ELAINE BYRNE in Reykjavik in Irish Times March 8, 2010
SATURDAY’S ICESAVE referendum was resoundingly rejected by 93.2 per cent of Icelanders, with just 1.8 per cent casting their vote in favour of the current €3.9 billion repayment package.
Although severe weather conditions have prevented counting of the hundred or so ballots from Grímsey island, Iceland’s northernmost island on the Arctic Circle, the final turnout is projected to be 62.7 per cent.
President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, responsible for triggering the first-ever referendum in Iceland’s history, said yesterday that “the referendum was not about refusing to pay back the money; the referendum was about doing it on fair terms”.
Icelanders in fact voted on an obsolete referendum question, because better repayment terms have already been agreed in negotiations that are still continuing.
However, a deep public anger about compensating the UK and the Netherlands for depositor losses stemming from the collapse of the Landsbanki bank has given rise to a misunderstanding on the part of some voters that the referendum was about reneging on repayment of the Icesave debts.
Similar scenes to last year’s “kitchenware revolution” were replayed when hundreds gathered outside the Althing, the national parliament, on Saturday and banged pots and pans advocating a rejection of the referendum.
Reflecting hardening public opinion on negotiating any deal, protesters carried placards reading “Parliament of the Street is Better Than Parliament of Defeat” and “In Defence of Homes, Enough is Enough”.
The announcement of preliminary referendum results on the national broadcaster RUV late on Saturday night were met with fireworks in Reykjavik.
The scale of the No vote and the large turnout has surprised most commentators, especially given comments by prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir that she would not actually vote in the referendum, which she described as “meaningless”.
The minister of finance, Steingrimur Sigfusson, said yesterday that negotiations with the Dutch and UK governments would restart shortly. The government, he said, was working to secure the desperately needed $4.6 billion (€3.37 billion) IMF rescue package, currently on hold because of uncertainties surrounding the Icesave repayment.
Mr Sigfusson told The Irish Times that international interest in the Icesave issue was down to the issue of responsibility, and that Iceland was not “unique” in these “historic times”. “Obviously there is a moral aspect here as well and it is easy to understand that people are angry . . . a lot of public money is being used to bail out banks,” he said.
A founding member of the Left-Green Alliance movement, the 55- year-old was appointed as minister for finance just over a year ago when the centre-right government fell from office in the immediate aftermath of Iceland’s economic collapse.
“In the end we have to learn something from this expensive experience,” Mr Sigfusson said.
He also urged caution, suggesting that the Icelandic experience should not be “overexaggerated . . . this is not a phenomenon that can be voted out of the world. Icesave still exists.”
Describing himself as the “happiest man on Earth when this is finally over”, Mr Sigfusson said Iceland might need to have a debate on what type of parliamentary system it wished to have. He did not believe that it was practical that a president “can step in over and over again” to continuously put legislative decisions agreed by parliament to referendum.
On a popular political television show yesterday, there appeared to be a growing consensus about a national government comprised of all political parties.