Icelandic Language Blog

5 stubborn presidents of Iceland. Posted by on Apr 21, 2016 in Icelandic culture, Icelandic history


Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson by PopTech at

The president of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, has been in the news this week a lot after he announced he would run again in the next elections. He’s already among the 20 longest ruling non-monarch national leaders currently in office so his decision has raised some eyebrows over here, especially since it came but a few months after he announced he’d be stepping down. Even so Iceland actually has always had a tendency to choose a president and stick with that one for a while, so perhaps there’s nothing out of ordinary happening here after all. 😀

Let’s have a look at all five presidents that have ruled Iceland since its independence in 1944.


Sveinn Björnsson at Wikimedia Commons.

Sveinn Björnsson

Sveinn actually started ruling Iceland long before his first election as president in 1944: between years 1941-1944 he served as Regent of Iceland. As the first president ever he was only elected for one year, but at the following two elections he was unopposed. Who knows how many times he would have been re-elected had he not died a year before his third term ended, making him thus far the only president to die in office here in Iceland.


Ásgeir Ásgeirsson at Wikimedia Commons.

Ásgeir Ásgeirsson

Ásgeir, the second president of Iceland, sat in office from 1952 to 1968 which is 16 years in total. He was the first president ever chosen by popular vote; Sveinn before him was first elected by the Alþing (= parliament) and for the two following terms chosen for lack of opponents. Like Sveinn, once in office Ásgeir was chosen for three more terms uncontested.


Kristján Eldjárn at Wikimedia Commons.

Kristján Eldjárn

The third president was originally assumed to be Ásgeir’s son-in-law Gunnar Thoroddsen, but despite his popularity he lost to Kristján Eldjárn. Kristján took the office from 1968 to 1980 when something unprecedented happened but before we go to that, let’s look at Kristján. He was an archaeologist by education and hosted a popular tv show from 1966 to 1968 discussing some of the National Museum’s artifacts, which had made him quite well known by the time he ran for presidency. His two following terms he, too, was unopposed, it’s almost like Icelanders just liked to see a president do a trial run and if found acceptable, keep him. Or her, since what happened after Kristján decided against running a fourth time and devoted his life to academia –


Vigdís Finnbogadóttir at Wikimedia Commons.

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

– was Vigdís. She was the first democratically elected female president in the world, and like the previous three took the office for quite a long time, 16 years in total (1980-1996) which makes her the longest serving female president in the world. Unlike the others she was the first Icelandic president to be contested during her rule, once, in the 1988 elections that she regardless won by a landslide. After her last term she, too, decided to step down.

Other interesting details about her life include her f.ex. being active in protests against the American occupation, although this was some ten years before she became the president. She’s also Iceland’s first single woman allowed to adopt a child, and interestingly while she was running for presidency for the first time she was also a divorced single mother! Currently she’s a UNESCO goodwill ambassador.


Ólafur Ragnar by Michael Wuertenberg at Wikimedia Commons.

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson

We’ve finally made it from all the way from WW2 to the present moment and we only needed five stops to get here. Ólafur’s the most stubborn office sitter of them all with 19 years under his belt and plans to have some more. He’s ran twice uncontested, three times contested, then in January this year announced he’d be stepping down after his last term… and recently changed his mind when our PM Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson caused massive political instability to the country by his part in the Panama Papers scandal (link).

Ólafur is the first Icelandic president to wield the presidential veto power, causing the Independence Party to try to campaign for removing that power from the president. For most part the position of the president of Iceland is largely ceremonial so whether it’s Ólafur Ragnar or someone else probably doesn’t make a huge difference (aside of his by Icelandic standards unusual tendency to veto). Time will tell if he’ll be chosen for the sixth term, if he’ll even be contested, I know that the general feel of Icelanders after his announcement was an automatic “ok, so he’s in for one more term”. Maybe Icelanders just really don’t like to change their presidents often. 😀


Meanwhile Iceland has entered summer as of today. This year 21st April is Sumardagurinn fyrsti (= first summer day) which is a national holiday based on the Old Icelandic calendar (notice that the blog post is from a few years back, Icelandic calendar’s months start at a different date + same week day every year). It starts the month of Harpa and means that now, finally, the winter is definitely over and won’t be seen again before mid-October when Gormánuður begins. All snowing that might happen in between is summer-snow!

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About the Author: hulda

Hi, I'm Hulda, originally Finnish but now living in the suburbs of Reykjavík. I'm here to help you in any way I can if you're considering learning Icelandic. Nice to meet you!