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In rejection of establishment, Iceland elects historian for president

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(Read caption) The newcomer to politics defeated businesswoman Halla Tomasdottir.

Iceland elected historian Guðni Jóhannesson president on Saturday, the country's first new president in 20 years. Dr. Jóhannesson , a political outsider, entered the campaign following the release of the Panama Papers, which linked many government officials to offshore accounts, as Reuters reported. 

Jóhannesson won 39 percent of the vote, defeating nine other candidates, according to Iceland's daily newspaper, Morgunblaðið. The position of president is largely ceremonial, but does have the power to block legislation, choose a government, and give speeches to put issues on the agenda, as the Sydney Morning Herald's profile of Jóhannesson noted.   

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During the campaign, Jóhannesson spoke in favor of a constitutional clause that would allow citizen-initiated referendums on parliamentary bills, giving Icelanders more of a direct say in the issues affecting them. 

Observers say Jóhannesson's largest advantage in the election was his status as a political outsider, Agence France-Presse reported, as members of the political establishment have overseen a handful of scandals. 

In 2008, the country's leaders were criticized for their role in the financial crisis that led the country into a three-year recession. In April, the publication of the leaked Panama papers revealed a large number of Icelanders, including some top politicians, had stored their assets in tax havens.  

Jóhannesson told the Morning Herald that there was a "total loss of trust" in the political establishment following the financial crash of 2008, which was only heightened by the Panama paper revelations. 

"We had been hoping that we were regaining this trust, so when it was revealed (about) these offshore trusts… there was this resentment, disappointment and even anger," he told the Herald. 

Major protests against then-Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson led to his resignation in April, after the Panama papers showed he had owned an offshore company in a tax haven, Reuters reported. The incumbent president, Ólafur Grímsson, had served five straight terms since 1996 and had been leading the polls until May when he dropped out after it was revealed he also had links to offshore accounts. 

Jóhannesson is seen as a moderate centrist, but has vowed to be "remain independent from the parties and political alliances, to unite people rather than divide them", AFP reported. The two main focuses of his campaign were giving citizen's a greater voice and staying neutral. 

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He beat some candidates with more political experience, such as Davíð Oddsson, a former conservative prime minister and central bank governor, who won only 13 percent of the vote. Halla Tómasdóttir, a businesswoman, finished second with 27.9 percent.

AFP likens Jóhannesson victory to those of other anti-establishment politicians – left, right, and center –  around the world, most notably presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in the United States. Other outsiders who have ridden voter disillusionment to high-profile political positions include Pablo Iglesias in Spain, Beppe Grillo in Italy, and Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipilä.

As an outsider, Johannesson told the Morning Herald he would make a good president. 

"I have never been involved in politics, I am an outsider and the feeling in the country is that we do not need as president somebody who is stepping in from the political arena."


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