Pink Politicians: Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir of Iceland

Alex Mitchell
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In this series of articles I want to look at those who have smashed the pink celling in politics. I will endeavor to look at their legacy that they have set individually.

First we go to Iceland where Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir became the world’s first openly gay head of government.  Born in 1942; Jóhanna studied at a vocational high school for a commercial diploma. She went on to become a flight attendant for Loftleiðir (a predecessor to Icelandair). Jóhanna became an active trade unionist presiding over three associations relating to the cabin crew sector.

She was elected to the Alþingi or Althing for the English translation  (The Icelandic parliament) to serve as an MP in 1978 for the Reykjavik constituency. The Alþingi only having 40 seats at this stage.

Jóhanna enjoyed early success being elected deputy speaker in 79 and then elected vice-chairman of her party, the Social Democratic party. A position held until 1993. Jóhanna was appointed to the cabinet as Minister for Sicial Affairs in 1987, a position she had held over four separate cabinets up until 1994. Jóhanna had challenged for the party leadership in 1994 and was unsuccessful. She then left the party to form the National Awekening party. In the 1995 election they took 7.2% of the vote which won them four of the 63 seats. A year later the National Awakening party merged with Jóhanna’s old party to form the Social Deomcratic Alliance. From 1994-2003 Jóhanna served as an active member of the opposition, sitting on numerous parliamentary committees. In 2003 she stood in the newly formed Rekyavik South seat after her constituency was carved up. Jóhanna returned to the deputy speaker role. In 2007 the Social Democratic Alliance was returned to government as a coalition partner to the Independence Party with Jóhanna named Minister for Social Affairs & Social Security.

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On the 26thJanuary 2009. Icelandic Prime Minister Geir Haarde handed the resignation of his government to PresidentÓlafur Ragnar after 14 weeks of protests against the government’s handling of the financial crisis that gripped the country. All three of the country’s major private banks collapsed after being unable to refinance their bad debt and with a run on deposits in the USA, Netherlands and the UK the system collapsed. The largest experienced by any country in economic history. Haarde feared the nation would be sucked “into the whirlpool” created by the banking collapse which could have led to the country going bankrupt. Iceland’s national debt jumped to around £40bn, 80% of that was held by the banking sector. Iceland’s GDP (Total value of goods and services produced) was £6.7bn in 2007. This debt at 11 times the rate of GDP meant the Government central bank couldn’t step in and they went to the IMF for a bailout.

President Ragnar looked to the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement to form a coalition government and hold elections in April. Jóhanna was proposed as Prime Minister following a popularity rise for her as minister. She had a 73% approval rating, on the 1st February following support from the Progressive Party a new Cabinet was appointed with Jóhanna taking the job of PM. Becoming the world’s first openly gay head of government. As directed by President Ragnar Iceland went to the polls on 25th April. Both the Social Deomcratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement made gains meaning they could command a majority, their former coalition partner, the Independence Party lost 1/3 of their seats. Jóhanna had retained the role of PM, now becoming the first openly gay person to win a general election.

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The first task for the Jóhanna Administration was fixing the damage caused by the financial crisis. She went to the country through several referendums to gain support but was defeated in the first vote. A repayment plan for the banking debt was proposed with the first payment to be made in 2016 and the final payment made before 2046 at a fixed rate of interest of 3%, this was also rejected with a no vote. The Dutch and British governments then took Iceland to the European Courts. The Alþingi voted 33-30 to indict Haarde for negligence in office. He faced these charges in a court used for the first time since the 1905 constitution was passed. Haarde was convicted on one charge.

The Jóhanna Administration with cross party support then set about convening a constitutional assembly to discuss changes to the 1905 constitution. Members of which had to be selected at random through the national registry. 1,200 candidates were selected to be voted on. 25 went on to form the constitutional assembly.

In 2010 Jóhanna’s government passed a bill banning strip clubs, paying for nudity and other means of profiteering from employee nudity. The first western democracy to do so. Jóhanna stated “The Nordic countries are leading the way on women’s equality, recognizing women as equal citizens rather than commodities for sale”. This was hailed as making Iceland the most feminist country in the world.

Most Icelanders saw, nor felt anything strange about having a lesbian Prime minister. The country had repealed laws against gay sex when it was a Danish dependency island in 1940. In 1996 it became one of the first nations to pass civil unions followed by same sex adoption in 2006. In 2010, a year into Jóhanna’s term Marriage equality was passed with the Prime Minister taking full advantage in converting her civil union from 2006 into a marriage with her partner Jonina Leosdóttir, an Author.

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Jóhanna decided well in advance of the 2013 election that she would not seek a second term and had planned to retire from politics at the age of 70. She left the Alþingi as the longest serving MP. Just before she retired she made a guest appearance in an episode of the Simpsons. The economy still had its problems however unemployment was down but Icelanders saw a rise in their taxes whilst funding for social programs decreased. As it is with governments, those that inherit the mess tend not to get the credit for cleaning it up and with her retirement known before the election the result did not go in the Social Democrats favor. The polled at 13% gaining nine seats whilst the Independence and Progressive Parties took 19 seats each forming the government.

It may be a small country with a population of just over 325,000 (That’s 100,00 less than the city of Bristol) yet it has earned a place in the political and LGBT history books as a nation that elected the world’s first openly gay Prime Minister. I leave you with Jóhanna’s speech to World Pride 2014


About Alex Mitchell

Political observer and current affairs addict. I observe - I analyse - I debate