The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Iceland ousted one leader named in the Panama Papers, but ended up with another on the list

Bjarni Benediktsson, leader of the conservative Independence Party, is Iceland’s new prime minister. (Halldor Kolbeins/Agence France-Presse)

The Panama Papers — a huge leak of documents detailing the alleged secret offshore holdings of a global elite — were released in April 2016. The leak made headlines all over the world, but its impact was probably most keenly felt in Iceland.

Just two days after the leak appeared, Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson announced his resignation. Documents contained in the leak showed that his wife owned an offshore company with links to some of Iceland’s collapsed banks, a touchy subject in a country brought to the brink of ruin during the 2008 financial crisis.

Thousands of people had taken to the streets demanding that Gunnlaugsson leave office; by some estimates, the crowd represented as much as 6.6 percent of Iceland’s small population.

Now, more than nine months after the Panama Papers first appeared — and two months after a snap election brought a new governing coalition to power — Iceland finally has a full-time replacement for Gunnlaugsson. But despite the public outcry last April, Iceland’s new prime minister was also named in the Panama Papers.

The "Panama Papers" apparently implicate a number of high-profile global figures in potentially illegal financial activities. (Video: Deirdra O'Regan/The Washington Post)

Bjarni Benediktsson, leader of the conservative Independence Party, became Iceland’s new head of government on Tuesday. The former finance minister will head up a coalition with the center-right Reform Party and the centrist Bright Future party.

Benediktsson’s inclusion in the Panama Papers stemmed from the fact that he once had a stake in an offshore investment firm in Seychelles. However, unlike Gunnlaugsson, he refused to resign, even though some polls had suggested a majority of the public thought he should.

In the aftermath of Gunnlaugsson’s resignation, there was widespread speculation that Iceland would see an anti-establishment revolt. The Pirate Party, a political collection of anarchists, hackers and other outsiders, seemed likely to win the Oct. 29 election. “People want real changes and they understand that we have to change the systems, we have to modernize how we make laws,” party leader and former WikiLeaks activist Birgitta Jónsdóttir told The Washington Post.

In the end, the Pirate Party won only half as many votes as the Independence Party, leaving it in third place with just 14.5 percent. Benediktsson later explained that Iceland had taken “a stand against populist ideas.” The country is now expected to pursue the same liberal economic policies that Benediktsson implemented as finance minister, a position he had held since 2013, as well as a referendum on potential European Union membership.

But Benediktsson recently faced further criticism after admitting that his government had not released the results of an investigation into offshore banking ahead of the election.

“To argue, as Bjarni does now, that this would not have had no impact on the outcome of the elections is of course absurd,” Jónsdóttir wrote on Facebook on Monday.

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