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REYKJAVIK: Icelanders began voting Saturday to elect a new president, with a 37-year-old mother with a newborn and no political experience challenging Olafur Ragnar Grimsson as he seeks a fifth straight term.
Some 236,000 people are eligible to vote, with opinion polls in the final days of the campaign suggesting the 69-year-old Grimsson was headed for a comfortable victory.
Thora Arnorsdottir, a respected 37-year-old journalist with no political affiliation who interrupted her campaign briefly in May to give birth to her third child, has called for a change after Grimsson’s 16 years in power.
She has vowed, if elected, to return the presidency to its largely ceremonial role, after Grimsson’s unusually political, and at times controversial, approach.
“I think we have all felt a strong need for a change in this country,” she said recently, describing herself as a consensus-builder.
Arnorsdottir, a striking blonde with piercing blue eyes, is seen as a fresh face at a time when many Icelanders clamour for a new breed of politicians to clean out the ranks following the country’s devastating economic crash in 2008.
She decided to run after reading an official report on the crash and found that, especially when it came to “ethics and our political system, ... nothing had really changed.”
Grimsson, a socialist, says his political savvy is needed as Iceland, which is recovering rapidly from its crash and already returned to growth, tackles thorny EU membership talks and an October referendum on a new constitution.
“Iceland is now at a crossroads. Behind us are difficult years. Ahead are decisions on the constitution and our relationship with other countries in Europe,” the silver-haired president wrote in an article published in daily Morgunbladid on voting day.
“There is still turbulence in the continent’s economy and in many areas ...
The president ... shall assist the country in tackling the biggest issues; they will determine the fate of Icelanders for decades,” he wrote.
Grimsson is, like a majority of Icelanders, opposed to EU membership for fear the North Atlantic nation will lose its sovereignty.
The left-wing government applied however to join the bloc in 2009 after the financial and economic crash that saw Iceland’s three biggest banks collapse and required a $2.1 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund.
Grimsson was subsequently heavily criticised for befriending bankers during the boom years and hailing their entrepreneurial spirit, and was ridiculed for supporting what turned out to be a bubble that burst.
But he vindicated himself in the eyes of the public with his refusal, twice, to sign a bill to use taxpayers’ money to compensate Britain and the Netherlands for the 2008 collapse of online bank Icesave.
While allowed to do so by the constitution, no president had exercised that right until Grimsson did so in 2004 over a controversial media law.
That has prompted debate in the election campaign on what sort of president Icelanders now want.
Arnorsdottir led in the polls initially, after Grimsson announced in January that he would not stand for re-election.
But after a petition gathered more than 30,000 signatures — about a tenth of the population — urging him to reconsider, he announced in March he would stand after all, and has since then led in the public opinion.
A former university professor who was first elected president in August 1996, Grimsson has served four four-year terms, but has to date only won two presidential elections: in both 2000 and 2008 he was the only candidate and was granted a new term without a vote.
Polling booths opened at 9:00 am (0900 GMT) and were to close at 10:00 pm (2200 GMT), and the first results were expected about an hour later. AFP