Presidential historian tipped to become Iceland's new head of state

Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson, a historian specializing on the presidency of Iceland, is the favourite to be elected as new head of state on Saturday.

Johannesson won public acclaim for television appearances in April when he commented on events before and after then-premier Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned over leaked data from the Panama Papers suggesting he and his wife had an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands.

Both denied wrongdoing. But the disclosures triggered massive public protests reminiscent of events in 2008 when Iceland's main banks went under in the global economic crisis.

Gunnlaugsson resigned and the centre-right government said it would move parliamentary polls forward from April 2017.

Amid the political turmoil, outgoing President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson said he would run for a new four-year term, but pulled out on May 9, shortly after former conservative premier David Oddsson announced his candidacy.

Oddsson, 68, was prime minister between 1991 and 2004, when his Independence Party promoted policies to deregulate the financial sector and liberalize the Icelandic economy, including banks.

He later served as head of the central bank but was forced out after parliament approved sweeping changes to the bank's composition following the 2008 meltdown.

Johannesson told dpa his academic research had helped him see what makes "a good president," and he felt he had sufficient experience.

With both Johannesson and Oddsson in the race, Grimsson said he was confident the largely ceremonial post would be in safe hands. The head of state has a role in the formation of government.

A string of opinion polls suggests Johannesson has a comfortable lead with about 50 per cent of the vote.

Three other candidates -  Oddsson, author Andri Snaer Magnason and financier Halla Tomasdottir - were jostling for second place, polling between 12 and 20 per cent. Five other candidates including a truck driver and a health worker were trailing them with single-digit support.

Johannesson, 47, said he believed the head of state should be "a unifying figure," and stay above the political fray. His remarks suggest he might have a lower profile in office than Grimsson, who was first elected in 1996.

"People need to regain trust in parliament and the political process," Johannesson said.

"After the spectacular collapse of the banks in 2008, we as a nation lost faith in the banking system, in the business world, in the political system, in parliament," he said.

Grimsson, 72, at times used his position to veto government legislation that he disagreed with, notably bills to compensate Britain and the Netherlands for money spent to secure savings by their nationals wiped out in 2008 after the collapse of Icesave, an online arm of Iceland's Landsbanki.

Voters rejected the proposals in referenda, and the then-centre-left government suffered humiliation.

Stefania Oskarsdottir, senior lecturer in political science at the University of Iceland where Johannesson also works, said he comes across as knowledgeable and "a regular guy, someone who can represent the average Icelander pretty well."

She noted there is support among voters for "for an active president who serves as a counterweight to parliament," so it remained to be seen how Johannesson would react to calls to veto future bills.

The many presidential candidates reflected "a surge of interest in politics" after the financial crisis when several new parties emerged, Oskarsdottir said.

University of Iceland historian Ragnheidur Kristjansdottir shared that view, adding that the many presidential hopefuls was also part of Iceland's political tradition. "People think that everybody should have the right to step forward," she said.

Johannesson has five children, four of whom are by his Canada-born wife, Eliza Reid, a freelance writer and editor of Iceland Air's in-flight magazine.

The presidential campaign has not been very heated, being overshadowed in recent weeks by the national football team which under Swedish coach Lars Lagerback qualified for Euro 2016 in France - a feat considering Iceland has only 330,000 inhabitants.

Some local reporters joke that Lagerback would have been elected president had he entered the race, citing the following he gained after guiding Iceland to its first berth at a major championship.

Last update: Thu, 23/06/2016 - 10:32

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