A Tale of Two Presidents

Iceland / Ramblings

taleoftwopreIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the year 2012 in Germany and the year 2016 in Iceland. Why those two years and why the comparison you ask? Let me tell you!

2012 in Germany there was a president with boyish charm and a beautiful wife – they had just entered office in the warm summer of 2010, fulfilling the secretly kept German wishes for a royal family of their own. The German press and tabloids tumbled over itself with their interest in the new first couple and the picturesque family, that had taken hold of the presidential residence “Schloss Bellevue” in Berlin. The wife of the new president was young, blond and smart – the messiness of their relationship was dutifully overlooked and the press did not dwell on the fact, that the new German president had left his first wife and family to marry his 14 year younger affair. Things looked up for German president Christian Wulff, even though some people whispered, that the powerful chancellor Angela Merkel had made him president only to get rid of her most threatening political rival.

2016 in Iceland there is an aging president with the white hair and the imposing figure that people sometimes confuse with authority or wisdom. His wife, the first lady of Iceland, is a glamorous british-israeli jewellery designer, with a flamboyant personality that easily outshines her husband. Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the president of which I am talking, had been in office since 1996 – five years before the first iPod was sold and just two years after Kurt Cobain had committed suicide. Being in office for twenty years is an admirable feat, that in Europe is only surpassed by the president of Belarus. The sceptic observer might indeed deduce that the presidential couple also fulfils an Icelandic longing for a royal family, the lack thereof making the volcanic island seem somewhat special in the royality-filled north of Europe (Yes I know Finland has no royal family, but they have Lordi and that must count for something). While the Icelandic president had used his 2016 New Year’s message to talk about himself and announce his retirement in the coming summer, things in Iceland can change as quickly as the weather and by april 2016 he was again running for office.

So in Germany there was a boyish president with frameless glasses and a first lady with aspirations for her own career; in Iceland there is a white-haired president with a liking for power-politics and a first lady with a remarkable own career as a businesswoman. In both countries it was clearer than crystal to the avid readers of the news media, that things in general were settled for ever – two dominant presidencies, that seem unassailable.

In the summer of 2012 the situation changed for the German president Christian Wulff, when claims started to spread that during his time as minister-president of the federal state of Niedersachsen he had taken a 500.000€ loan on favourable terms from a businessman and acquaintance. In a rather clumsy move he had subsequently tried to quiet the press from talking about it, which only made journalists jump at story like hungry bloodhounds smelling prey. Within a short time the president had fallen from grace and more and more media outlets started reporting about shady dealings, that in retrospect seem rather petty: a short holiday trip to Sylt, a trip to the German Oktoberfest and a bobby-car (horribly noisy red plastic cars for children) that was given to him by a car-dealer. When the district attorney filed charges against Wulff due to the private credit he had obtained, there was nothing left for him to do but to step back. He did not want to tarnish the highest office of the German state with his legal and financial affairs and the majority of Germans had answered in polls, that they wanted him to step back, as his behaviour was not in accordance to the high moral standards set upon his office. His marriage faltered and ended in divorce and the legacy of the presidential couple were two rather awkward tell-all books that got published in subsequent years. It might also be relevant to add, that the former president got legally cleared of all accusations in 2014.

In the spring of 2016, when the news were filled with the revelations of the panama-papers and the subsequent resignation of the Icelandic prime-minister, the Icelandic president was asked on CNN if he or his wife had any offshore-accounts or whether anything would be discovered about them. The Icelandic president used all of his statesmanlike authority and charming Icelandic accent and claimed: “No, no, no, that is not going to be the case.” Well as it turns out it was not as easy as that. His wife’s family (more explicitly her mother, who was listed as the owner) has been linked to offshore-accounts and – as was to be expected – the president vehemently denied any knowledge of those accounts.

As of now the Icelandic president has not shown any inclinations to step back. It is going to be interesting to see the results of the election in the summer, they might reveal a lot about the Icelandic ideas of proper behaviour in democratic positions of power and the behaviour the electorate expects from their head of state.