Iceland: Time arrives for brilliant Johanna Sigurdardottir to take the nation's reins Print E-mail
 London ~~ Thursday January 29, 2009

World gets its first gay head of state

Former air hostess to be sworn in as Icelandic premier after economic collapse

By Peter Popham
Johanna Sigurdardottir is Iceland's new Prime Minister

The first government collapse of the global economic crisis is about to yield the world's first openly-gay leader. Johanna Sigurdardottir, a former air hostess, is expected to be sworn in as Iceland's Prime Minister by the end of the week.

Her moment in the international spotlight comes at the most horrendous moment in her nation's recent history. As the global meltdown began, the collapse of Iceland's grossly over-leveraged economy was followed smartly by the implosion of its banks and currency. Now its government has gone the same way, the first to succumb to the backwash from the crisis.

Ms Sigurdardottir's party, the Social Democrat Alliance, was asked to form a new government but its leader is taking a leave of absence to recover from treatment for a benign tumour. And so, "Saint Johanna", as she has come to be known, has been propelled from the social affairs ministry – which she has presided over for a decade – to take centre stage in a choice hailed as "unexpected but brilliant".

The 66-year-old politician lives with her partner, Jonina Leosdottir, a journalist and playwright. The couple were joined in a civil ceremony in 2002. Don't expect them to show up togetherfor photocalls, however – that's not the Icelandic way. Though she is famous across the island, having been a top politician for years, her lesbian union was no big deal in this calmly progressive nation of only 300,000 people.

"Johanna is a very private person," said an Icelandic government source. "A lot of people didn't even know she was gay. When they learn about it people tend to shrug and say, 'Oh'. That's not to say they are not interested; they are interested in who she's living with – but no more so than if she was a man living with a woman."

Ms Sigurdardottir has two grown-up sons. She entered politics via the labour movement, was first elected to parliament in 1978 and was given her first ministerial office in 1987. She will be Prime Minister of a minority caretaker government composed of her Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Greens, with outside support. It is only expected to hold office for two or three months, until fresh elections are called.

"In opinion polls Johanna has repeatedly been chosen as the most popular politician in Iceland," said the government source. "She is a good choice, because one of the problems the government is facing is lack of trust. Getting Johanna to become Prime Minister was a way of saying trust is an issue. Politicians want a fresh mandate from the electorate and, before they get it, they need to rebuild trust. Choosing Johanna is a way of saying, 'Let's bridge this gap, let's have peace to be able to implement the emergency measures'."

Geir Haarde, the former prime minister, endured months of angry protests over his poor handling of the economy; demonstrators pelted his car with eggs and police were forced to use tear gas on the streets for the first time in 50 years. Compare that to a poll in November that gave Ms Sigurdardottir a 73 per cent approval rating, she was the only minister to improve on the previous year's score.

"She is often described as the only politician who really cares about the little guy," wrote Icelandic journalist Iris Erlingsdottir in a blog this week.

She did stand for the leadership of her party back in 1994 and lost badly, but in her concession speech she predicted "my time will come". And some 15 years later, it truly has.

Pink power: Four pioneering gay politicians
Harvey Milk

First gay man elected to US office when he was voted on to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977. Was assassinated in 1978 and is the subject of a new film.

Bertrand Delanoë
The Mayor of Paris is perhaps one of the most influential gay politicians in the world. He is said to harbour ambitions of running for the French presidency in 2012.

Penny Wong

Holds the crucial Australian cabinet post of Minister for Climate Change and Water. No other openly gay politician in the country has risen so far up the ladder.

Angela Eagle
Britain's first openly lesbian MP has been a Treasury minister since 2007. She followed a trail blazed by former minister Chris Smith, who came out in 1984.
The Examiner ~~ Denver, CO ~~ January 28, 2009

Iceland to appoint gay woman minister to PM post

(AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti )

Iceland's Social Affairs Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir speaks to the media following party negotiations in Reykjavik, Iceland, Wednesday Jan. 28, 2009. Sigurdardottir, 66, an openly gay former flight attendant, is expected to become Iceland's interim prime minister, and will lead the country until new elections are held.

REYKJAVIK, Iceland ( Map, News) - Iceland's next leader will be an openly gay former flight attendant who parlayed her experience as a union organizer into a decades-long political career.

Both parties forming Iceland's new coalition government support the appointment of Johanna Sigurdardottir, the island nation's 66-year-old social affairs minister, as Iceland's interim prime minister.

"Now we need a strong government that works with the people," Sigurdardottir told reporters Wednesday, adding that a new administration will likely be installed Saturday.

Sigurdardottir will lead until new elections are held, likely in May. But analysts say she's unlikely to remain in office - chiefly because her center-left Social Democratic Alliance isn't expected to rank among the major parties after the election.

In opinion polls, it trails the Left-Green movement, a junior partner in the new coalition.

Iceland's previous conservative-led government failed Monday after the country's banks collapsed last fall under the weight of huge debts amassed during years of rapid economic growth. The country's currency has since plummeted, while inflation and unemployment are soaring.

Former Prime Minister Geir Haarde won't lead his Independence Party into the new elections because he needs treatment for throat cancer.

While Haarde endured angry protests for months and had his limousine pelted with eggs, polling company Capacent Gallup said Sigurdardottir was Iceland's most popular politician in November, with an approval rating of 73 percent.

She was the only minister to see her rating improve on the previous year's score, Capacent Gallup said Wednesday. The poll of 2,000 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent.

"It's a question of trust, people believe that she actually cares about people," said Olafur Hardarson, a political scientist at the University of Iceland.

Sigurdardottir is seen by many as a salve to the bubbling tensions in Iceland. Thousands have joined anti-government protests recently. Last week, police used tear gas for the first time in about 50 years to disperse crowds.

"She is a senior parliamentarian, she is respected and loved by all of Iceland," said Environment Minister Thorunn Sveinbjarnardottir, a fellow Alliance party member.

The new leader is known for allocating generous amounts of public funding to help the disabled, the elderly and organizations tackling domestic violence.

But conservative critics say Sigurdardottir's leftist leanings and lack of business experience won't help her fix the economy. "Johanna is a very good woman - but she likes public spending, she is a tax raiser," Haarde said.

Iceland has negotiated about $10 billion in bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund and individual countries. The loans are currently being held as foreign currency reserves.

Banks that were nationalized last year are once again open and trading - but Iceland still owes millions of dollars to foreign depositors.

After acting as a labor organizer when she worked as a flight attendant for Loftleidir Airlines - now Icelandair - in the 1960s and 1970s, Sigurdardottir was elected to Iceland's parliament in 1978. She served as social affairs minister from 1987-1994 and from 2007.

"If there's anyone who can restore trust in the political system it's her," said Eyvindur Karlsson, a 27-year-old translator from Reykjavik. "People respect her because she's never been afraid of standing up to her own party. They see her as someone who isn't tainted by the economic crisis."

In 1995, Sigurdardottir quit the party and formed her own, which won four parliamentary seats in a national election. Several years later, she rejoined her old party when it merged with three other center-left groups.

While a woman has served in the largely symbolic role of president, Sigurdardottir will be Iceland's first female prime minister.

She lives with journalist Jonina Leosdottir, who became her civil partner in 2002, and has two sons from a previous marriage.

Sigurdardottir is best known for her reaction to a failed bid to lead her party in 1994. "My time will come," she predicted in her concession speech.

 Writer Valur Gunnarsson contributed to this report.
Copyright 2008 .