'Saint Johanna', Iceland's gay feminist PM


Reykjavik - Social Democrat Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, who swept to victory in Iceland's snap election this weekend, is a gay feminist seen as one of the country's most skillful politicians.

"Our time has come," the 66-year-old Sigurdardottir told cheering supporters in her victory speech after Saturday's general election, called just seven months after Iceland's economic meltdown.

Nicknamed "Saint Johanna" for her relentless defence of social causes, she was appointed prime minister on February 1 after the previous government led by the conservative Independence Party resigned amid massive protests over the financial sector crash that pushed Iceland to the brink of bankruptcy.

"Nobody knows exactly why but she has the confidence of the population. She is not a very good speaker but her authenticity and credibility explain that people like her," political scientist Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson told AFP.

A former social affairs minister in the previous coalition, Sigurdardottir has since 2007 repeatedly received the highest approval rating of all cabinet ministers despite a reputation for being firm and at times impatient, according to observers.

She left no doubt about her top priority during the election campaign: to lead Iceland into the European Union as soon as possible and adopt the euro currency within four years, even though the issue splits Icelanders down the middle.

Supporters see the EU as a safe haven from global turbulence, while opponents fear interference from Brussels, in particular in the country's fisheries industry.

Sigurdardottir has also vowed to restructure and re-privatise the banking sector that lies in tatters after the three biggest banks were taken over by the state in October.

Values such as "justice and equality will be the guidelines" of her coalition, she said on election day.

Sporting a fringed silver bob and gold-rimmed glasses, Sigurdardottir is slender and stylish.

Even though she is the world's first openly gay head of government in modern times her sexuality has never been an issue, and while she has never hidden it she guards her private life closely.

Many Icelanders only learned that she was a lesbian when she was tipped to become prime minister in February.

She married her companion, Jonina Ledsdottir, a 54-year-old writer, in 2002.

She has two adult sons from a previous marriage.

Sigurdardottir's first job was as a flight attendant, from 1962 to 1971, before she stepped into the political fray and became a member of parliament in 1978.

She became social affairs minister in July 1987, a post she held until June 1994. She resumed the position again after a general election in May 2007, and held it until the Independence Party-Social Democrat coalition resigned on January 26.

Prior to that, she served as a member of the board of the Commercial Workers Union from 1976 until 1983, and was vice chairman of the Social Democratic Party from 1984 until 1993.

In 1994 she failed in her bid for the party leadership, saying at the time: "My time will come."

The next year, she left the Social Democrats to form her own left-wing party Thjodvak, which in English means "National Movement", and won four seats in the 1995 elections. Her party then merged with the Social Democrats in 1997. - AFP


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