Page last updated at 12:00 GMT, Monday, 2 February 2009

Profile: Johanna Sigurdardottir

Johanna Sigurdardottir
Few Icelanders seem concerned about the PM's sexual orientation

Johanna Sigurdardottir, a former flight attendant and union organiser, was sworn in as Iceland's first female prime minister - and the world first openly gay leader - on Sunday.

The 66-year-old former social affairs minister is one of Iceland's most popular politicians.

Her appeal has held up even as confidence in the government itself has plummeted, amid an economic crash, soaring unemployment and street protests.

"Now we need a strong government that works with the people," Ms Sigurdardottir said on Wednesday, as talks began on forming a new coalition after the government resigned.

Born in Reykjavik in 1942, Ms Sigurdardottir studied commerce before becoming a flight attendant for Loftleidir Airlines in 1962.

Whom the new prime minister crawls into bed with at night seems to be fairly far down the list of priorities for people
Ingo Sigfusson, Icelandic National Broadcasting Service (RUV)

After nine years at the airline, during which time she began a parallel career as a union organiser, she left and got an office job at a packaging firm in the capital.

Ms Sigurdardottir was first elected to Iceland's parliament, the Althingi, in 1978 and was given her first ministerial office - social affairs - in 1987.

In 1994, she left government and unsuccessfully stood for the leadership of the Social Democratic Party. She then formed her own party, the National Movement, which won four parliamentary seats in the next year's general election.

Five years later, however, the party merged with the Social Democratic Party and two other centre-left groups to form the Social Democratic Alliance (SDA), which they hoped would counter the dominance of the right-wing Independence Party.

'Saint Johanna'

It was not until after the 2007 election, however, that the SDA got a chance to govern, albeit in a left-right coalition with the Independence Party.

October 2008 - Government takes control of three largest banks
20 November - IMF approves $2.1bn (1.4bn) loan for Iceland
26 November - Annual inflation rate hits record 17.1%
20 January 2009 - Economy forecast to shrink by 9.6% in 2009
23 January - PM Geir Haarde calls snap election for 9 May
26 January - Government resigns following breakdown of coalition

Ms Sigurdardottir was re-appointed to her old post of social affairs minister and in November 2008, despite the collapse of the Icelandic financial system, had an approval rating of 73%, according to one opinion poll.

She has even been nicknamed "Saint Johanna" in praise of her work for the rights of the handicapped, elderly and disadvantaged.

Following the recent collapse of the government, SDA leader Ingibjorg Gisladottir proposed her as the next prime minister, saying she was taking a leave of absence to recover from treatment for a benign brain tumour.

On Saturday, the SDA and the opposition Left-Green Movement announced that they had secured the necessary backing to form an interim government ahead of an early general election on 25 April. The following day, Ms Sigurdardottir was sworn in as prime minister.

Speaking afterwards, she said the government's priority would be to replace the central bank board, which failed to prevent the collapse of the country's banking system. She also said she would ask a parliamentary committee to look into joining the European Union.

'Private person'

According to Ingo Sigfusson of Iceland's public broadcaster, RUV, Ms Sigurdardottir's emergence as the world's first openly gay leader has barely rated a mention among his countrymen and women.

"It's by no means a big deal. It's been reported, but it's not something the public is focusing on," he told the BBC.

"On the one hand, Iceland is a fairly liberal, tolerant country when it comes to homosexuality. On the other hand, she's never been particularly public about her private life, even though her partner is listed on the parliament's website."

"Whom the new prime minister crawls into bed with at night seems to be fairly far down the list of priorities for people," he added.

Mr Sigfusson also said he was not sure whether Ms Sigurdardottir would attend public functions with her partner as prime minister.

"I can't remember them being seen together during any public functions, and she's not been an outspoken gay-rights activist in any sense," he said.

"Given the fact that she likes being left alone as a private person, I would be surprised if that were to change dramatically."

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