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Election in Iceland: Campaigning with nappies in hand

  • 29 June 2012
  • From the section UK

As Icelanders go to the polls on Saturday to decide on their next president, the sitting candidate faces a challenge from an unlikely contender - a 37-year-old mother of three, with a newborn baby.

The baby is called Sky, which means "cloud". It's only a nick-name, a stop-gap sobriquet because her parents have many other things to think about before they decide what to call their new child.

"It's just until her mother has time to choose one," says the baby's father, Svavar Halldorsson.

Admittedly it's not unusual for babies to be nameless for up to six months in Iceland. What's different in this case, is that Sky's mother is too busy to decide on a name because she's running for president.

While some mothers of a newborn would struggle to get out of the house first thing, Thora Arnorsdottir leaves her modest home in a suburb of Reykjavik at 08:30 to hit the campaign trail, four-week-old Sky in tow.

Wedding by the wayside

It's not Thora who is carrying the baby, but her partner of eight years, Svavar, with whom she has two other children, aged six and four.

She is also stepmother to his three older children from a previous relationship. Ms Arnorsdottir and Mr Halldorsson aren't married yet. She says they thought about tying the knot this summer, but she's been rather busy, so that plan has fallen by the wayside.

Ms Arnorsdottir already had a high-profile job as a television reporter in Iceland where she is a household name, when, two months ago, while heavily pregnant, she announced she was running to be the country's head of state.

As she criss-crosses the barren Icelandic countryside trying to reach voters outside the capital, Thora Arnorsdottir mostly breastfeeds Sky in the campaign minibus.

Ms Arnorsdottir acknowledges that some voters will think she's trying to take on too much but she's undaunted.

"It's the most natural thing in the world to have a baby," she says in fluent English.

"She comes everywhere with us. We've always divided duties at home: we've both been working in full-time jobs and Icelandic women have always worked no matter how many children they have and that won't change. It doesn't matter what the job is or if they're called 'president'."

Ms Arnorsdottir decided to run after receiving requests from the public.

Thora Arnorsdottir with husband Svavar Halldorsson
Sky's the limit: Thora Arnorsdottir with partner and their yet-to-be named baby

There were a few at first, then an avalanche of letters from people encouraging her to stand against the incumbent, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, who is hoping to win a record fifth term.

During his 16 years in office, President Grimsson has been virtually unopposed. A serious challenge to an incumbent president is unheard-of here.

But Ms Arnorsdottir believes he has got tired of being the guardian of Icelandic culture and has changed the role of president from largely being one of a figurehead, to being too political.

Indeed, following the Icelandic banking crash in 2008, Mr Grimsson drew on previously unused presidential powers to veto the Icelandic parliament's controversial Icesave legislation outlining plans to repay £3.1bn to Britain and the Netherlands for debts incurred during the financial crisis.

He put it to the taxpayers to decide, in not one, but two referendums, and Icelanders voted against it. For that, he remains very popular with voters who believe he's looking out for them and not simply doing the bidding of parliament.

Mr Grimsson is also seen by many as a safe bet because he's established, while Thora Arnorsdottir, however well known from the television, lacks experience.

In the wake of the banking crash, many of the male politicians in Iceland were voted out and replaced by women.

The current prime minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, is a gay woman with children from her previous marriage to a man; the speaker of parliament is female and the first female bishop was inaugurated last Sunday.

Viable contender

So Iceland is progressive when it comes to women in top positions.

Indeed the country has already had a female president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, who was the world's first democratically elected female head of state in 1980.

"It might sound big news in other countries," says President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson who refuses to comment on the campaign per se, or on his rival, "but so far, we've achieved a state in Iceland where it's not particularly remarkable that a woman holds high office."

Indeed, Icelanders aren't particularly in awe of Ms Arnorsdottir for being a young mother of three with a newborn baby.

Her supporters back her because she is the first viable contender to Mr Grimsson in nearly two decades.

Thora Arnorsdottir
Thora Arnorsdottir is a household name thanks to her career as a television reporter

"I watch my children and I just think I want to do what I can to influence the society they're growing up in," Ms Arnorsdottir says.

"Which values we are building, what kind of atmosphere there is. Talking with the elderly, they say 'You've got three kids? I had 10!'.

"I've always worked hard and even though this job is being a president, it doesn't change anything. I think the challenge is a matter of getting used to the unusual idea."

If Ms Arnorsdottir wins, her 42-year-old partner will become a house husband. He will relinquish his career, also as a television journalist (he and Ms Arnorsdottir met on location).

"They tell me I'm a role model," Mr Halldorsson says as he expertly holds the baby while Ms Arnorsdottir meets people in an old people's home on another campaign stop.

"I'm happy with that. It doesn't make me a lesser man. I can change diapers and still watch the football, cook and fix the car."

On her 17-hour day campaigning outside Reykjavik, Ms Arnorsdottir drives past the Snaefellsnes Glacier, renowned for its mystical powers.

People living nearby claim it is one of the earth's few energy sources. If she were looking out of the minibus window, Ms Arnorsdottir may have been hoping for some of that mystical power to help trump her rival and some of the energy to do the job if she succeeds at the polls on Saturday.

Her critics say her campaign has been weak because she hasn't taken a stand on any particular issues or made clear why voters should choose her rather than Mr Grimsson, other than she wants to be a unifying figure for the country.

She admits it would be radical if she were elected but, as history has shown, Icelanders can surprise at the ballot box.

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