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Thursday, January 29, 2009
Gay woman is set to become Iceland's 1st female prime minister
Gay woman is set to become Iceland's 1st female prime minister By David Stringer, The Associated Press REYKJAVIK, Iceland - The woman expected to become Iceland's interim prime minister is an openly gay former flight attendant who rose through the political ranks to lead a new leftist government. Johanna Sigurdardottir, the country's 66-year-old social affairs minister, began as an union organizer for flight attendants and is now among the country's longest-serving legislators. Both political parties forming Iceland's new coalition government support her appointment - and a decision could be announced as early as Thursday. "She is a senior parliamentarian, she is respected and loved by all of Iceland," said Environment Minister Thorunn Sveinbjarnardottir. Sigurdardottir will lead until new elections are held, likely in May. She will remain in office longer only if her centre-left Social Democratic Alliance becomes the largest group in the election - an unlikely prospect, since it trails the Left-Green movement in opinion polls. On Wednesday, Sigurdardottir chaired talks between her party and the Left-Greens, now the junior government partner. Iceland's previous conservative-led government failed Monday after the country's banks collapsed in the fall under the weight of huge debts amassed during years of rapid economic growth. The country's currency has since plummeted, and inflation and unemployment are soaring. Former Prime Minister Geir Haarde won't lead his Independence party into the new elections because he needs treatment for throat cancer. Conservative critics say Sigurdardottir's leftist leanings and lack of business experience won't help her fix the economy. "Johanna is a very good woman - but she likes public spending, she is a tax raiser," Haarde said. Sigurdardottir faces a difficult task of repairing the country's shattered economy and rebuilding public trust in government. Iceland has negotiated about $10 billion US in bailout loans from the International Monetary Fund and other countries to keep itself afloat but long-term solutions for re-building the economy have been unclear. The IMF predicts Iceland's economy is facing its biggest slump since the country won full independence from Denmark in 1944. Sigurdardottir was a labour organizer when she worked as a flight attendant for Loftleidir Airlines - now Icelandair - in the 1960s and 1970s. She was first elected to Iceland's parliament in 1978 and served twice as social affairs minister, from 1987-1994, and again since 2007. Despite her veteran status, many Icelanders regard her as more independent than her fellow legislators. "If there's anyone who can restore trust in the political system it's her," said Eyvindur Karlsson, a 27-year-old translator. "People respect her because she's never been afraid of standing up to her own party. They see her as someone who isn't tainted by the economic crisis." While a woman has served in the largely symbolic role of president, Sigurdardottir would be Iceland's first female prime minister. She lives with journalist Jonina Leosdottir, who became her civil partner in 2002, and has two sons from a previous marriage.