Gudni Johannesson faces a rare challenge at the end of his first term from Gudmundur Franklin Jonsson, a former Wall Street broker close to Icelandic nationalists. Opinion polls suggest that the rightwing challenger has little chance of winning.
Iceland voted Saturday in a presidential election, the second European country to hold polls since coronavirus lockdowns were lifted, with incumbent Gudni Johannesson widely expected to win a second four-year mandate.
Since suffering spectacular bank failures in 2008, the volcanic North Atlantic island of 365,000 inhabitants has recovered some economic and political stability, which has worked in the 52-year-old president's favour.
President Johannesson was an early voter, arriving at his polling station in an Alftanes school, not far from the capital Reykjavik, by bicycle.
Presidential election in Iceland today. Our current president arrived on a bike at the polling station. pic.twitter.com/fZ4qtVQGsD— Nanna Rögnvaldardottir (@nannaro) June 27, 2020
"If I get the support of my compatriots, I will continue on the same path," he told AFP.
Johannesson faces a rare challenge at the end of his first term from Gudmundur Franklin Jonsson, a former Wall Street broker close to Icelandic nationalists.
Opinion polls suggest that the rightwing challenger has little chance of winning.
Polling stations for the country's 252,217 voters close at 10:00 pm (2200 GMT).
'Character' key criterion
In this parliamentary republic, the president is largely symbolic, but he or she does have the power to veto legislation or submit it to a referendum.
Several voters told AFP that "character" is a key criterion in choosing a candidate.
"I try to read the character of the person," said Sigurbjörg Hansen, 57. "If the person is honest, that's number one for me."
Voter surveys have since early June have predicted a landslide victory for Johannesson, an independent and former history professor.
The last Gallup poll suggested he had an overwhelming lead of 93.4 percent.
"The (opinion) polls are not elections... But the gap is too big for it to really be bridgeable," University of Iceland history professor Gudmundur Halfdanarson told AFP.
The coronavirus pandemic is not expected to affect voting, as the country has been only mildly infected. It has reported 10 deaths, and currently has around 11 active cases.
Johannesson, who in 2016 became the country's youngest president since independence in 1944, has enjoyed solid support throughout most of his first term, ranging from 76 to 86 percent according to the MMR polling institute.
"He has been seen as a man of the people, not pompous, not very formal.
So Icelanders seem to like him and want to keep him as president," said Olafur Hardarson, a political science professor at the University of Iceland
Jonsson has struggled meanwhile to make inroads with voters.
The 56-year-old challenger has run a hotel in Denmark since 2013 and is a fan of US President Donald Trump.
Jonsson entered politics in 2010 when he founded the rightwing populist movement Haegri graenir.
He wants the president to play a more active role by exercising his right to veto legislation.
That power has only been used three times, by Olafur Grimsson who served from 1996 to 2016.
Grimsson also organised two referendums on compensating foreigners who lost money when an Icelandic bank went under in 2008.
According to experts, however, Iceland's constitution is ambiguous in particular regarding the president's role in calling snap elections and dissolving parliament.
Gudlaugur Jorundsson, 60, said he had voted for Jonsson.
"He won me over because I know he is a candidate for the people of this country and not just for one group of people."
But 47-year-old Ragnhildur Gunnlaugsdottir appeared to be speaking for many when she credited Johannesson for speaking from the heart.
"He has been good for the past four years and I think he is going to be good" again, she concluded.