Iceland's President Gudni Johannesson (R) is expected to win a second term

Reykjavik (AFP) - Iceland votes in a presidential election on Saturday, the second European country to hold polls since coronavirus lockdowns were lifted, with incumbent Gudni Johannesson widely expected to win a second four-year mandate.

In Iceland’s parliamentary republic, the role of the president is largely symbolic, but he or she does have the power to veto legislation and submit it to a referendum.

Opinion polls suggest Johannesson’s rightwing challenger, former Wall Street broker Gudmundur Franklin Jonsson, has almost no chance of winning.

Voter surveys have since early June predicted a landslide victory for Johannesson, a 52-year-old independent and former history professor, crediting him with more than 90 percent support.

“The (opinion) polls are not elections… But the gap is too big for it to really be bridgeable,” University of Iceland history professor Gudmundur Halfdanarson told AFP.

The coronavirus pandemic is not expected to have any impact on the election, as the country of 365,000 has been only mildly affected. It has reported 10 deaths, and currently has around 10 active cases.

Voters will however be asked to stay two metres apart at polling stations and will be provided with hand sanitiser and gloves.

Iceland is only the second country in Europe to hold an election since lockdowns ended. Serbia held elections last week and Poland and France will do so on Sunday.

Johannesson, who in 2016 became the country’s youngest president since independence in 1944, has enjoyed robust support throughout most of his first term, ranging from 76 to 86 percent, according to the MMR polling institute.

That is 25 points higher on average than his predecessor.

“He has been seen as a man of the people, not pompous, not very formal. So Icelanders seem to like him and want to keep him as president,” said Olafur Hardarson, a political science professor at the University of Iceland.

Contrary to his predecessor Olafur Grimsson, who never hesitated to wade into controversy, Johannesson, the nation’s sixth president, has spent the past four years focusing on unifying the country.

- Role of president -

Iceland’s presidents are usually unopposed after their first terms. But according to experts, the fact that a candidate is challenging the incumbent this time should not be seen as sign of political tensions.

“The major threat that Gudni faces is the lack of enthusiasm for this election, and that his supporters might think that he is completely secure in his office and therefore might not turn out for the election,” Bifrost University professor Eirikur Bergmann said.

Johannesson’s rival, Gudmundur Franklin Jonsson, has struggled to make inroads with voters.

The 56-year-old, who has run a hotel in Denmark since 2013 and is a fan of US President Donald Trump, first entered politics in 2010 when he founded the rightwing populist movement Haegri graenir, which he led for three years.

As in recent elections, the role of the president has been the main theme of the campaign.

Most powers lie with the government, currently headed by Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir.

Challenger Jonsson wants the president to play a more active role in politics, by exercising his right to veto legislation.

That power has only been used three times, each time by Olafur Grimsson during his five mandates from 1996 to 2016.

However, the wording of the country’s constitution is, according to experts, ambiguous, notably regarding the president’s role in calling snap elections and dissolving parliament.

“I don’t like (that), because the president of Iceland is a ceremonial role, not a political role,” voter Audunn Gisli Arnason told AFP a few days before the election.

Polls open at 9:00 am (0900 GMT) and close at 10:00 pm (2200 GMT), with the first projections expected shortly thereafter.