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Lesbian named to head Iceland's government
Lesbian named to head Iceland's government
by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Iceland's president has asked Johanna Sigurdardottir, the openly Lesbian Minister of Social Affairs and Social Security, to form a new government after former Prime Minister Geir Haarde resigned on January 23. If she is able to assemble a majority coalition, she will become the world's first Lesbian head of government and Iceland's first woman prime minister. Iceland previously elected the world's first woman president, Vigdis Finnbogadottir, in 1980. She served four terms, retiring in 1996.

Iceland is a parliamentary democracy in which the prime minister must have the support of a majority of the 63 members of the Althing (Parliament) in order to remain at the head of the government. Sigurdardottir is expected to have the support of 34: 18 members of her own Social Democratic Alliance; nine members of the Left-Greens, who are expected to form part of the government; and seven members of the Progressive Party who will support her government with their votes, but not name ministers to the cabinet.

Sigurdardottir was first elected to the Althing in 1978, after a career in Iceland's trade unions. She has served as deputy speaker of the Althing in 1979 and 1983-1984, and as minister of social affairs in four separate cabinets, from 1987 till 1994. She returned to the cabinet in 2007 when her party agreed to enter a coalition government. Sigurdardottir's ministry is charged with managing housing, gender equality, employment issues, immigrants' issues, and disability.

A Gallup poll taken in December 2008 found 73% approval of her actions as a minister, more than any other member of the Cabinet. She was also the only minister to have improved her approval ratings over 2008, in spite of Iceland's economic and political collapse.

Sigurdardottir's partner is author and playwright Jonina Leosdottir. Iceland recognizes "Registered Partnerships" for same-sex couples, which gives them the same rights, benefits, and responsibilities as marriage. The law was passed in June 2006 with the support of all the parties in the Althing. Only one conservative member of the governing Independence Party voted against the measure.

Sigurdardottir has two sons, Sigurdur Egill, born in 1972, and David Steinar, born in 1977. Leosdottir also has a son, Gunnar Hrafn, born in 1981.

Former Prime Minister Geir Haarde, who resigned last Friday, took office in June 2006. He governed in coalition with Sigurdardottir's Social Democrats since May 2007. As leader of the right-wing Independence Party, Haarde supported free market "reforms" and deregulation of Iceland's previously socialist economic structure.

The Independence Party has held power in Iceland since 1991, either alone or in coalition with smaller parties. While their free market policies were credited with turning Iceland into an economic powerhouse, they have also been blamed for Iceland's recent economic collapse.

Iceland's economic boom of the 1990s was fueled by heavy and unregulated lending. In September 2008 all three of the country's major banks collapsed due to difficulties in refinancing short-term debt. This problem was complicated by the fact that many British and German depositors had accounts in Icelandic banks, leading to a crisis in Iceland's relations with the European Union.

By the end of 2008, Iceland's external debt was estimated to be 50 billion Euros, while its entire 2007 GDP was only 8.5 billion Euros. Losses due to the collapse of Iceland's banking system already exceed 75% of the country's 2007 GDP.

Since the bank collapse last fall, the Independence Party has had to deal with plummeting popularity as well as economic crisis. This month, the government itself collapsed just as suddenly as Iceland's banks did.

Clashes between police and anti-government demonstrators were reported on Thursday, January 22. The same day, government spokesperson Thorgerdur Gunnarsdottir told the Althing that the government would call new elections later in the year, contradicting Prime Minister Haarde's long-held position that his government would remain in power until 2011.

Haarde, who has been suffering from esophageal cancer, resigned the next day, Friday January 23. Commerce Minister Bjorgvin Sigurdsson fired the director of the Financial Supervisory Authority, Iceland's equivalent of the US Federal Reserve Bank, on January 25, and resigned the same day. The next day, the remaining government ministers informed President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson that negotiations on continuing the coalition government had broken down.

Normally the president would then ask the leader of one of the Althing's political parties to try to assemble a majority coalition. However, the leader of Iceland's second largest party - the Social Democrats - Foreign Minister Ingubjorg Solrun Gisladottir, is herself suffering from a benign brain tumor. Therefore, the president asked Social Democrat Sigurdardottir to form a new government. She will hold talks with other political parties to discuss government policies and the distribution of cabinet seats, and is expected to assemble a majority in the Althing.

Iceland is a country of about 320,000 people. It has no standing army, but it does maintain a Coast Guard and "Crisis Response Units." Icelanders typically use patronymics rather than family names. Johanna's father was named Sigurdur, therefore she is Johanna Sigurdardottir. The president of Iceland's father was named Grim, therefore he is Olafur Ragnar Grimsson.

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