When Barack Obama was sworn in as the new U.S. President last week, Americans made much of the fact that he was the country's first black Commander in Chief. On Saturday, when Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir takes over as Prime Minister of the small (pop. 320,000) nation of Iceland, she will become the world's first openly gay female head of government and Icelanders are hardly batting an eye.
Perhaps it's because they have more serious matters to worry about. Sigurðardóttir's appointment comes at a watershed time for Iceland. The country's economy has been hammered by the global downturn, its banks have been nationalized, and violent street protests have just led to the resignation of the previous government. (See pictures of the global financial crisis.)
Things are so bad that Iceland, which had previously stayed out of the European Union to protect its rich fishing grounds from other European fleets, is now likely to be fast-tracked into the powerful regional group. The E.U. says Iceland's application for membership could be expedited with entry, which normally takes years and sometimes decades, as soon as 2011. E.U. membership is widely viewed by Icelanders as an economic lifesaver.
"This will be a welfare administration," Sigurðardóttir announced at a press conference on Wednesday during a meeting between the parties of the new coalition government to decide their new platform. Sigurðardóttir also announced that the government's first task is to replace the central bank's directors.
After the sudden collapse of the conservative-led coalition government on Jan. 26, the new coalition of Social Democrats and Left-Greens named Sigurðardóttir as leader of the new government until the parliamentary elections expected in the spring. Talks are under way to decide whether the matter of the E.U. application will be put to a referendum at the same vote. Sigurðardóttir replaces Geir H. Haarde, who resigned as Prime Minister under mounting public outrage over the government's handling of the country's economic meltdown last autumn. (See the top 10 financial collapses of 2008.)
Sigurðardóttir, who was the Minister of Social Affairs in the outgoing government, boasts the highest approval ratings among Icelandic ministers, according to recent opinion polls. "She's a good choice," says Björn Björnsson, 26, a Web editor who lost his job during the nation's financial collapse. "She's one of our most experienced politicians, and through this crisis she has shown nothing but integrity and concern for the public. Iceland needs someone we can trust again, and she's earned my trust."
The longest-sitting MP in Iceland, with three decades in Parliament and four stints as Minister of Social Affairs, Sigurðardóttir has gained a reputation for voicing support for social issues such as gender equality, a robust welfare system and rights for the disabled and elderly. Fellow MP Ágúst Einarsson went as far as to call her "socialism incarnate." Firmly planted in left-of-center politics, the new Minister reflects the nation's postmeltdown retreat from the right, as demonstrated in recent polling data.
Besides her politics, the Minister's past as a working woman resonates with the increasingly disgruntled middle class. With only a high school diploma, Sigurðardóttir began her career as a flight attendant and later worked in the office of a box factory.
At 36, she was elected to Parliament. As Minister of Social Affairs she became known for refusing the official limousine and driver provided to all Ministers, opting to drive her Mitsubishi to work. "I don't think she's going to be the country's savior," says Einar Magnússon, a 34-year-old electrician, "but after the condescension and sheer arrogance we've seen in the outgoing leadership, it's refreshing to hear someone real talk to us." (Watch a TIME video, "In Iceland, Frozen Accounts, Boiling Assets.")
While the Prime Minister's political track record and personal history have clearly garnered the nation's attention, her sexual orientation has raised relatively few eyebrows. Although Icelandic social policy is among the most progressive in the world with provisions for marriage and adoption rights for same-sex couples Sigurðardóttir maintains a decidedly low public profile with her civil partner of six years Jónína Leósdóttir, a noted journalist and playwright. "Being gay is not an issue in Iceland," explains Frosti Jónsson, chairman of Iceland's gay-and-lesbian association. "There are so many openly gay prominent figures in both the public and private sector here that it doesn't affect who we select for our highest offices. Our minds are focused on what counts, which is the current situation in the country."
With food prices up 73% and some forecasting unemployment exceeding 10% this year, all eyes are on Sigurðardóttir as she tackles the herculean task of salvaging the island's economy. "The job she is about to take on is both the most difficult and most critical that any Icelander of our generation has taken on," former university rector Runólfur Ágústsson said. "The future of this society depends on how she handles this position."