Iceland elects new Prez in vote eclipsed by Euros, Brexit

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Reykjavik, Jun 25 (AFP) Iceland began voting in a presidential election today, two months after the Panama Papers scandal tainted part of the political elite, with newcomer Gudni Johannesson seen clinching an easy victory.

Polling stations opened at 0230 IST, with 245,000 Icelanders eligible to cast ballots. Polls were to close at 0315 IST, with the first results expected shortly afterwards.

Johannesson, a 47-year-old history professor and political commentator who has never held public office, only decided to run after the Panama Papers leak in April detailing offshore accounts implicated several senior Icelandic politicians, including the prime minister who was forced to resign.

Johannesson has vowed to restore Icelanders’ faith in the system after years of public anger toward politicians for miring the country in scandals and financial woes.

But while outraged Icelanders massed in the streets for days in April calling for the prime minister’s ouster, that anger appeared to have dissipated somewhat with the final days of campaigning overshadowed by euphoria after the Icelandic football squad achieved a historic feat at the Euro 2016 football tournament.

A North Atlantic island of just 334,000 people, Iceland beat Austria 2-1 on Wednesday to qualify for the last 16 in the country’s Euro debut, facing off against England on Monday.

The news dominated the headlines, with only sparse coverage of the looming election.

In an editorial published today, centre-left daily Frettabladid said the campaign “has never really gotten off the ground and mostly been about past issues” such as the Cod Wars and the 2008 financial crisis.

Johannesson “has not succeeded in pointing the debate towards today and the future. Perhaps it is the historian in him that is comfortable discussing the past. Another candidate, David Oddsson, is almost the embodiment of those long-gone events.”

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union also dominated the news on the eve of the election in Iceland, a country that itself applied for EU membership in 2009 but abandoned the bid six years later.

Like most of Iceland’s voters, Johannesson is opposed to EU membership.

The president holds a largely ceremonial position, acting as a guarantor of the constitution and national unity.

The constitution does allow the president to dissolve parliament, as well as veto bills and put them to a referendum, though those powers have rarely been used.

Current president, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, is stepping down at 73 after five straight terms spanning 20 years.

More important legislative elections are due in the autumn.

In opinion polls, Johannesson has held a commanding lead over the other eight candidates since announcing his candidacy in early May.

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