Thousands of Icelanders took to the streets to express their anger against the government after leaked documents suggested that Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson allegedly benefited from offshore investment accounts in tax havens.
Police erected barricades around the parliament in Reykjavik to protect lawmakers from protesters who were beating drums and pounding the makeshift wall surrounding the legislature. At least 4,000 people had gathered by around 5 p.m. local time, police estimated. A few hours earlier, opposition lawmakers put forward a motion of no confidence and called on the prime minister to resign.
“I’m here to show the authorities my disrespect,” said Aslaug Marinosdottir, an administrator who joined the protests after work. “It is unacceptable that the people that govern the country and enact laws can’t seem to follow the rules of society they create themselves and want the public to follow.”
Anders Clausen, a mathematician, said he was there “to protest the double standards of our politicians. I want parliamentary elections and the resignation of Sigmundur David and his cabinet.”
The confidence vote may take place on Thursday, according to Birgitta Jonsdottir, a spokeswoman for the Pirate Party, which brought the motion. Gunnlaugsson, who rules with the backing of a party led by his Finance Minister Bjarni Benediktsson, has so far refused to step down. Instead, the 41-year-old premier is urging parliament to approach the matter “calmly and honestly,” and told lawmakers he has never hidden funds in tax havens.
Benediktsson, who was also revealed to have held a stake in an offshore company, has said he disclosed everything to the Icelandic tax authorities at the time. The company, which was formed to buy property in Dubai, didn’t make the intended purchases and was later de-registered, he said.
But the opposition argues it’s no longer feasible for the current government to continue.
Filling the square in front of parliament “is our only hope — our only hope” in getting rid of Gunnlaugsson, said Jonsdottir of the Pirate Party, which polls show would win the most votes in an election.
More people turned up for Monday’s demonstrations than gathered in 2009, when protesters beating kitchen pots were part of a wave of political upheaval that forced then Prime Minister Geir Haarde to step down. “It’s incredible to say but nothing changed here during the Pot and Pan Revolution until the protests had become very powerful,” Jonsdottir said.
Gunnlaugsson, who started his four-year term in 2013, is one of a handful of world leaders to be singled out after the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, or ICIJ, uncovered that he and his wife had an offshore account to manage an inheritance. His wife, Anna Sigurlaug Palsdottir, previously revealed the account in a Facebook posting in March after the premier was questioned about the money.
“It’s been clear since before I began participating in politics that my wife had a considerable amount of money,” Gunnlaugsson wrote on his website. “Some people find that in itself very negative. I can’t do much about that because I’m neither going to divorce my wife nor demand that she relinquish her family inheritance.”
His wife’s holdings included bonds in Iceland’s three failed banks, whose 2008 collapse brought the country to its knees, forcing it to seek a bailout and to shut itself off from international capital flows by imposing currency restrictions. The leaked documents therefore also raise questions about Gunnlaugsson’s role in overseeing negotiations with the banks’ creditors.
According to the ICIJ report, Palsdottir says she has always paid all her taxes owed on the Wintris account, which was confirmed by her tax firm, KPMG. ICIJ cited a leak covering documents spanning leaders and businesses across the globe from 1977 to 2015 from Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca, a top creator of shell companies that has branches in Hong Kong, Miami, Zurich and more than 35 other places around the world.
Wintris “is a company in my wife’s ownership and it has always paid taxes and been declared in our tax returns,” Gunnlaugsson told parliament on Monday.
In an interview with broadcaster TV2 earlier in the day, Gunnlaugsson said he plans to continue in office in order to bring to completion efforts to see Iceland through the final stages of its exit from capital controls. “The progress has been great and it’s very important that the government complete its tasks,” he said.
The premier was one of 12 current and former world leaders to have offshore holdings revealed in the leak that has come to be called the Panama Papers. Offshore holdings can be legal, though documents show some banks and law firms failed to follow requirements to check their clients are not involved in crimes.
Gunnlaugsson’s coalition would stand to lose an election were one held today. A March MMR poll showed his government, which comprises the Progressive and Independence parties, getting only 36.2 percent backing. Meanwhile the opposition Pirate Party, which among other things targets splitting up the investment and retail operations of banks, would get 37 percent. Gunnlaugsson’s coalition currently holds 40 of the 63 seats in Iceland’s parliament.
“I don’t know what I want to happen,” Marinosdottir said at the site of the protests. “For the short term the government needs to resign. For the long term we need radical changes. What they are, I don’t know. If I did, I’d be in politics.”