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Iceland’s vote: a woman, an eco-warrior and a novice

Reykjavik — Three main candidates are standing in Iceland’s general election but Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir is widely expected to win Saturday as she faces off against two less experienced rivals.

Considered one of the country’s most competent politicians, Sigurdardottir, a 66-year-old homosexual nicknamed Saint Johanna for her relentless defence of social causes, is the first woman to head an Icelandic government.

She was named prime minister on February 1, after the head of the conservative Independence Party, Geir Haarde, presented his government’s resignation in the wake of massive public protests over the country’s economic meltdown late last year.

Sigurdardottir heads an interim government made up of her Social Democrats and the Left Green Movement.

Sporting a fringed silver bob, gold-rimmed glasses and a slender figure, she 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.

"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 majority of Icelanders, 52.6 percent, want her to head the next government, according to a recent poll.

Only 11.5 percent want the job to go to the leader of the Left Greens, Steingrimur Sigfusson, while 25.8 percent favour Bjarni Benediktsson, the new head of the Independence Party.

Sigurdardottir began her working life as an air hostess from 1962-1971, and entered politics in 1978.

She is known for defending her opinions fiercely and during the campaign she has not hidden her goal: to lead Iceland into the European Union as soon as possible and adopt the euro within four years.

Her coalition partner Sigfusson, a 53-year-old former geologist and sports reporter, is in contrast considered a talented public speaker. He is the "backbone" of the Left Green Movement, according to observers.

He was able to draw benefits from the country’s financial crisis and boost his party’s credibility when he took over two powerful portfolios: he is both finance minister and fisheries and agriculture minister in the current government.

Curiously, his pet issues such as environmental protection and whaling have been largely absent from the election campaign, eclipsed by the issue of EU membership.

Sigfusson was elected to parliament for the first time in 1983, and held the position of agriculture minister in 1988 before serving as transport minister until 1991, when the conservatives came to power.

The newcomer to the scene is 39-year-old Bjarni Benediktsson, who was elected the head of the Independence Party less than a month ago to replace Haarde.

But this brown-haired, blue-eyed descendant of Iceland’s biggest political dynasty, who enjoys broad support within his party, is struggling.

"Benediktsson is new — he has not performed very well so far," Kristinsson said.

The Independence Party has been largely blamed for Iceland’s economic crisis, since it served in government from 1991 until early 2009 and oversaw the deregulation of the financial markets in the early 1990s.

"He has a very difficult job and it’s difficult not to sympathise because he is in a very delicate position. I’m not sure anyone else would handle it any better," Kristinsson added.

Benediktsson acknowledged that he faced an uphill battle.

"Obviously since the financial crisis we have lost voters. We are trying to rebuild confidence and support for our policy," he told AFP.