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Davíð Oddsson


In office
April 30, 1991 – September 15, 2004
President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir (until 1996)
Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (from 1996)
Preceded by Steingrímur Hermannsson
Succeeded by Halldór Ásgrímsson

In office
27 May 1982 – 16 July 1991
Preceded by Egill Skúli Ingibergsson
Succeeded by Markús Örn Antonsson

Born 17 January 1948 (1948-01-17) (age 61)
Reykjavík, Iceland
Political party Independence Party

Davíð Oddsson (pronounced [ˈtaːvið ˈɔtsɔn]) (born 17 January 1948) is an Icelandic politician and the longest-serving Prime Minister of Iceland, holding office from 1991 to 2004. He also served as Foreign Minister from 2004 to 2005. Previously, he was Mayor of Reykjavík from 1982 to 1991, and he chaired the board of governors of the Central Bank of Iceland from 2005 to 2009. The collapse of Iceland's banking system led to vocal demands for his resignation both by members of the Icelandic public and by Icelandic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir,[1] which resulted in him being replaced as head of the Central Bank in 2009. In September 2009 he was hired as the editor of Morgunblaðið, one of Iceland's largest newspapers.[2]

Contents

Biography

Early years

Davíð Oddsson was born in Reykjavík. His father was a medical doctor, and his mother a secretary. His parents were not married, and he was brought up in his maternal grandfather’s home in Selfoss, a small town in the south of Iceland, until his grandfather died. He then moved with his mother and grandmother to Reykjavík. He took an early interest in acting and attended an acting school for a while. He also attended the gymnasium Menntaskólinn í Reykjavík where he graduated in the spring of 1970. Davíð married Ástríður Thorarensen, a nurse; they have one son, Þorsteinn who is a judge at the district court at Akureyri. The next six years, Davíð read law at the University of Iceland, working almost full-time as well. He was assistant to the director of a small theatre (now the Borgarleikhúsið) for a while, and produced, with two friends (Þórarinn Eldjárn and Hrafn Gunnlaugsson), a popular radio comedy show for two years; he was for a while a political commentator at the newspaper Morgunblaðið, and the director of publication of Almenna bókafélagið, a conservative publishing house. He had been elected to the Municipal Council in Reykjavík in 1974, for the Independence Party.

Mayor of Reykjavík (1982–1991)

Perlan, a revolving restaurant set on water tanks on a Reykjavik hill, and built on the initiative of Davíð Oddsson

Davíð Oddsson was a member of a group of young conservative-libertarians within the Independence Party who felt that the party should support more strongly attempts to extend economic freedom in the heavily regulated Icelandic economy. The group included Þorsteinn Pálsson, Geir H. Haarde, Jón Steinar Gunnlaugsson, Kjartan Gunnarsson, Magnús Gunnarsson, Brynjólfur Bjarnason and Hannes Hólmsteinn Gissurarson, and they published the magazine Eimreiðin from 1972 to 1975; in the following years they followed with interest what was happening in the United Kingdom under Margaret Thatcher and in the United States under Ronald Reagan; they also read books and articles by and about Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek and James M. Buchanan, who all visited Iceland in the early 1980s and whose messages of limited governments, privatisation, and liberalisation of the economy had a wide impact. Davíð got a chance to further his ideals when, in 1982, the Independence Party, under his leadership, regained the majority in the Reykjavík Municipal Council which it had lost four years earlier to three left-wing parties. Davíð swiftly reduced the number of Council members from 21 to 15, and merged the largest fishing firm in Reykjavik which belonged to the municipality and had been a huge burden, with a private fishing firm and then sold off the municipality’s assets in the new firm, Grandi, now one of the biggest fishing firms in Iceland. Incidentally, the director of Grandi, Brynjólfur Bjarnason, who oversaw what was Davíð’s first privatisation, later became the director of the Icelandic Telephone Company which turned out to be Davíð’s last privatisation in government (2005). As Mayor of Reykjavík, Davíð was behind the building of Reykjavík City Hall by The Pond in Reykjavík, and of Perlan, a revolving restaurant over the old water tanks in Öskjuhlíð. Despite his libertarian leanings, Davíð also supported the Reykjavík City Theatre, in particular the building of a new theatre house which was opened in 1989. In the nine years when Davíð was Mayor of Reykjavík, a new district, Grafarvogur, was built and a new shopping area around the shopping mall Kringlan. A forceful and uncompromising Mayor of Reykjavík, Davíð was much-criticized by the left-wing opposition in the Municipal Council.

Alliance with the Social Democrats (1991–1995)

In 1983, Davíð Oddsson’s old friend and ally, Þorsteinn Pálsson, had been elected leader of the Independence Party, and in 1989 Davíð had been elected deputy leader, or Vice-Chairman of the Party. After Þorsteinn Pálsson had to resign as Prime Minister in 1988, after falling out with the leaders of his two coalition parties, there was a widespread feeling in the party that its leadership should be changed, and much pressure on Davíð to stand against Þorsteinn. This he did in 1991, and became leader of the Independence Party. Under Davíð Oddsson’s leadership, in the parliamentary elections of 1991, the Independence Party regained most of the support it had lost in 1987 when it had been severely weakened because of a split in its ranks. In record time, Davíð formed a coalition government with the social democrats, Alþýðuflokkurinn, whose leader, Jón Baldvin Hannibalsson, became Minister of Foreign Affairs. Jón Baldvin and Davíð jointly decided that Iceland should become the first state to recognise the reinstatement of the sovereignty and independence of the three Baltic countries, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, after the fall of Soviet Union.

Davíð’s government inherited a huge budget deficit and a burden of unproductive investments; much money had been spent on fish farming for example, with little result. Inflationary pressures were also building up, while some fish stocks in the Icelandic waters were being depleted. The budget deficit was turned into a surplus in 1996, not least because of the close cooperation between Davíð and Friðrik Sophusson, the Minister of Finance, who had also been a prominent young libertarian. There was a surplus almost continuously since then, which has been used to reduce the public debt, and also to reform the pension system, which is now almost wholly self-supporting, while some small companies were privatised. Monetary constraints were imposed by making the Central Bank largely independent of any political pressures. It also helped the Davíð Oddsson government that there was a consensus between the labour unions and the employers that the rampant inflation of the 1980s, with huge, but largely meaningless, nominal wage increases, could not go on; therefore, in 1990, the unions and the employers had signed a “National Accord”, whereby wage increased would be moderate, and government would be assisted in bringing down inflation. From 1991, inflation in Iceland was on a level with the neighbouring countries.

Alliance with the Progressive Party (1995–1999)

Davíð Oddsson at a birthday party 19 February 2003 with Kjartan Gunnarsson, the executive director of the Independence Party, and one of Davíð’s closest friends and advisers

In 1994, the Social Democratic Party split, and as a result they suffered a huge loss in the 1995 parliamentary elections. While in theory the coalition government maintained its majority, it only consisted of one seat. Davíð Oddsson therefore decided to form a coalition with the Progressive Party. The leader of the Progressive Party, Halldór Ásgrímsson, became Minister of Foreign Affairs. In the new government, privatisation was continued on a much greater scale than before: a big and important chain of fish processing plants was sold; part-public or public investment funds were merged and sold as a private investment bank; the two commercial banks under government control were sold in a few stages; The two coalition parties accepted the loud demand by many people that a charge would be imposed on the holders of fishing quotas.

Davíð’s two governments were staunch allies of the United States and strongly in support of NATO, of which Iceland is a founding member. He firmly supported the actions undertaken by the U.S. and its allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, taking much criticism from the Icelandic Left. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, there has been some uncertainty about whether the United States defence force could or should remain in Iceland, having been invited there in 1951, at the height of the Cold War. Davíð has not been enthusiastic about joining the European Union.

The latter Davíð Oddsson government (1995-2004) embarked on a course of tax cuts. It cut the corporate income tax to 18%; it abolished the net wealth tax; it lowered the personal income tax and inheritance tax. This combination of opening up of the economy, fiscal and monetary stabilisation created an entrepreneurial climate in Iceland that spurred record economic growth in the country, with the real average income of individual households increasing by more than 17%.

Alliance with Progressive Party (1999–2004)

Davíð Oddsson with George W. Bush in the White House, July 6, 2004

As a young man, Davíð Oddsson authored or co-authored several plays for the stage and for television. During his days as political leader, he pursued his literary interests as well, and in 1997, he published a collection of short stories, Nokkrir góðir dagar án Guðnýjar, which became a best-seller in Iceland. Davíð celebrated his 50th birthday at a huge reception in Perlan, paid for by the Independence Party, and his friends published a festschrift of more than 500 pages where many Icelandic writers, scholars and politicians contributed papers. In the 1999 parliamentary elections, Davíð’s Independence Party retained strong support, despite the attempt by a former government minister of the Party, Sverrir Hermannsson, to establish a splinter party: the minister had been made director of the National Bank of Iceland and had had to resign because of financial irregularities. In 2002, Davíð published another collection of short stories, Stolið frá höfundi stafrófsins, which was also well-received.

However, in that same year, 2002, there began a controversy in Iceland about the company Baugur, owned by the entrepreneurs Jóhannes Jónsson and his son, Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson. A giant on the Icelandic scene, Baugur controlled the majority of the retailing business in Iceland: in parliament, the then-leader of the social democratic party Össur Skarphéðinsson called for a closer supervision on possible monopoly pricing, specifically mentioning this company. Davíð concurred. In the summer of 2002, the Icelandic police raided the headquarters of Baugur, after a disgruntled former employee in their American operations had produced what he claimed was evidence of financial irregularities. The two main owners of Baugur did not take kindly to this and accused Davíð of orchestrating a campaign against them. They bought a newspaper, Fréttablaðið, which is sent free of charge into every household in Iceland. The paper opposed Davíð in the bitterly fought 2003 parliamentary election when there was talk of corruption, bribery and abuse of the police. In a speech on February 9 2003, the main spokesperson of the Social Democratic Alliance, Ingibjörg Sólrún Gísladóttir, suggested that Davíð might be responsible for the tax investigation of businessman Jón Ólafsson, then owner of a private television station, and also for the police raid on Baugur. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, she asked: "Are you a friend of the Prime Minister or are you not; that is the question".

Foreign Minister (2004–2005)

Davíð Oddsson with Professor Ragnar Árnason, a leading free market economist in Iceland, at a Mont Pelerin Society meeting in Iceland 20 August 2005

After the 2003 elections, Davíð Oddsson and the leader of his coalition party, Halldór Ásgrímsson, Minister of Foreign Affairs, agreed that Davíð should remain Prime Minister until 15 September 2004, at which time Halldór would become Prime Minister, and that the Independence Party would, in exchange for relinquishing the Prime Minister’s post, gain an additional ministry in the government from its partner. In 2004 the Davíð Oddsson government became embroiled in controversy, as Davíð introduced a bill which would have made it impossible for large private companies to own more than 15% in any one media, and under which newspapers and television stations could not be owned by the same companies. Davíð argued that this was to prevent concentration of the media in the hands a few people, and to enable the media to remain independent and critical not only towards politicians, but also towards financial moguls. His critics maintained, however, that the proposal was directly aimed at Baugur which Davíð was, they said, obviously regarding as a political enemy. By then, Baugur had bought another newspaper, the television station from Jón Ólafsson and a few radio stations, and controlled more than half of the media market. In a much-softened version, parliament passed the media bill proposed by the government. But then, for the first time in the history of the Icelandic Republic, in the summer of 2004, the president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, refused to sign the bill into law. Davíð criticized this, pointing out that the director of the television station formerly owned by Jón Ólafsson and recently bought by Baugur, Sigurður G. Guðjónsson, had been Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson’s campaign manager in his first presidential campaign, and that Ólafur’s daughter was employed by Baugur. However, Baugur enjoys considerable goodwill in Iceland because their shops offer lower prices than are to be found elsewhere, while their owners are seen as an embodiment of an Icelandic dream of rags-to-riches; many also agreed that the media bill seemed to be a part of a political duel rather than an attempt to make general law. The conclusion of a long struggle was that Davíð Oddsson withdrew the bill instead of holding a national referendum on it, as required by the Icelandic constitution if the president refuses to sign a bill into law.

During his almost 14 years as Prime Minister, Davíð became acquainted with, or friend of, many Western leaders, including Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Václav Klaus and Silvio Berlusconi. He has occasionally attended the meetings of the Bilderberg Group, and he has read a paper to the Mont Pelerin Society. But he only served as Minister of Foreign Affairs for one year. In the autumn of 2005, Davíð announced that he would leave politics. He said that he felt that the time had come for a new generation to take over. His close ally over many years, Geir H. Haarde, replaced him, both as leader of the Independence Party and Minister of Foreign Affairs. A probable contribution to this decision was a short, but dramatic, bout with cancer, soon after the crisis over the failure of the media bill. He was, however, fully cured.

Central Bank Governor (2005–2009)

In October 2005, Davíð was appointed the Governor of the Central Bank of Iceland. Following the collapse of the Icelandic banking system in the autumn of 2008, the nation was forced to ask for financial help from the International Monetary Fund and friendly nations. Except for a few friends, the Faeroe Islands being the first followed by unlikely but solid friends like Poland that help has not materialized. Some blame the collapse of the system on external factors, mainly a structural flaw in the EEA Agreement, and the ruthlessness of the British government which put Icelandic financial institutions on the list of terrorist organisations.[3] Others blame it on the economic policies pursued by the Independence Party under Davíð’s leadership, such as market liberalisation and privatisation.[1] Consequently, there were public calls for Davíð’s dismissal.[4][5] Following protests outside the Central Bank, the new Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir requested that Davíð and his two fellow governors resign. He refused this request[6]. On February 26, 2009, following changes to the laws concerning the Central Bank, Davíð was ousted from the bank and replaced by Norwegian economist Svein Harald Øygard.

In April 2009, Davíð stated that Iceland needs to investigate the “unusual and unconventional loans” given by the banks to senior politicians during the years before the crisis.[7]

Editor of Morgunblaðið (2009-present)

On September 24, 2009, the new owners of Morgunblaðið announced that Davíð Oddsson and Haraldur Johannessen, former editor of business paper Viðskiptablaðið, had been hired as editors of the paper.[8] The decision was announced in the wake of much speculation and rumours about who would be the new editor after the dismissal of the previous editor, Ólafur Þ. Stephensen.[9]

References

  1. ^ a b http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123419878357164233.html?mod=article-outset-box
  2. ^ http://www.mbl.is/mm/frettir/innlent/2009/09/24/david_og_haraldur_ritstjorar/ 24. September 2009
  3. ^ http://online.wsj.com/article/SB122695569056034695.html?mod=article-outset-box
  4. ^ http://www.ruv.is/heim/frettir/frett/store64/item234559/
  5. ^ http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123032660060735767.html
  6. ^ http://www.icenews.is/index.php/2009/02/09/david-oddsson-just-will-not-quit/
  7. ^ Iceland banking inquiry finds murky geysers runs deep by Rowena Mason, The Telegraph, April 14, 2009.
  8. ^ http://mbl.is/mm/frettir/innlent/2009/09/24/david_og_haraldur_ritstjorar/ mbl.is - 24.9.2009
  9. ^ http://eyjan.is/blog/2009/09/21/david-oddsson-verdur-ritstjori-morgunbladsins-stjorn-arvakurs-fundar-a-midvikudaginn/ Eyjan - 21.9.2009
  • May 2000 profile of Davíð Oddsson in the London Spectator, by Kristján Guy Burgess
  • April 2001 profile of Davíð Oddsson in the Charlemagne column of The Economist
  • December 2008 article from the Economist that mentions Davíð Oddsson [1]
  • Wall Street Journal article on Davíð Oddsson's role in the Icelandic collapse [2]
  • Independent article on resignation of Geir Haarde, mentions that Davíð Oddsson is real target of Icelandic protest [3]

External links

Preceded by
Egill Skúli Ingibergsson
Mayor of Reykjavík
1982–1991
Succeeded by
Markús Örn Antonsson
Preceded by
Þorsteinn Pálsson
Chairman of the Independence Party
1991–2005
Succeeded by
Geir H. Haarde
Preceded by
Steingrímur Hermannsson
Prime Minister of Iceland
1991–2004
Succeeded by
Halldór Ásgrímsson
Preceded by
Halldór Ásgrímsson
Minister for Foreign Affairs of Iceland
2004–2005
Succeeded by
Geir H. Haarde
Preceded by
Birgir Ísleifur Gunnarsson
Chairman of the Board of Governors
of the Central Bank of Iceland

2005–2009
Succeeded by
Svein Harald Øygard

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