New Iceland premier takes office after Panama Papers leak

Iceland on Thursday got both a new prime minister and a new foreign minister, following the resignation of premier Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson in the wake of a data leak from a Panama-based law firm.

Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson was confirmed as new prime minister shortly after Gunnlaugsson's resignation at a state council meeting at the president's residence.

After leaving the meeting, Johannsson said Iceland had been through previous challenges and he believed "this is an opportunity again."

Johannsson, fisheries and agriculture minister since 2013, was succeeded by Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson who vacated the post as foreign minister, the new government announced.

Sveinsson's untipped successor was Lilja Alfredsdottir, who served as an economic advisor to Gunnlaugsson. She has degrees from Columbia University and the University of Iceland, and has also worked at the central bank and the International Monetary Fund.

After leaving the meeting, Gunnlaugsson said he planned to vote for the government on Friday when a no-confidence motion from the opposition was due to be debated.

Gunnlaugsson had been under pressure to step down after he and his wife were implicated in a massive data leak from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca. They have denied any wrongdoing.

The data leak details how money was funnelled to shell companies in tax havens and calls into question the finances of numerous politicians, sports stars and celebrities from across 80 countries. Millions of documents were leaked to the German daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung that shared it with other news organizations in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The material reignited the debate over how the world's wealthy make use of tax avoidance schemes not available to most of the world's population.

Panama is to establish a financial review committee to evaluate the nation's financial and legal practices and promote transparency, the president of the Central American nation said Wednesday.

In Iceland, the revelations on Gunnlaugsson have resulted in public protests where thousands of people assembled outside parliament in the past week calling for immediate elections.

A few dozen also gathered Thursday near the president's residence, some waving symbolic red cards.

Before the meetings with the president, Johannsson took questions in parliament.

He said it was the duty of all lawmakers to deal with the "distrust in the society" and also touched on offshore accounts that have triggered protests and heated debate in the North Atlantic country.

"The number of Icelanders who have decided to keep money in offshore accounts is unprecedented, but there is nothing wrong about it if it is done in a legal manner," he said.

The recent protests were reminiscent of the popular protests that early 2009 contributed to the resignation of a previous government in the wake of the global financial crisis.

The government's term is scheduled to end in April 2017, but late Wednesday it announced elections would be moved up to the autumn.

The coalition has seen support drop since taking office in 2013, while the untested opposition Pirate Party has surged.

The governing parties - Johannsson's Progressive Party and Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson's Independence Party - said they wanted to complete more of their work before elections.

This included lifting capital controls that were introduced in 2008 after the North Atlantic country's three main banking groups went under in the financial crisis, triggering a severe economic crisis in the country of 320,000 people.

Last update: Thu, 07/04/2016 - 20:30

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