Feature of the Week: The Five-Time President


Feature of the Week: The Five-Time President

Following the most heated and controversial presidential election in the country’s history, for a record fifth consecutive term, the Republic of Iceland chooses the same president.

Published in the 2012 August-September issue of Iceland Review – IR 03.12. By Sölvi Tryggvason. Photo by Ingólfur Júlíusson. Official portrait courtesy of the Office of the President of Iceland.


President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson in full regalia.

June 30. An extraordinarily beautiful day in Reykjavík, as across the country. Politics are very much the last thing on most people’s mind. This is a perfect day to treasure the moment and stay outdoors after a long winter. Even so, the election that took place on that Saturday was supposed to attract more voters than the last three times Icelanders have elected a president. This time, it was not a formality. It turned out that the pulling power of the bright, sunny day was overwhelming, and this became the second presidential election in the history of Iceland with a turnout below 70 percent, albeit only just, with 69.2 percent turning out to vote.

The president is Iceland’s elected head of state. The president is elected to a four-year term by universal adult suffrage and has limited powers. Unlike many other countries, Iceland does not limit the number of terms the president is allowed to serve. The president is not head of the government; that role falls to the Prime Minister. There have been five presidents since Iceland became independent from Denmark in 1944. The incumbent is Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who was first elected in 1996, again in 2000 and 2004, and returned unopposed in 2008.

Controversial President Refused to Sign Laws

Ólafur Ragnar, who was originally elected president from a field of four candidates with 42 percent of the total vote, has from the outset been a controversial figure. Not only is he the first president to use the authorization given in the 26th article of the constitution to put a law from the Alþing, or parliament, to a national referendum, he also had close ties to the directors of the Icelandic banks that collapsed in a memorable fashion in the autumn of 2008. Ólafur Ragnar first decided to call for a referendum on June 2, 2004, in regard to a law about the mass media. His decision remains controversial with politicians and legal scholars alike. Some consider his refusal to approve the law as an “attack” on the Alþing and parliamentary sovereignty, and lawyers still debate whether article 26 is actually valid. On January 5, 2010, he again vetoed a measure of the Icelandic government—the proposal to pay the governments of Britain and the Netherlands for their bailouts of customers of private Icelandic banks.

You can read the remainder of this article in the 2012 August-September issue of Iceland Review – IR 03.12. Four times a year the print edition of Iceland Review & Atlantica brings you a wealth of articles on all aspects of life in Iceland including Páll Stefánsson’s latest images of the country’s majestic landscape. Click here to subscribe and here to browse through a selection of pages from the current issue.