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What’s a President for?

The President’s veto of the Icesave bill continues to rank high in the discussion here in Iceland. One of the main themes concerns the question of how democratic it is for the President to be able to oppose parliament the way he did on Monday – for a single individual to be able to hold the fate of the nation in his hand.

Fréttablaðið makes some interesting points to this effect in its editorial today.

Over the last few years, the president’s power to veto parliamentary bills has not been called into question. However, there is reason to iterate that the Constitution of the Republic of Iceland expects this power to be exercised in emergencies. It is not intended to make the Office of the President of Iceland into a pivotal force in politics. This was tested in the first years of Iceland’s independence, and is a point of general agreement.

One could argue that the veto by the President at this time violates those boundaries. Thus a basic, fundamental change has occurred in the political system of the Republic of Iceland. The Office of the President has become a focal point in the nation’s political clashes.

Meanwhile, here is the President’s interview on the Beeb last night [thanks Bromley!]. The intro gives a pretty good overview of the Icesave story – although it does re-hash that annoying [and sensationalistic] misconception that McDonald’s “left” Iceland as a result of the meltdown.

Also, longtime reader Dave Hambridge sent a link to a post by the BBC’s business editor, who I daresay is rather supportive of our wayward nation:

However most of us should surely empathise with the majority of Icelanders who don’t see why they should be punished for the greed and stupidity of a handful of banks and bankers.

Read the rest of it here.

[NB – for those readers who may be confused: in Iceland, the President is effectively a figurehead and traditionally holds no political power – except in emergencies. He basically serves the same purpose as a monarch.]



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • wally January 7, 2010, 11:55 am

    when is our situation here going to be defined as an emergency?

  • Markku January 7, 2010, 1:16 pm

    “…how democratic it is for the President to be able to oppose parliament…”

    A referendum is a much more democratic way to decide things than a parliament vote. If in doubt, ask the Swiss.

    “…for a single individual to be able to hold the fate of the nation in his hand.”

    The situation was exactly the opposite. He did not want to hold the fate of the nation in his hand, so he lets the nation decide. The parliament vote was on a thin margin, and a quarter of all Icelanders have signed a petition against the Icesave deal – those make this an excellent choice to refer the matter back to the people. I just don’t understand criticism against the president of Iceland in this matter.

  • Jessie January 7, 2010, 1:18 pm

    You know, I have to respectfully disagree with your assessment. This segment appeared completely misleading, particularly with regard to the statement that Grimsson’s refusal is essentially a refusal to pay Iceland’s debts at all. I’m neither Dutch nor British or Icelandic for that matter and I’m already tired of the seemingly utter refusal of people to comprehend what happened vis-a-vis the referendum — i.e. as though Iceland has affirmatively agreed not to pay the Icesave debt.

    It’s also my understanding that under Icelandic law, if a referendum is to be put to the people, then the law in question that is to be voted on is essentially in place unless otherwise stipulated by the people. Why is the British media overlooking this or am I missing something?

    And on another note, how utterly disrespectful is this interview? While I can certainly understand some of the frustrations of the British people and the media, you simply do not treat the president of a country in this manner, cutting him off mid-sentence with such rash and accusatory statements and questions as though he were hosting little more than a trashy talk show. How appalling!

    I’m also not understanding the titles for your last two posts and I fear that you’re feeding into some of the fear. You have always seemed a very respectable and informative source of information for those of us who are outsiders to Iceland but interested in its culture and politics, but this seems a bit too much. The Icelanders that I know are certainly worried for the country’s future, but it seems to me it is a time to be “supporting” the president, given that his decision has already been made, not discrediting his position.

  • alda January 7, 2010, 1:43 pm

    Jessie – the title of this post merely refers to the question that is very prominent in Icelandic society at the moment. It is not intentionally intended to convey any personal bias.

  • hildigunnur January 7, 2010, 1:58 pm

    The British media (other than the sensational yellow press) have actually been quite a bit more sensible and friendly towards us than I dared hope, especially The Independent and the Financial Times. Maybe things won’t be quite as bad as we thought.

  • Schnee January 7, 2010, 2:08 pm

    “One could argue that the veto by the President at this time violates those boundaries.”

    So, basically, they’re saying the president should only veto or be allowed to veto (or, depending on one’s reading of the constitution, IS only allowed to veto) uncontroversial laws? c.c

    OK, I’m probably being overly snarky there. Of course it’s correct that the president shouldn’t generally be vetoing laws left and right just because he’s not 100% happy with them, but if something highly controversial, then allowing the actual people to vote on it doesn’t necessarily seem unfair.

    Interestingly enough, the president of Germany’s got pretty much the same position; laws only become law when he signs them, but at the same time, he is supposed to be the head of state, rather like the British queen, not someone directly involved in politics. I have no idea how often he actually refuses to sign laws, but it’d be interesting to find out (and I’d be surprised if it weren’t a very rare occurrence).

  • andy January 7, 2010, 2:10 pm

    The current Icesave bill is still pending awaiting the refrendum results. The previous bill, though law, was not acceptable to the UK / Dutch.

    Whilst many Icelandic Indefence signatories (Brad Pitt inclu) may think that they are deciding if Icesave will be paid at all, the Icelandic political classes are chattering about the terms around what Iceland will pay ie interest rates etc. The UK / Dutch govts are not your average punter and so the idea that an Icelandic politician can put one over on the UK treasury is amusing.

    The independence party and the current govt in Iceland know that they will have to pay the Euro 20k bill for each depositor. The question is around the terms.

    The President is letting the public into realpolitic and this probably will end up dienchanting the Icelandic voter even more. David and Benedict are only interested in power a sif they beieve they can change waht will happen. They would howvere ensure that the investigations results are more favourable.

  • Michael Lewis January 7, 2010, 2:15 pm

    “…how democratic it is for the President to be able to oppose parliament…”

    You didn’t like the result, so now question the process? That seems like (very undemocratic) sour grapes to me. Question the process after the process doesn’t give you the result you want. Would you really prefer an inequitable result costing Icelanders thousands, just to help the government you like?

    Would the UK bail out retail investors if UK listed, but Hong Kong based Standard Chartered needed bailing out? It would never happen.

    As the total Icesave amount is about 1/100th of this and next years borrowing requirement for the UK government, it seems ridiculous. The UK government could have done much much better. Securing natural resources perhaps, for large write off of debts.

  • Joerg January 7, 2010, 2:18 pm

    There seems to surface a problem in the fact, that so many people are interpreting the presidential veto as Iceland’s refusal to pay. I think, one of the reasons was this for many people apparently ambiguous petition the President was referring to in his first statement.

    I think, direct democracy needs a sound foundation, if it is really wanted for. It shouldn’t be an instant implementation of a makeshift Facebook-democracy.

  • Joerg January 7, 2010, 2:29 pm

    …and in Germany, too, there is much sympathy for Iceland. It’s a David vs. Goliath situation, where the public is always favouring the seemingly weaker. And people aren’t any more involved with their own savings like it was in October, 2008.

    But friendly comments aside – in the end it will count, if Iceland is able to sort out its finances.

  • Allan Risk January 7, 2010, 2:34 pm

    In Canada, we’re sort of asking the same question about our Governor-General. She’s the head of state, and typically has no real power (at least as far as legislation goes). But she does have the power to dissolve parliament, or to ask whether someone other than the current PM can form a new, more effective government. Twice in the last 12 months the PM has asked to have parliament prorogued (dissolved) so that the sitting government can avoid being held accountable by parliament. And twice she’s caved to the self-serving wishes of our PM, rather than executing her prerogative to say NO and let the cards fall where they may. It’s pissing a LOT of people off.

  • Alexander E. January 7, 2010, 3:34 pm

    Just two question

    Who owes Fréttablaðið?

    What are you saying VETO?

    PS. I talked to BBC Russian Service – and I can tell they have NO IDEA what and where Iceland is and what all this mess about. Everyone repeating “news” and these “news” just going in the loop.

  • Colm Mac Suibhne January 7, 2010, 3:35 pm

    I can’t understand why there is any criticism of your president within Iceland. He has given your citizens the opportunity to vote on the assumption of a crippling burden of debt. If they vote in favour, Iceland will be hamstrung by debt for the next century. If they vote against, Iceland will be isolated from the international community and will be unable to do business anywhere in Europe.

    There is a disturbing undercurrent in Icelandic commentary on the economic mess. This is the constant carping about why the nation is being held responsible for the losses of private banks. The reason why Iceland is being held to account is that the banks incurred the losses on the authority of a banking licence issued and supervised by the Icelandic State. You elected a Government to run that state that fostered the climate of reckless free-market capitalism that enabled these terrible debts to be incurred. You are morally and legally responsible for the damage done by the Government you elected.

    Your President has done you the great favour of not allowing you to escape the consequences of your behaviour at the ballot box. If he had signed the bill, some elements in your society would have blamed him or the Government for the unpleasant outcome. Now you have to shoulder the burden of the decision yourselves, you have no such scapegoats. When a country makes the kind of mess that Iceland has made it is a good thing that its citizens should be denied any opportunity to wash their hands of their actions. It will make sure you never elect a Government of free-market capitalists ever again.

  • Peter Reeves January 7, 2010, 3:39 pm

    The essence of any good magic trick is distraction & misdirection:
    So the last year and now even more time will be spent on Icesave?
    No payments were due for 6 years, and it could have gathered dust.
    Oli has thrown a huge spanner in a machine that was just being fixed.

  • Lea January 7, 2010, 3:41 pm

    As a Dutch civillian I’d like ro react at the situation in Iceland.

    Is is terrible what happenend and the faults/problems are the responsabilities from the governements, worldwide. And yes, also the Dutch governement. They have let this happen by selling out the people to the commercial markets, by diminishing rules for the banks and by failing control. Worldwide. Is this stupidity, naivity or did the rich make appointments tot become more rich? And we civillians shall pay for that.

    Don’t forget, Icelandic people, that the Dutch people also shall pay high amouts per person for the banks. Our gouvernement payed something like 35 billion euro to save the banks. End who will pay this? Yes, the Dutch. So the Dutch who lost their money at the Iceland bank pay twice, doubledutch :-)).
    A Dutch baby, born in 2009, has already a debt from 160.000 euro! How are we going to solve this problem? The Dutch governement will spare in 2011 20% at their expenses. This will have a huge effect at the economy. So we all have big big problems. And we will all have to pay.
    But the real victims are the pour of this world. They had nothing and will get less.

    Iceland: we pay and you pay. Accept your debt. We have no chice. The only thing we can do is to choose an other kind of politicians: with integrity and being there for the people.
    Warm regard
    Lea from the Netherlands

  • kevin o'connor,waterford ireland January 7, 2010, 4:18 pm

    Dear Icelanders you win forget about the 5 billion its only money we in the rest of europe surrender, just please take back your terrible weather we cant take anymore down here (my keyboard is icing up !!) and we will forget about the whole thing as long as you keep sending us lots of your nice sea food thankyou.

  • Mike January 7, 2010, 4:19 pm
  • Kris January 7, 2010, 4:26 pm

    He did great. Even got in a little dig on the Brits. Very well done. I really think if they renegotiated, they could cut the amount in half. And the longer this drags on, the more these other countries will be hit by more pressing problems. Icesave will become old news abroad and easier to deal with at the negotiating table. Is this the plan? Who knows.
    No IMF loan is a blessing in disguise.

  • Great Eastern January 7, 2010, 4:48 pm

    that was a good one from Mr. President.
    By misinterpreting what President really vetoed ( or did he intentionally let the foreign and domestic media misinterpret ?? ) foreign opinion was swung positive towards Iceland. Everyone is hailing Iceland for democratic handling of the situation.

    Later on when he explained that he just vetoed some minor details on how the icesave had to be repayed it was too late, hahaha.
    People do not concentrate for more than 5 minutes nowdays. Headlines were made.
    Letting the nation to vote on those details.. It’s pathetic!!!
    You’ve got a clever president, congratulations.

  • Great Eastern January 7, 2010, 4:59 pm

    .. and if it was Dorrit’s idea… Well she who knows british backyard could have devised that. But your president would still be clever to listen to clever woman…

  • Marko January 7, 2010, 5:44 pm

    I wish to reiterate the question asked in one of the comments. Barring an invasion by outside force (in which case it wouldn’t matter anyway), what exactly is defined as an emergency, if not the fact that my grandchildren (I still have no kids, so that gives you an idea of the timeline) are going to pay off the debt if I remain in Iceland?

    This *is* an emergency and sooner the people realize that, the better.

  • The Other Katherine Harris January 7, 2010, 6:41 pm

    A patriot in a world of traitorous governments (and media)!

    None of us anywhere should be paying off the banksters’ casino debts. They already grabbed more than enough while their bubble was fizzing. Taxpayer funds should be used to help taxpayers, not victimize them further.

  • Ericsson January 7, 2010, 7:27 pm

    You say: “One could argue that the veto by the President at this time violates those boundaries. ”

    The President did not violate anything. The President sided with the democracy. He sided with the public, the vast majority of the people. Your opinions on the Ice-slave COERCION AND EXTORTION by the EU and the governments of the Netherlands and the UK is highly strange. Our government had been abusing the democracy and our human rights with the violation of proposing, let alone passing, an EXTORTION SLAVE-BILL against it´s own nation. Against any law and any judgment. The President, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, is our SAVIOR FROM UTTER DESTRUCTION.

  • idunn January 7, 2010, 8:00 pm

    Thank you for an informative interview. While the interviewer was bombastic, President Grímsson laid out his case well. I also now understand the relative position of the President in government. If largely a figurehead that should act only in emergencies, perhaps this qualifies as one. Something that the Icelandic people should get right.

    In asking President Grímsson how dare you question or intercede with your betters in government who know better, the interviewer may have expressed the opinion of many, at least those in authority. But I rather agree with President Grímsson, that as a democracy in more than just name that those most directly affected by this decision, the people of Iceland, should also be the one’s deciding their own fate.

  • Mike January 7, 2010, 8:42 pm

    idunn wrote ‘While the interviewer was bombastic,’

    Oh that’s Jeremy Paxman’s style with all interviewees. He’s most famous in the UK for asking the same question twelve times to a particularly obstructive minister. Mind you after hearing his take-no-prisoners approach to a head of state, I was grateful Iceland doesn’t have nuclear weapons

    I was drop-jawed that the President would do a live interview in a foreign language to a foreign journalist. I can’t imagine the current bunch running the UK would even countenance a live interview to the foreign media (let alone doing it in Icelandic).

    So kudos to Iceland for showing Britain what real democracy is – not just making decisions, but then standing by them.

    On a different note – does anyone know where all the Icelandic billionaires are holed up these days? Surely time enough has passed for a sprinkling of delicious arrest warrants and joyous extraditions – I’m sure LOTS of Icelanders would make the trip to the airport to greet them.


  • Ericsson January 7, 2010, 9:35 pm

    To Mike:

    They have had connections to the UK and the United States, mostly it seems the UK. One hard thing to take for Icelanders is the following: The main owner of Landsbanki (the Icesave private bank). was wealthy Bjorgolfur Thor Bjorgolfsson of London, England. Have the UK authorities frozen his assets and collected from him??? No, they have not. They hound the Icelandic public: Old men who lost their lives´savings and houses to HIS bank and other corrupt banks. Makes you wonder. Disgusting.

  • Joerg January 7, 2010, 9:46 pm

    Having watched the interview in full length, I am of the impression that the President did quite well and has learned his lesson about communicating with foreign media. To me the interviewer appeared very rude.

    Is it true, that some MPs of the IP are now against a referendum, while they had been campaigning for it, before? They seem to be taken by surprise, too. Apparently, they had just wanted to drive the government into a corner and are now beginning to fear the power of the people. If it were not for the neverending Icesave mess, this might well make you reconsider your own view.

  • jo6pac January 7, 2010, 9:59 pm

    It looks like you’ll get to vote on this unlike here in the US we voted and nothing changes. No, that’s not true it’s gooten worse and soon to go further down hill. Just like Iceland no one goes to jail.

  • Ericsson January 8, 2010, 12:58 am

    Madoff got a judgment of 150 years in the United States, jo6pac.

    EVA JOLY, INVESTIGATIVE JUDGE, ON THE PRESIDENT´S VETO: From the news last night from the Icelandic State News Broadcast Station (Ríkisútvarpið or RUV). Speaking is EVA JOLY, an investigative judge who solved the colossal ELF case in France. She currently works with the SPECIAL INVESTIGATIVE TASK FORCE on the collapse of the Icelandic banks:


  • Gwrhyr January 8, 2010, 2:28 am

    I had the same thoughts about the presidency after he vetoed the bill. The only reason the presidency exists was to replace the position of the monarch in society because people just could not imagine living in a country without that type of position, without one person to hold all the power in an emergency situation.
    In every country with this political system the role of the presidency accrues more and more power over time. Even though Iceland’s presidency hasn’t been a pivotally powerful political force in the past, this action is just one step along the inevitable ride towards a presidential state – which often feels like an absolute monarchic state in practice. The presidency of the U.S. was never designed to be the way it is today. Iceland will slowly but surely change in the same way. There will come a day when the agenda of the presidency of Iceland becomes much more important than that of the agenda of the PM.

  • John Hopkins January 8, 2010, 5:10 am

    Presumably, though, the powers of the office of the president are circumscribed in the constitution, and, as such, are available to the person occupying the office. As happened in the US during the Bush regime, massive powers not explicitly outlined in the constitution were gathered by that regime, strengthening the office of president (powers that Obama has not relinquished at all — those at the top love extra power)… Any government or national political power structure goes through fluid shifts in concentration & location of power almost constantly, but some more precipitous than others. I’d suggest a close reading of The Annals of Imperial Rome by Tacitus, for a good outline on shifting power structures in a nation…

  • Ericsson January 8, 2010, 11:38 am

    To Mike again: Here is someone who insists ALL the owners of the bankrupt Icelandic banks live in the UK, a statement I have often heard and read: dansignet wrote:
    Thursday, 7 January 2010 at 11:03 pm: “well, it is obvious you know nothing about Iceland and what we have gon through the past few years. the owners of the Icelandic banks that went bankrupt all live in the UK, they used all the icesave money to buy stores like Hamley’s and many other UK stores. not one pound of the icesave money ever came to Iceland.”

    Independent: Leading article: Iceland should not be bullied: