had the pleasure of playing myself in one episode. As mentioned earlier, the 2008 bank collapse greatly reduced trust in the traditional elites and institutions of Icelandic society. Jon Gnarr took advantage of this and founded a protest party, ‘The Best Party,’ which did well in the 2010 municipal elections in Reykjavik, upon which he became Mayor of Reykjavik in cooperation with the Social Democrats whose party he eventually joined. He was mayor for four years and boasted of having done nothing, except of course drawing a hefty salary. His party eventually faded away. It was not clear to me what was his mission in the presidential election because there was never any chance of him being elected. Perhaps it was simply self-promotion. But in the campaign he performed quite well, occasionally making unusual but witty observations just like court jesters in the Middle Ages used to do. He did neither lose nor gain support during the campaign, and he ended up with 10.1 per cent of the votes, probably mostly coming from young people who did not take the presidency very seriously.

The Winner: Halla Tomasdottir

I knew Halla Tomasdottir (born in 1968) only fleetingly, from the time I served on the Board of the Central Bank of Iceland for the Independence Party while she was a substitute member for the same party, occasionally attending meetings. She was pleasant and cheerful, but not assertive. This was before the 2008 bank collapse, and she was then close to the oligarchs, as Director of the Icelandic Chamber of Commerce. She later became a private investor. A video with her celebrating with the oligarchs in Monaco in 2007 has been deleted from the internet, and to my surprise nobody brought it up during the campaign, perhaps because only a few thought she would win: she had little support in the beginning, according to opinion polls. Most Icelandic commentators believe that she only won because people, both from left and right, wanted anybody but Katrin Jakobsdottir as president. Nobody took Jon Gnarr seriously, and when the campaigns of Baldur Thorhallsson and Halla Hrund Logadottir faltered, Katrin’s bitter opponents decided to vote strategically for Halla Tomasdottir who ended up receiving 34.1 per cent of the votes.

This analysis is undoubtedly partly true, but only partly. It should be recalled that Halla already received 27.9 per cent of the votes in the 2016 presidential election. She only received 6.2 per cent more in the 2024 election. There are three groups that probably favoured Halla Tomasdottir over the other candidates. First, many women looked up to her, a successful businesswoman home and abroad, as a model. Secondly, although she tried herself hard to distance herself from any political party, among the five serious candidate she was the only one who could be considered even remotely right wing. After all, about half of the Icelandic voters consider themselves to be right wing. Thirdly, young well-paid but apolitical professionals probably identified more with her than with her rivals. She was for them the embodiment of upward economic mobility. My guess is that less than 5 per cent of the votes for Halla were really votes against Katrin Jakobsdottir (although it is ironic if leftists voted for a successful businesswoman living in the United States out of spite against a fellow leftist). Most of Halla’s votes came, I would think, from supporters of the Independence Party, or of the parties in the centre. These people were voting for her and not necessarily against Katrin.

Halla Tomasdottir conducted a sensible campaign. She promoted herself tirelessly, but she never criticised the other candidates. During the campaign, she revealed scant knowledge of the Icelandic Constitution, and of the cultural heritage and foreign policy of Iceland, but at the same time she demonstrated a willingness to listen and to learn. She spoke mostly in cliches, but it helped that she is self-confident and experienced as a public speaker. What is perhaps most remarkable about her election is that she is the first president to come from the business community rather than from academia, politics or the cultural sector. As president, she will probably follow the tradition of Vigdis Finnbogadottir and Gudni Th. Johannesson and try to avoid controversy.