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Panama Papers looms large as Iceland votes for president

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Iceland goes to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president, with voters hoping the country can turn over a new leaf after the "Panama Papers" scandal tainted part of the political elite.

[REYKJAVIK] Iceland goes to the polls on Saturday to elect a new president, with voters hoping the country can turn over a new leaf after the "Panama Papers" scandal tainted part of the political elite.

A tranquil country better known for its breathtaking landscapes than its politics, Iceland made headlines around the world in April when angry masses protested in the streets for days to demand the resignation of their prime minister, implicated in the scandal over offshore accounts.

The prime minister ultimately stepped down and legislative elections are due in the autumn. In the meantime, the country will elect a new head of state on Saturday, in a single round of voting.

Nine candidates are in the running to succeed Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, who is stepping down at 73 after five straight terms spanning 20 years.

Two candidates have dominated the campaign: Gudni Johannesson, a 47-year-old historian, academic, and political commentator with no party affiliation or political experience, and David Oddsson, a 68-year-old former prime minister and central bank chief.

Before the start of campaigning, Icelanders only knew Mr Johannesson as a political analyst. But he quickly emerged as the frontrunner, leading in opinion polls from the start.

The most recent survey, a Gallup poll from June 15, credited him with 50.9 per cent of votes, almost 35 points ahead of Mr Oddsson, his closest rival.

Mr Oddsson, who served as Conservative prime minister from 1991 to 2004 and central bank governor from 2005 to 2009, will forever be associated with the excesses of the Icelandic banking boom that led to the country's devastating 2008 financial crisis.

"They are representatives of different times. Oddsson belongs to the old conflict politics" while Mr Johannesson "puts emphasis on presenting himself as a neutral candidate," Gretar Eythorsson, a political science professor at the University of Akureyri, told AFP.

Mr Johannesson's calm, conciliatory tone and stated desire to restore Icelanders' faith in the political system has appealed to voters.

The analyst has also vowed to modernise political life and give voters more of a voice, by, among other things, introducing citizen-initiated referendums.

Mr Oddsson's campaign has meanwhile been more combative and "is all about trying to harass Johannesson and find weak spots," says Prof Eythorsson.

"That effort has at times gone quite far and it is obvious that Johannesson has a few times had to control himself under the fiercest attacks." Sigurdur Ragnarsson, a 49-year-old voter, told AFP he backed Mr Oddsson.

"I think it is sensible to vote for a candidate with his experience.

"Iceland is still dealing with the aftermath of the crash," he said.

But many others are loathe to see Mr Oddsson return to power and would rather see a fresh face like Mr Johannesson, an academic who embodies a break with the tainted establishment.

"I think he is the future, not the past like Oddsson for example, and I think he has a healthy view on the role the office holds in this country. I simply trust him to do well," said 33-year-old Anna Sigurdardottir.

In Iceland, the president is supposed to be non-partisan and act as a guarantor of the constitution and national unity. He also represents the country in some diplomatic functions.

Despite polls crediting him with a near certain win, Mr Johannesson is keeping a cool head.

"I am, and have been, very grateful for the great support I have enjoyed, but I know as a sport enthusiast that you can never celebrate victory until the match is over," Mr Johannesson told AFP.

AFP