Grímsson, Ólafur Ragnar (Iceland)

Reference work entry


Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was leader of the People's Alliance until becoming president in 1996. Observers feared his background would politicize the presidency, which is traditionally a non-partisan, ceremonial post, but he enjoyed broad popular support and retained the office in 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012.

Early Life

Grímsson was born on 14 May 1943 in Ísafjörður. He studied economics and political science at Manchester University in the UK, graduating with a doctorate in 1970. He took up a lecturing post at the University of Iceland and was appointed professor in 1973. From 1966 until 1973 he was on the board of the youth wing of the Progressive Party and between 1971 and 1973 he sat on the party’s executive board.

He moved to the People’s Alliance and was elected to the Alþingi (Parliament) in 1978 as a member for Reykjavík. From 1980 until 1983, when he failed to win re-election to parliament, Grímsson led the People’s Alliance in the Alþingi. During 1987–96 he was party chairman and between 1988–91 served as the minister of finance. Between 1984–90 he held senior posts with Parliamentarians for Global Action, an international organization with a membership of 1,800 throughout the world. Grímsson also held positions in the Council of Europe during the 1980s and 1990s.

In 1995 he led the People’s Alliance to a poor showing at the polls, in which they secured less than 15% of the vote. Shortly afterwards Grímsson announced his candidacy for the presidency at the following year’s elections. In June 1996 he was elected with 41% of the vote, defeating three other candidates.

Career Peak

The presidency is a largely ceremonial office and Grímsson’s election prompted some observers to fear he would politicize the position. His relationship with the then prime minister, Davíð Oddsson, had been poor ever since the two had clashed as leaders of rival parties. Nevertheless, Grímsson was reappointed as president for a second term (without an election as there were no opposing candidates) and then re-elected by popular vote on 26 June 2004 with nearly 86% of the poll. During his presidency Grímsson has used his international profile to vigorously promote Iceland and its industrial potential, particularly in emerging sectors such as information technology. His reappointment in Aug. 2008 was unopposed.

In Dec. 2009 the Alþingi narrowly passed legislation to reimburse the UK and the Netherlands governments for bailing out British and Dutch depositors in Icesave, an Internet operation owned by the failed Icelandic bank Landsbanki. Grímsson, however, refused to sign the law and in a national referendum in March 2010 a majority rejected the measure and settlement negotiations continued. In Dec. 2010 new reimbursement legislation was proposed, including better repayment terms for Iceland, and was passed by the Alþingi in Feb. 2011. However, Grímsson again refused to sign the measure, leading to a further referendum and another voter rejection in April that year. In June 2012 he was elected for a record fifth presidential term.

In April 2016 Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who had been elected in 2013, was ensnared in revelations by investigative journalists about the secret offshore financial holdings of prominent international figures. Having unsuccessfully sought Grímsson’s dissolution of the Alþingi, Gunnlaugsson resigned as premier and was replaced by Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, also of the Progressive Party.

Having announced that he would not run for a sixth term in office, Grímsson was replaced by the winner of the June 2016 presidential election Guðni Jóhannesson.

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© Springer Nature Limited 2019

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