Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir, Iceland’s outgoing prime minister and the first openly LGBT person to head a national government, leaves a mixed legacy, with advances on gay rights but only partial success in addressing the nation’s economic problems.
Sigurdardóttir, who was the longest-serving member of the Althingi (Iceland’s parliament), having been elected in 1978, before becoming prime minister in 2009, announced her retirement from politics last year. She said it was time to end her “long and eventful” political career and that she would not seek another term as prime minister in the spring election. That vote, last Saturday, saw her party, the Social Democrats, finish third behind two more conservative parties, which will now form a coalition government.
She was sworn in as prime minister in February 2009, having been appointed to the post on an interim basis after the resignation of Geir Haarde, who had led the nation through a financial boom that turned to bust. Iceland’s top banks were deeply in debt due to risky investments, leading the government to nationalize them in the fall of 2008 and seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund. The country had also seen its currency plunge in value and unemployment soar.
Many citizens blamed the economic crisis on the laissez-faire policies of Haarde and his Independence Party, which has a conservative ideology. So they tasked Sigurdardóttir and her liberal Social Democratic Alliance with turning the country around; in an April 2009 vote, they formally elected her prime minister. She made history as the first out gay or lesbian to lead a nation on anything but a fill-in basis (previously, a gay man had briefly been acting prime minister of Norway) and Iceland’s first female prime minister. In 2011, Elio Di Rupo was elected prime minister of Belgium, making him the first openly gay man voted into such a post.
Sigurdardóttir, now 70, had been a flight attendant and airline union organizer before being elected to the Althingi. She demonstrated a passion not only for LGBT rights but social justice in general. As Iceland’s minister of Social Affairs and Social Security from 1987 to 1994 and 2007 to 2009, she influenced legislators to enact policies strengthening the social welfare system and expanding housing opportunities for the poor.
Most Icelanders saw nothing unusual about a lesbian prime minister. The country had repealed laws against gay sex in 1940, when it was a dependency of Denmark. In 1996 it became one of the first nations in the world to establish civil partnerships for same-sex couples. In 2006 it followed up by approving adoption rights for gay and lesbian couples. In 2010, a year into Sigurdardóttir’s tenure as prime minister, Iceland passed a marriage equality law. She and her partner, author Jonina Leosdóttir, were one of the first couples to take advantage of it. The women, both divorced mothers, had been in a civil partnership since 2002.
Under Sigurdardóttir, the government initiated a review of the national constitution, in an unusual fashion in that hundreds of Icelanders had the opportunity to make suggestions, and then voters last fall approved the document in a referendum. However, the new constitution has yet to receive the required approval of the Althingi.
Iceland’s economy improved somewhat during Sigurdardóttir’s tenure, and several bankers and politicians were tried on charges related to the financial collapse. Haarde was convicted on a charge arising from his failure to hold emergency cabinet meetings as the crisis developed, but he was acquitted of more serious crimes. Still, while Iceland was “the least foul smelling of the world’s dirty laundry,” as the blog TruthOut put it, economic problems remained. Unemployment fell, but Icelanders also saw their taxes rise while spending on social programs decreased.
“Polls suggest that many here are disappointed with the current coalition government which took power at the height of the crisis,” BBC contributor Joe Lynam wrote from Iceland in January. “And as is often the case in politics, the party which inherits the mess does not always get much credit for cleaning it up.”
That turned out to be the case, with voters turning out the Social Democratic Alliance in April. It received just 13% of the vote, giving it nine seats in the Althingi. The Independence and Progressive parties, both more conservative — although perhaps still liberal by U.S. standards — won 19 seats each, meaning they will form a coalition government and one of their leaders, likely the Independence Party’s Bjarni Benediktsson, will become prime minister.
“The Independence Party has been called to duty again,” the BBC quoted Benediktsson as saying. “We’ve seen what cutbacks have done for our health care system and social benefits ... now it’s time to make new investments, create jobs, and start growth.”
Still, LGBT activists say that no matter what one thinks of Sigurdardóttir’s politics, she played a historically important role. Having an openly gay national leader, “even in a small country like Iceland, sends a clear message to everyone, wherever they live,” wrote a blogger at GayIce.is. “If we can do it, you can too.”