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Can You Dig It?

Snorri and Bergur on stage

The premise of the podcast Fílalag is simple. Musician Snorri Helgason and Renaissance man Bergur Ebbi Benediktsson discuss music. One episode, one song. Snorri often focuses on the music and the biographical details of the relevant artists while Bergur – a stand-up comedian and writer (among other things) – does much of the heavy lifting when […]

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Fast Track

Guide and biker Magne Kvam

Pollocked with mud Why can’t I just, for once, dress appropriately for these occasions? I was hurtling down a narrow sheep trail in the Reykjadalur valley, ca-clunking up and down on the bucking bronco of my electric mountain bike, when I posed that question. My jeans were Pollocked with mud and straining at the seams. My sunglasses […]

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Future Imperfect

Frida Ísberg

“I was maybe six or seven when I discovered writing could suit me as a profession. And since then, I’ve always been working on a book,” author Fríða Ísberg tells me. We’ve met at a café in Reykjavík’s Vesturbær neighbourhood to discuss her debut novel The Mark, which just came out in Australia and the […]

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Icelandic As A Weapon

Eiríkur Rögnvaldsson is known both as a fervent defender of the language who advocates for its protection, as well as someone ready, willing, and able to shut down conversations about the language’s survival when they turn xenophobic, while at the same time fielding questions regarding history, etymology, and Icelandic inflections arguably one of the more […]

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The Battle for Bessastaðir

Bessastaðir, the unassuming estate on the Álftanes peninsula, will soon have a new inhabitant. Its current occupant, President of Iceland Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, chose not to seek a third term and will soon vacate the residence along with First Lady Eliza Reid and their family.

The election for president of Iceland is set for June 1 and is shaping up to be closely contested. With 12 people in the running, the highest number of candidates in history, and only one round of voting, the winner might triumph with a significant minority of the vote.

The office of president carries limited political powers, but the president plays a role in forming coalition governments and has the authority to submit any law passed by Alþingi, Iceland’s Parliament, to a national referendum. Former president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was the only Icelandic president to ever exercise this power, declining to sign new legislation on three occasions during his 20 year tenure.

Despite the president’s limited political authority, the office is seen as influential in the public eye and something of a uniting force in Icelandic society. The president carries out ceremonial duties and addresses the nation on important holidays, after natural disasters, or during times of strife. Former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir became an international symbol of gender equality when she was elected in 1980, the first woman to become a democratically elected head of state, while outgoing president Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, a history professor, was seen as a stabilising force after a political scandal shook the nation just before his election in 2016.

Iceland Review spoke with the five candidates who have regularly been polling above 5 per cent about their views on the office and the issues they hope to highlight.

The other candidates are lawyer and former judge Arnar Þór Jónsson; model and entrepreneur Ásdís Rán Gunnarsdóttir; businessman, activist, and repeat presidential candidate Ástþór Magnússon; fisherman Eiríkur Ingi Jóhannsson; Data Protection Commissioner Helga Þórisdóttir; actress Steinunn Ólína Þorsteinsdóttir; and economist Viktor Traustason. Iceland Review encourages prospective voters to familiarise themselves with all the candidates before casting their ballots.

Baldur Þórhallsson

Professor of Political Science at the University of Iceland

As a professor of political science specialising in the affairs of small states, Baldur Þórhallsson has long been a mainstay as an analyst in Icelandic media. “I think it’s a misunderstanding when people say that the president has no power or influence,” he says. “Vigdís spearheaded the issues of children, nature conservation, equality, and the Icelandic language. Ólafur Ragnar was a leader in international affairs, speaking up for Iceland’s interests abroad and establishing our country as the centre of Arctic policy and a guiding light in the North Atlantic. It’s good that the president’s powers are not tested frequently. But when it happens during governmental crises or when Alþingi oversteps, it’s very important who’s at Bessastaðir.”

He maintains that the president should never be codependent with the government or ruling forces in society, as the office-holder needs to be able to pull the “emergency brake,” as he calls it. “It’s very important that Alþingi knows that the president is keeping a watchful eye on it. If the Parliament were to step out of line with regards to fundamental human rights, freedom of speech, major changes to public administration, joining the European Union, or even establishing a military, the president should put these issues to a public vote.”

“I think it’s a misunderstanding when people say that the president has no power or influence.”

As president, Baldur says he would foreground the issues of children and youth, with a focus on increased reading comprehension, combating the decline in the mental health of young people, and supporting their possibility to flourish on their own terms. When it comes to international issues, he feels that there is untapped potential for the presidency. “The president can open doors abroad for Icelandic people, businesses, and NGOs,” he says. “We should harness this. I’d like to apply what I’ve researched for 30 years at the University of Iceland, how small states can have influence on the international stage. This means prioritising issues and working with our allies.”

During his candidacy, Baldur has highlighted his relationship with his husband Felix Bergsson, a popular actor and media personality. “The president’s partner can have great influence on public discourse, like we’ve seen with Guðrún Katrín, Dorrit, and Eliza,” he says, listing the three latest First Ladies. “The issues that Felix and I want to prioritise are all highly political and calling them political does not make them less important. They’re ubiquitous across party lines and the president should never favour a political party. I think we diminish the office of the president and their work if we say that the office isn’t political. It’s political when it comes to our national discourse and also with regard to the president’s role in administration.”

If elected, Baldur would become the first openly gay democratically elected head of state in history. He acknowledges the significance of this. “It would be a milestone in the advancement of human rights,” he admits. “Just like when Icelanders were fortunate enough to be the first to vote in a woman as head of state. Felix and I want to use our experience of 30 years of human rights campaigning, for the rights of LGBTQ+ people, gender equality, and other human rights issues.”

Halla Hrund Logadóttir

Director General of Iceland’s National Energy Authority and Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at Harvard University

A late entrant to the presidential race, Halla Hrund Logadóttir quickly became an unexpected frontrunner. With a background in political science and a teaching career at Harvard University, she became director general of Iceland’s National Energy Authority in 2021. “The throughline in my work has been Icelandic interests,” she says. “In my work for Arctic Initiative at Harvard, we focused on marine issues, energy, and the environment. I helped found Project Girls for Girls, which is based on volunteer work for equality. And I’ve also worked in the cultural field. My main talent is bringing people together, supporting them, and helping things grow.”

Unlike the other leading candidates, Halla Hrund has never run for public office before. “We need to focus on the things that bring us together, build empathy and optimism, and our endurance to face challenges,” she says. “This office should be elevated over petty political infighting. I’m not from the world of politics, but I think it’s important that the president understands politics and governance like I do, coming from my role with the National Energy Authority and my work at Harvard, but the president should never be partial to private interests. They should bring people together, but stand tall if the national interest is under threat.”

“I’m not from the world of politics, but I think it’s important that the president understands politics and governance like I do.

When asked about her role models for president, Halla Hrund says that while all of Iceland’s previous presidents made their mark in different days, she has role models from different fields, such as teachers, parents, and colleagues. “When we look at the history of Iceland, we see people coming together to do their part, no matter what their role or position in society was. This is a way to build empathy, connection, and joy. I think we need to uphold these values, especially now that we have a more diverse society,” she says.

“We’re in the midst of rapid technological upheaval and environmental changes,” Halla Hrund adds. “One of the results is increased isolation in our society. I think it’s important to involve young people to a greater degree. I’d like to see different generations work together. Young people should be involved in all decision-making because we’re shaping their future.”

Halla Tómasdóttir

Businessperson and CEO of The B Team

Halla Tómasdóttir was a runner-up in the 2016 presidential election, receiving 27.9% of the vote. She’s had a long career in business as the founder of female-led investment firm Auður Capital and as an early member of the founding team of Reykjavík University. She’s now the CEO of The B Team, an international nonprofit advocacy group for humane and climate-friendly business practices. “I think I have a strong education, broad career experience, and extensive network to apply to the presidency,” she says. “More importantly, I have a vision of how to use the office to bring together different groups and generations to communicate and collaborate on the many issues we face.”

When Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944 and the Icelandic constitution was established, the president replaced the Danish king as head of state, and the office’s role and powers were set in stone. Following the economic crash of 2008, an attempt to rewrite the constitution from the ground up was made with a democratically elected constitutional assembly of 25 people who proposed a draft. Despite public support of its contents, the draft was never ratified by Alþingi and the constitution remains unchanged.

“Our nation went through a beautiful process in writing a new constitution which didn’t get the necessary attention or respect of those in power.”

When asked about the constitution, Halla says that the text on the president should be reformed, along with other clauses.“We could consider a two-round voting system so that the president is elected with majority support,” she says. “Also, the number of references necessary to run for office should better reflect the population today. Only 1,500 signatures from constituents are needed, a number that was decided in 1944 when the population was much smaller. Our nation went through a beautiful process in writing a new constitution which didn’t get the necessary attention or respect of those in power. I think it would’ve helped build trust in society. Without saying whether the new constitution was perfect or not, I think there was a breach of trust when this work, created by elected representatives of the nation in a democratic vote, was cast aside.”

Halla says that she’s interested in the presidency, rather than running for Parliament or local councils, because of the office’s unifying influence. “I only see one team in Iceland and that’s Icelanders,” she emphasises. “I feel like authorities and businesses are stuck in short-term thinking, not just in Iceland, but all over the world. At Bessastaðir, we can think long-term, invite the nation to participate, and form our vision for the future. I participated in the 2009 National Assembly with a good group of people to cement our values after our notorious economic collapse a year earlier. 1,500 Icelanders came together in Laugardalshöll arena to discuss our vision and founding values of our society going forward. A clear vision was formed, based on a sustainable, creative, cohesive society, with our values of honesty, equality, justice, respect, and responsibility. And it didn’t get the proper respect from authorities. But we can make Bessastaðir the home for our national compass.”

Jón Gnarr

Comedian and Former Mayor of Reykjavík

Comedian Jón Gnarr rode the wave of political unrest which followed Iceland’s 2008 banking collapse into office as mayor of Reykjavík with his self-created Best Party. Considered one of the most influential comedic voices of his generation in Iceland, he returned to his career in entertainment, acting, and writing after one term in City Hall.

“I’m just me,” Jón says, when asked about what makes him different from other candidates. “I’m Jón Gnarr. That alone makes me unique. My approach is more based on humour than most. That doesn’t make it any better or worse. I also have a very special connection to the nation and have always had. But one thing makes me different from the frontrunners, that I’m an artist.”

He adds that he’d miss his artistic endeavours if his candidacy were successful, but that he would focus on his new responsibilities. “If I can use comedy or acting in my work as president, I will,” he says. “I’ve considered the possibility of doing so for charity, for example.”

“If I can use comedy or acting in my work as president, I will.”

Jón says that, if elected, he would prefer not to interfere with Alþingi’s work and would only submit very controversial issues to a referendum, such as the establishment of the death penalty. “I have no faith in a dictatorial approach,” he says.

“There seems to be some sort of misinformation regarding the election, especially among young people,” he adds. “The presidency has been presented as if it comes with enormous political powers and maybe people are looking to the USA in this regard. This is built on some misunderstanding of the office, but maybe that’s why this election has become so political. Our former prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, is running, and people are talking about their political stances and divisive issues. How would this manifest itself practically? If a president says they’ll ‘stand with the marginalised,’ how would they do it besides literally, physically standing there?”

When asked why he doesn’t run for Reykjavík City Council again or Alþingi for that matter, positions of power where a representative can directly impact people’s standard of living, Jón says he’s done with that. “I don’t particularly want to meddle with people’s standard of living,” he says and laughs. “The office of president is different and fortunately free of political strife for the most part and has more to do with forming a friendship with the nation, communicating with foreign parties, and highlighting constructive causes.”

Katrín Jakobsdóttir

Former Prime Minister and Chairperson of the Left-Green Movement

The coalition’s approval ratings dropped sharply amid scandals during its second term, but Katrín retained her personal popularity. As a result, she’d long been rumoured as a candidate for president, and on April 5 she announced that she would resign as Prime Minister and chairperson of her party to run – a decision that necessitated a reshuffling of ministerial posts.

“I’ve worked in politics for a long time and I feel that in some way I’ve completed my work in that arena,” she says, explaining her decision. “Politics are very different from the office of the president, because there are so many different things to deal with. We had a global pandemic, natural disasters, and the implementation of our political agenda. With the presidency, you have a chance to think big picture. This is something that’s concerned me more in recent years, how the world is developing in our times. We’re seeing wars break out, environmental disaster looming, technological advancements at a tremendous pace. These times call for big picture thinking and preserving national unity.”

Katrín has an education in Icelandic studies and is a published crime novel author. She says she’d like to emphasise her background in Icelandic culture and language if elected. “People like to say that the president is a symbol of unity for the nation,” she says. “I prefer to think of the office as a force for unity. The president can make an effort to speak on behalf of different groups in society. We have a large group of inhabitants who were not born in Iceland and the president should acknowledge that. We have a young generation that is inundated with the English language for a good portion of the day. We have sparsely populated areas where people are faced with different conditions than in the capital region. I think the president should apply themselves to have different groups communicate.”

“I’ve worked in politics for a long time and I feel that in some way I’ve completed my work in that arena.”

Katrín says that it would be hard for her to say if any of the laws her government passed should’ve been put to a referendum by President Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, adding that she trusted his judgement in office. “I was in the cabinet when President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson used this option twice on one of the most controversial laws of our time,” she says, referring to the so-called Icesave dispute, when a law on how to reimburse foreign depositors who lost their money during Iceland’s 2008 banking collapse was put to a vote. “I think it was an important step for him to do it, even though I was in government at the time.”

As Prime Minister, Katrín did not propose the adoption of the collectively-drafted constitution, but instead began a process of revision to the constitution by a Parliamentary committee with the aim of adding clauses on environmental and preservation issues and defining natural resources as shared national property. She also proposed amending the section on presidential and executive powers by increasing the number of signatures necessary to run and introducing ranked voting. These proposals were unsuccessful due to opposition from her coalition partners.

“I think that people would rather not see drastic changes to the role of president,” she says. “They care about the office and feel that the president should have some leeway to shape the office as they see fit.”

I’ve Never Gone North

ísafjörður road

Our camper van is eating up kilometres as we drive north into the Westfjords. It’s the middle of March, and though in climes less far-flung that means springtime, up here it is still very much winter. An observer may well ask – why drive to the edge of the Arctic Circle, in March, in a […]

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Unearthing Spirit

Antonía Berg, Icelandic ceramicist

“Ceramics and clay are things that have been with humans since the beginning of time,” Antonía Berg casually explains to me as we sit in her studio Flæði, located in Reykjavík’s creative hub hafnar.haus. According to many religions and folk beliefs around the world, clay had another, even more pivotal role: it was the origin of human […]

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To Thrive in Chaos

Entering Gallerí Kannski for the Brokat Films exhibition Horseplay, the very first thing that greets you is the smell of fresh hay. Round the corner to the exhibition space itself, and you immediately see why: the entire space, about the size of a modest living room, is covered in it.Next, it’s the music. A pounding, […]

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The Centre Can Hold

Einar Þorsteinsson mayor of reykjavík

“My approach to politics is based on the concept of “public service,” says Einar Þorsteinsson, the new mayor of Reykjavík. “The people who enter politics should be there to serve the public.”Already a household name as a TV personality, Einar was primed for the spotlight before making the move into politics. The 45-year-old Kópavogur-born father […]

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Short-term Rentals, Long-term Effects

Reykjavík from above, housing crisis Iceland

As the Reykjavík peninsula rumbles with volcanic activity, the world’s eyes are once again drawn to Iceland’s nature. This free publicity and the uptick in tourist visits it generates come with a price – and local renters are footing the bill.By now, Icelanders know what to expect in the aftermath of volcanic activity. When Eyjafjallajökull […]

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