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Viewing cable 09REYKJAVIK17, ICELAND: PRIME MINISTER DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER, DATE

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Reference ID Created Released Classification Origin
09REYKJAVIK17 2009-01-23 17:05 2011-01-13 05:05 UNCLASSIFIED//FOR OFFICIAL USE ONLY Embassy Reykjavik
VZCZCXRO3885
OO RUEHAG RUEHAST RUEHDA RUEHDF RUEHFL RUEHIK RUEHKW RUEHLA RUEHLN
RUEHLZ RUEHNP RUEHPOD RUEHROV RUEHSK RUEHSR RUEHVK RUEHYG
DE RUEHRK #0017/01 0231737
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
O 231737Z JAN 09
FM AMEMBASSY REYKJAVIK
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 3959
RHEHAAA/WHITE HOUSE WASHINGTON DC IMMEDIATE
INFO RUEHZL/EUROPEAN POLITICAL COLLECTIVE
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC
RUEATRS/DEPT OF TREASURY WASHINGTON DC
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RUEKDIA/DIA WASHDC
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 REYKJAVIK 000017 
 
SENSITIVE 
 
SIPDIS 
 
STATE FOR EUR/NB, INR-B 
OSLO FOR DATT 
DOD FOR OSD-P (FENTON) 
TREASURY FOR LAWRENCE NORTON AND ERIC MEYER 
 
E.O. 12958: N/A 
TAGS: PGOV PINR PREL ECON IC
SUBJECT: ICELAND: PRIME MINISTER DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER, DATE 
PROPOSED FOR EARLY ELECTIONS 
 
Refs: A) Reykjavik 012 
  B) Reykjavik 013 
 
1. (U) Summary:  Iceland's Prime Minister stunned the nation on 
January 23 with an announcement that he has been diagnosed with 
esophageal cancer and will not stand for reelection as Independence 
Party chair at the coming national congress.  PM Haarde said he 
received the diagnosis on January 21 and that his doctors have 
recommended immediate surgery; he will go abroad at the end of the 
month as the necessary treatment is not available in Iceland.  At 
the same time, Haarde announced that his party has proposed holding 
early parliamentary elections in May, subject to further discussion 
with their coalition partners in the Social Democratic Alliance. 
Separately, SDA Chair and Foreign Minister Gisladottir is set to 
return to Iceland on January 23 from Sweden, where she was receiving 
treatment for a brain tumor diagnosed last fall.  According to the 
MFA Spokesman, Gisladottir's tumor was confirmed as benign, though 
it will require further treatment.  Though some are hopeful that the 
government will have some breathing room now that elections are set 
for the spring, a shocked Icelandic public is also facing the second 
major illness for one of the country's leaders in six months and is 
concerned about a leadership vacuum at a crucial time.  End 
Summary. 
 
2.  (U) Following a week of raucous demonstrations and increasing 
political pressure for early Althingi (parliament) elections 
(reftels), the central committee and MPs of Prime Minister Geir 
Haarde's Independence Party (IP) met on January 23 to discuss the 
status of the coalition government.  The previous night, Foreign 
Minister Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir, Chair of coalition partner 
the Social Democratic Alliance (SDA) tamped down rumors of an 
immediate government collapse by pledging to maintain the coalition 
if the parties agreed to hold elections this spring.  This sparked 
new rumors that the IP central committee would decide to postpone 
the party's national congress, which had been set for January 
29-February 1, in order to prepare for such elections. 
 
3.  (SBU) However, PM Haarde stunned the assembled media with an 
announcement that he has been diagnosed with a malignant tumor in 
his esophagus.  A regular medical examination had revealed the tumor 
last week, but on January 21 Haarde was informed that biopsy results 
indicated that it was malignant. He will have to undergo immediate 
medical treatment, which cannot be performed in Iceland and 
therefore he will travel abroad around the end of the month. (NOTE: 
In a subsequent conversation with Ambassador, Haarde's Foreign 
Affairs Advisor did not specify in which country Haarde will be 
treated.  The Ambassador offered assistance and support.  END NOTE.) 
 The PM added that his doctors say the prognosis is good and that he 
expects to maintain full working capacity, at least in the next few 
months. Due to his ill health, Haarde has decided not to seek 
reelection at the IP's national congress. He says his decision was 
made easier knowing that there are highly capable leaders to choose 
from in the IP. 
 
4.  (U) On the question of early elections, Haarde announced that 
the IP will request that parliamentary elections take place on May 
9. He will discuss this proposed date with SDA Chairman Gisladottir 
over the weekend.  Echoing language that Gisladottir used in her own 
statement the previous night, the PM stressed that the coalition 
government will continue to work hard to carry out the tasks that 
are most urgent to rescue households and businesses in Iceland. 
Haarde added that he would make every effort to see to it that 
preparations for the elections and the election campaign do not 
disrupt the economic recovery program which the government is 
implementing in cooperation with the International Monetary Fund. 
 
5.  (U) In connection with the spring elections, the IP has also 
decided to postpone its national congress until March 26-29. The 
party will draft its election platform and select a new chairman 
that will lead the party in the upcoming elections.  (COMMENT:  As 
reports have grown in recent weeks of discord within the IP over the 
question of joining the European Union, this may also give the party 
a further chance to coalesce around the idea -- or wake up to 
reality, depending on whom you ask -- of approving a pro-EU 
platform.  END COMMENT.) 
 
Foreign Minister's Health:  Better News 
--------------------------------------- 
 
 
REYKJAVIK 00000017  002 OF 002 
 
 
6.  (SBU) Separately, the MFA sent out a press release January 23 
announcing FM Gisladottir's return to Iceland from Sweden, where she 
has been undergoing medical treatment for a brain tumor over the 
past week.  (NOTE:  Gisladottir was diagnosed with a tumor in the 
fourth cerebral ventricle after collapsing during the UN General 
Assembly in New York this past September.  She underwent brain 
surgery before returning to Iceland and has had one subsequent 
procedure here in Reykjavik prior to her trip to Sweden last week. 
END NOTE.)  This morning, her doctors confirmed that the tumor, most 
of which was removed in surgery, was benign. She will not be 
admitted to the National Hospital in Reykjavik upon her arrival as 
had previously been announced, but instead will rest at home and 
will therefore be absent from work for some time.  The MFA's 
spokeswoman confirmed to DCM that the tumor was indeed benign, 
though it had been behaving "peculiarly" and had given rise to fears 
that it was in fact malignant.  The spokeswoman was visibly relieved 
to have heard the news about Gisladottir's health. 
 
7.  (SBU) Staffers at the Foreign Ministry had been bracing for the 
worst, as Gisladottir's prolonged treatment in Sweden appeared to 
counter earlier claims that the tumor was benign.  Despite some 
policy disputes on certain issues, the FM is very popular among the 
ministry rank-and-file, a surprising development for those used to 
thinking of the MFA as a building full of IP and Progressive Party 
ideologues.  The leadership vacuum at the MFA -- due to 
Gisladottir's illness as well as that of her deputy, the Permanent 
Secretary, who is battling colon cancer -- has been an evident 
strain on the ministry over the last six months. 
 
A stunned, worried public 
------------------------- 
 
8.  (SBU) The public reaction to the PM's ill health can only be 
described as utter shock. Even though most offer the PM their 
condolences, people are worried about how the country will be run, 
and who will really be holding the reins of power. After the 
intensifying political tension of this week, a number of 
commentators are relieved to hear that elections will likely be held 
in May.  Independence Party stalwarts tell us that they are relieved 
to have some explanation for what one called Haarde's "strange" 
behavior in recent weeks, and are hopeful that the IP will now have 
a chance to set a clear course and regain the nation's support. 
However, outside the IP, with both the PM and FM afflicted with 
serious illness, some think that the proposed May 9 date is too far 
away.  In particular, MPs from the Left-Green Party used the PM's 
announcement as a reason to renew their calls for immediate 
elections.  There are also doubts regarding the PM's and FM's 
ability to be fully functional when they return to work after 
recovering from medical treatment. 
 
9.  (U) Bloggers and political commentators are already suggesting 
who will be likely candidates for the chair of the IP. The most 
often mentioned are MP Bjarni Benediktsson; Minister of Health 
Gudlaugur Thor Thordarson; Minister of Education and Deputy Chair 
Thorgerdur Katrin Gunnarsdottir; MP Kristjan Thor Juliusson; and 
even political veteran and former PM and chair Thorsteinn Palsson. 
 
 
10.  (U) On the practical question of who will run the country, 
party rules and the coalition agreement designate Minister of 
Education and IP Deputy Chair Gunnarsdottir as Acting Prime Minister 
should the PM take leave of his office. 
 
11.  (SBU) Comment:  Iceland, already stunned by the demonstrations 
of the past week and the economic collapse, is now jolted by another 
serious blow.  The lack of leadership at the top of the SDA has been 
evident throughout Gisladottir's illness, and many here fear that a 
similar vacuum will develop with the Prime Minister absent.  Others, 
particularly within the IP, are more hopeful that with a clear date 
set for elections, pressure on the government will ease somewhat and 
allow the parties to simply go about the business of governing and 
preparing for a critical economic program review by the IMF in 
February (septel). 
 
VAN VOORST