REYKJAVIK (AFP) – He came to power as a white knight riding a wave of anti-bank fury after Iceland’s financial crisis, but Mr Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson was forced to resign as prime minister on Tuesday (April 5) after revelations of hidden offshore holdings.
“Iceland has not been marked by class division in the same way as many other countries, and this is one of the many advantages of living here. But we cannot take it for granted that this will always be the case,” he said in an independence day speech on June 17, 2013.
Elected the country’s youngest-ever prime minister in 2013 at the age of 38, Mr Gunnlaugsson was seen as a rising star of the centre-right Progressive Party, positioning himself as a staunch defender of Icelandic interests against international creditors in the aftermath of the country’s 2008 financial meltdown.
With a strong voter base in Iceland’s agricultural regions, he was seen as a refreshing change from the political old guard, which was accused of having turned a blind eye to reckless investments that had brought down the banking sector and left thousands of Icelanders mired in debt.
But the so-called Panama Papers, a massive leak of financial documents implicating politicians, celebrities and public figures worldwide, showed this week that Mr Gunnlaugsson and his wife Anna Sigurlaug Palsdottir owned an offshore company in the British Virgin Islands and had placed millions of dollars there.
The company called Wintris, which was acquired in 2007, was intended to manage her inheritance from her wealthy businessman father, according to the documents.
Mr Gunnlaugsson insisted that the couple had followed Icelandic law and declared all income and property since 2008.
She, meanwhile, claimed that her husband’s co-ownership of the company until the end of 2009 – six months after he was first elected to Parliament, when he did not declare the holding as required – was merely a bank error.
Mr Gunnlaugsson, after working as a journalist for public broadcaster RUV early in his career, made a name for himself as one of the leaders of InDefence, which was opposed to using public funds to reimburse British and Dutch depositors in failed bank Icesave.
The Panama Papers now reveal that Wintris is listed among the bank’s creditors, with millions of dollars in claims.
Born on March 12, 1975, Mr Gunnlaugsson comes from a political family, his father having also been elected to Parliament for the Progressive Party.
He did well in his studies, and began a PhD at Oxford but did not complete it, becoming too absorbed in politics at home.
He was a member of Parliament for Reykjavik from 2009 to 2013, serving on the foreign affairs committee and on the Icelandic delegation to the European Economic Area and European Free Trade Association.
In 2013, he was elected prime minister and also took on the justice portfolio.
Two years later, with the euro zone economy in a deep slump, his government suspended Iceland’s application to join the European Union, saying the country’s interests were better served outside the bloc.
The bid, launched in 2009 in the wake of the financial crisis, no longer appealed to Icelanders wary of the weak euro and the EU’s common policies on fishing, a key sector of the Icelandic economy.
In the Panama Papers, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) noted, not without irony, that the baby-faced Gunnlaugsson was in 2004 voted Iceland’s third-sexiest man.