Iceland to appoint gay woman minister to serve as interim prime minister

  • Article by: DAVID STRINGER , Associated Press
  • Updated: January 28, 2009 - 12:17 PM

REYKJAVIK, Iceland - 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.

___

Associated Press Writer Valur Gunnarsson contributed to this report.

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