Indridi H. Indridason – The presidency in Iceland

This is a guest post by Indridi H. Indridason from the University of California at Riverside

For most part of its history Iceland has functioned as a ‘regular’ parliamentary system despite having a semi-presidential constitution. For sixty years, since gaining independence in 1944, the president’s role was basically that of a figurehead and the extent of the president’s political actions was, at best, that of managing the coalition formation process. It has been suggested that the president occasionally had preferences over the outcome of the negotiations and sought to influence the coalition formation. It is, however, not clear that the president has had much of a role as a formateur in the formation of governments.

Things changed, however, with the president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson refusing to sign legislation on the ownership of the media into law in 2004.  According to the constitution, if the president declines to sign legislation into law it is referred to a referendum.  In this instance, however, the government opted to withdraw the legislation.  The question whether the president had a right to independently exercise the authority to refer legislation to a referendum was hotly contested. While the 26. clause of the constitution is clear in requiring the president’s signature being required, the debates largely focused on clauses 11 and 13 which state, respectively, that the president is not responsible for the actions of the government and the president lets the ministers exercise his power.  Whatever the intent of the authors of the constitution, the constitution was clearly sufficiently ambiguous on the role of the president for Grímsson to recognize, and grab, a politically opportune moment to redefine and expand the powers of the presidency – the government had sought to pass the legislation with little debate in Althingi against the will of the opposition parties and the legislation appeared to have limited popular support.  By 2010, when Grímsson next refused to sign legislation, there was far less debate about the constitutionality of the president’s actions – thus, intentionally or not, the Grímsson presidency has transformed the office of the president.

Recent events, however, suggest that Grímsson has embraced the more political role of the presidency.  Early April, the Panama Papers revealed that Iceland’s Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson (Progressive Party) had failed to disclose his family’s offshore accounts as well as his wife being one of the foreign creditors of the Icelandic banks that collapsed in the financial crisis of 2008. The revelation lead to massive (on an Icelandic scale) protests in front of Althingi and pressures on Gunnlaugsson and his government to resign mounted.  Support for Gunnlaugsson’s continued prime ministership within the other coalition party, the Independence Party, appears to have, understandably, declined – further increasing the pressure on Gunnlaugsson to resign.  Despite these pressures, Gunnlaugsson appears to have been determined to stay in office.  Following a meeting with the leader of the Independence Party, Gunnlaugsson requested a meeting with President Grímsson.  What exactly transpired during the meeting is not completely clear.  President Grímsson claimed PM Gunnlaugsson asked whether he would be willing to dissolve the government and call an election.  Gunnlaugsson, on the other hand, claims that he simply presented the president with what he perceived to be the only two options in the circumstances; for the government to stand united against the opposition’s no confidence motion or to resign.  What appears to be clear is that a formal request to dissolve parliament was not made and the claims made by both actors reflect their own, possibly selective but certainly entertaining, accounts of a private discussion.  President Grímsson’s, interpretation that a request for dissolution had been made appeared, for example, to rest on his observation that the Prime Minister was accompanied by ministerial staff carrying a briefcase that presumably contained a formal request.  It is also important to note that the right of the President to refuse the Prime Minister’s request to dissolve parliament is not uncontroversial – for the same reasons as the President’s ability to refer legislation to a referendum.  Thus, Grímsson’s insistence on having refused to the Prime Minister’s request could be interpreted as part of his agenda to imbue the office of the President with real political powers.

Whatever the case may be, it appears clear that PM Gunnlaugsson wanted to present the Independence Party with an ultimatum, i.e., either its members support continued cooperation in government under Gunnlaugsson leadership or Althingi will be dissolved and an election called.  At the time, the latter option may have seemed unattractive to the Independence party as two of its ministers were also implicated in the Panama Papers scandal and the party’s chances of being in government following an election may also have appeared slim.

The Progressive Party’s threat of dissolution, however, never materialized as President Grímsson informed the PM that he would not dissolve parliament and, moreover, called a press conference after the meeting to announce his decision.  The President’s refusal to left Gunnlaugsson in a very weak position and, in effect, forced him to resign – although later that day the prime minister’s offices issued a press release to the foreign press indicated that the PM was merely stepping aside temporarily.  Thus, it remains to be seen whether Gunnlaugsson plans to return as prime minister (he remains a member of parliament) and, if so, whether he will be successful in doing so.

Having flexed his political muscle, Grímsson decided to go back on his decision to not seek re-election. Possibly as he may have perceived his changes of a successful bid having improved by his role in the removal of the prime minister – even though it fell short of the demands of the protesters, most of whom would have liked to see the government removed and an election called.  But one might also question the causal relationship here, i.e., it is also possible that Grímsson flexed his political muscle because he had already decided that he wanted to run for re-election or recognized that the political fallout from the Panama Papers opened a window of opportunity for him to hang around for a bit longer. Things, however, took an interesting turn when former Prime Minister Oddsson announced his candidacy – incidentally Oddsson was Prime Minister when President Grímsson first referred legislation to a referendum, thereby forcing Oddsson to withdraw the legislation.   Shortly after Oddsson announced his candidacy, President Grímsson withdrew his candidacy – perhaps because he considered his chances of reelection reduced by the Oddsson’s candidacy or, possibly, because he considered his candidacy increasing the chance of Oddsson being elected.

While there is no longer any doubt that the president can use his powers to refer legislation to a referendum, views on the role of the president remain divided, i.e., many voters hold the view that the president should be `above’ politics.  Thus, in some sense the election is, explicitly or implicitly, about what role the president ought to play.  However, as it stands, the leading candidates don’t offer clear alternatives in this regard. From the viewpoint of a political scientist the election would have been far more interesting if Grímsson had not withdrawn his candidacy as his candidacy would clearly stood for the option representing a political president.  Instead, the two leading candidates have indicated that they would consider referring legislation to a referendum.  However, the question about the powers of the presidency is also reflected in another issue, i.e., the question of constitutional reform.

A constitutional council, charged with drafting a new constitution, was established in 2011.  A consultative referendum was held on the draft constitution, in which voters expressed substantial support for the constitution and several of its provisions (although voter turnout was very low by Icelandic standards).  However, the amendment of the constitutions was never brought to a vote in parliament but constitutional reform remains a part of the political discourse.  The two leading candidates do have opposing views on constitutional reform, which is of some significance as the role of the president is probably one of the key issues in the constitutional reform debate.  While it is not clear that the constitution drafted by the constitutional council will be the basis of future reform proposals it is worth nothing that although the draft constitution doesn’t remove the president’s ability to refer legislation to a referendum, the significance of this power is reduced significantly by other proposed amendments.  In particular, the draft constitution has a provision whereby 10% of the voters can refer legislation to a referendum.  Thus, in instances in which there is popular opposition to legislation, it is likely to be referred to referendum regardless of whether the president takes action or not.  Indeed, one might argue that the provision actually reduces the president’s powers further.  As it stands, once legislation lacking majority support among voters has been passed by Althingi – i.e., the only circumstance in which the president has the ability to decide on the fate of the legislation – the president effectively has to power to turn that legislation into law, i.e., against the will of the majority of voters. The president may also be able to leverage this ‘negative power’ into a positive one – i.e., by bargaining for unrelated legislation in exchange for his signature.  When voters can demand a referendum, this power is removed.

The question then is whether the election will be fought in terms of the future of semi-presidentialism (or the form it will take in Iceland).  That seems somewhat unlikely, the same issues were at stake in the 2012 election and the constitutional form of government received fairly little attention – and it was certainly not focused on close consideration of the political implications of expanding or constraining the powers of the president.  However, even if the campaign is not dominated by discussions of the pros and cons of semi-presidentialism, it doesn’t mean that the election will not have implications for the future of semi-presidentialism in Iceland.

Indridi H. Indridason was on the faculty at the University of Iceland from 2003 to 2007 and was the chair of the department of political science for two years. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester. His research is in the areas of comparative political institutions and applied game theory with focus on electoral systems, electoral behavior, coalition formation, and cabinet management strategies. Among his current research projects are i) the determinants of coalition bargaining outcomes including policy outcomes and portfolio allocation, ii) strategic coalitional voting, and iii) the effects of extremist parties on the policy platforms adopted by other (more moderate) parties. His recent work has been published in journals such as American Journal of Political Science, Journal of Politics, British Journal of Political Science, Economics and Politics, and Journal of Theoretical Politics.

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