Panama Papers: Iceland's PM steps aside over offshore tax haven revelations

Iceland's embattled Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson has stepped aside in the midst of a scandal related to his offshore financial dealings revealed in the Panama Papers.

Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson denies wrongdoing amid protests by thousands

Panama Papers Fallout

7 years ago
Duration 2:21
A day after the biggest leak of secret documents in history, Iceland's prime minister has stepped down, but he is just one of many world leaders named in the Panama Papers.

Iceland's embattled prime minister, facing accusations of conflict of interest because of offshore financial accounts, stepped aside Tuesday and proposed that the vice-chairman of his party take over.

Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson has become the first major figure brought down by a leak of more than 11 million financial documents from a Panamanian law firm showing the tax-avoidance arrangements of the rich and famous around the world.

Icelanders mount massive protest against prime minister

7 years ago
Duration 1:04
Join opposition party in calls for resignation in wake of Panama Papers

Sigurdur Mar Jonsson, press secretary of the Icelandic government, said in a statement Tuesday that Gunnlaugsson has suggested that Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson, his Progressive Party's vice-chairman, take over as prime minister for "an unspecified amount of time."

Iceland's president has not yet confirmed any changes to the leadership and the situation remained muddled as hundreds of protesters gathered outside parliament to demand the ouster of Gunnlaugsson.

Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson stepped aside on Tuesday after being named in the Panama Papers leak that revealed his connection to an offshore company. (Birgir Por Hardarson/EPA)

There were contradictions throughout the afternoon and evening as officials first said Gunnlaugsson had resigned as prime minister, statements that were later contradicted by the press secretary's communiqué, which indicated he was only stepping down for a period of time. The statement also suggested that Gunnlaugsson would remain as party chairman.

It was not clear if new elections would be held or if the governing coalition would be able to weather the crisis that developed several days ago with the release of the so-called Panama Papers.

Angry Icelanders protest

The lack of a clear resolution angered some protesters who blew whistles and banged on pots and pans in front of parliament.

"I'm here because the government still hasn't resigned," said store manager Elfar Petursson. "The finance minister and the interior minister are still sitting in parliament, they refuse to resign, they both have offshore accounts."

Revelations in the Panama Papers about offshore accounts held by Gunnlaugsson and his wife have infuriated many residents who suffered during the financial collapse of 2008 and 2009.

Hundreds of people demonstrated in Reykjavik on Monday after news broke about the leaked documents. (Brynjar Gunnarsson/Associated Press)

Gunnlaugsson has denied wrongdoing and said he has paid taxes and done nothing illegal regarding his offshore holdings.

Opposition lawmakers say the holdings amount to a major conflict of interest with his job.

Gunnlaugsson said his financial holdings didn't affect his negotiations with Iceland's creditors during the country's acute financial crisis. Those assertions did little to quell the controversy.

Request to dissolve parliament denied

The prime minister sought at first to dissolve parliament Tuesday and call an early election, but President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson said he wanted to consult with other party leaders before agreeing to end the coalition government between Gunnlaugsson's centre-right Progressive Party and the Independence Party.

"I need to determine if there is support for dissolving [parliament] within the ruling coalition and others. The prime minister could not confirm this for me, and therefore I am not prepared at this time to dissolve parliament," Grimsson said.

Protesters gathered outside of the Icelandic parliament building for a second day following the release of the Panama Papers. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The president met with Independence Party lawmakers later Tuesday to discuss the governmental crisis. Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson, chairman of the Independence Party, criticized the prime minister for unilaterally seeking to dissolve parliament.

"It was a total surprise for us to see that. I don't think it was the rational thing to do. I've never seen it done before in Icelandic politics and I hope that I will not see it again," he said.

The impact in Iceland from the leaks has been the most dramatic, but leading officials in Russia, Ukraine, China, Argentina and other countries are also facing questions about possibly dubious offshore schemes used by the global elite.

Conflict of interest allegations

The leaked documents allege that Gunnlaugsson and his wife set up a company called Wintris in the British Virgin Islands with the help of Mossack Fonseca, the Panamanian law firm. Gunnlaugsson is accused of a conflict of interest for failing to disclose his involvement in the company, which held interests in failed Icelandic banks that his government was responsible for overseeing.

Arni Pall Arnason, leader of the opposition Social Democratic Alliance, said Gunnlaugsson's position was not tenable.

"I think it's obvious that we cannot tolerate a leadership that is linked to offshore holdings," he said. "Iceland cannot be the only western European democratic country with a political leadership in that position."

Iceland, a volcanic island nation with a population of 330,000, was rocked by a prolonged financial crisis when its main commercial banks collapsed within a week of one another in 2008.

Since then Icelanders have weathered a recession and been subjected to tough capital controls — another reason the prime minister's offshore holdings rankle many.​

Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson denied a request from prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson to dissolve parliament. (Birgir Por Hardarson/EPA)


  • An earlier version of this story said incorrectly that Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned. In fact, a statement from Iceland's government suggested Gunnlaugsson is stepping aside for an unknown amount of time.
    Apr 05, 2016 6:29 PM ET

With files from CBC News