- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2009

REYKJAVIK, Iceland | Facing serious health problems and an economic crisis, Prime Minister Geir Haarde called Friday for early national elections, saying he was stepping down.

The move was welcomed by opposition leaders who said the public is still demanding that the government resign immediately.

Mr. Haarde, faced with mounting daily protests, said he plans to call elections May 9. He said he would not seek re-election because doctors found a malignant tumor in his throat last week.

Mr. Haarde said his health problems, which require immediate surgery abroad, meant he would step down as party leader and would not lead the Independence Party into the new elections.

The 57-year-old prime minister said he was “optimistic” that he would recover but could not be certain of his prognosis.

A small group of protesters said more drastic action is needed instead of waiting until May for a new government.

“He should have apologized and resigned,” said Guorun Tryggvadottir, a Web site editor.

Activist Gunnar Hinriksson said Iceland would be stuck with “the same old thing” after the new elections. “We have sick leaders in a sick nation,” he said, joining the call for a new constitution.

The tranquil, affluent island nation has been rocked in recent months by a frightening economic collapse that has brought the country to the brink of ruin.

Iceland’s banks collapsed in the autumn under the weight of huge debts, and since then inflation and unemployment have soared. The country’s currency, the krona, plummeted in value.

The government has responded by nationalizing the country’s insolvent banks, seeking help from the International Monetary Fund and other lenders, raising interest rates and taking other measures in a desperate bid to end the free fall.

Thus far, nothing seems to have worked, leading to social unrest.

Mr. Haarde, prime minister for less than two years, has faced mounting anti-government demonstrations in the past week, with the country’s small parliament building the focus of sometimes violent confrontations.

Demonstrations in Reykjavik have become increasingly confrontational in the past week, with police using tear gas for the first time in more than half a century to control rioters.

But the prime minister did not mention these events in his announcement, focusing instead on his medical condition.

He said a regular medical examination last week revealed a small tumor in his throat and that a biopsy taken several days later had shown it to be malignant.

Mr. Haarde’s plan to hold new elections May 9 has yet to be approved by his coalition partner, the Alliance Party.

Chairman Ingibjorg Gisladottir, who called Thursday for an election in the spring, was scheduled to return to Iceland on Friday afternoon after an operation in Sweden to treat a benign brain tumor.

Under Icelandic law, a national election does not have to be called until 2011.

Steingrimur J. Sigfusson, head of the opposition Left-Green Party, said his party is pleased with the decision but would like elections held earlier than May. “Every week is expensive,” he said on RUV Radio, asserting that valuable time is being lost in the effort to reverse the economic collapse.

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