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Pirate Party ready to sail Iceland's government into uncharted waters

Understanding others

The 'Pirates' look set to gain one of the largest shares of seats in Iceland's parliament. But why is a nation of conservative fishermen turning to a party of techno-utopian democrats?

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    Birgitta Jonsdottir, leader of the Pirate Party of Iceland, poses for a picture at the party's office in the Icelandic Parliament in Reykjavik, Iceland, in May 2016.
    Gwladys Fouche/Reuters/File
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Icelanders are casting apprehensive looks at two volcanoes this fall – a real one on the southern coast named Katla, and a metaphorical one also known as Althing or parliament in the capital – each of which has been rumbling ominously. The difference is that while Icelanders are unsure if and when Katla will blow, they know the exact date, Oct. 29, when the latter will erupt.

That is the date of the next election for the 63-seat parliament. Although the election itself promises to be an orderly affair, the outcome does not, especially if the insurgent Pirate party, which is channeling the imminent explosion, has its way.

For while Pirate parties are not unusual – such political groups started appearing in 2005, focused on digital rights and Internet-reliant democracy, and now exist in countries around the world – this once conservative Nordic nation is set to be the first to vote such a party into power. The Icelandic Pirate Party looks to garner just under a quarter of the vote, according to the latest Gallup poll, which would make it one of the two largest parties in the new parliament.

The prospect of a government shaped by direct-democracy, techno-utopian "Pirates" may seem at odds with Icelanders' image as a nation of conservative fishermen. But born out of a broad frustration with mainstream politicians – particularly those who had a hand in the 2008 economic crash – and fed by Icelanders' own somewhat absurdist spirit, the Icelandic Pirates are not as unusual a political champion as they may seem. And they fully intend to make the most of the chance.

“We are determined to improve this democracy, which is both a major task and an exciting opportunity which has not presented itself for a long time,” says Gudjon Idir, spokesperson for the four-year-old party.

'Democracy in crisis'

To be sure, observers point out, the real unstoppable force behind the imminent political eruption is not so much the Pirates as Icelanders’ loss of trust in their political and economic institutions, the cumulative result of a series of financial disasters and scandals starting with the banking scandal of 2008 that caused the economy to crash and blackened the country’s name. As historian Ragnheidur Kristjansdottir puts it, “Iceland’s democracy has been in crisis since the beginning of the century. The banking crisis intensified that. The rise of the Pirates is a reflection of that."

After the scandal, which led to the jailing of several bankers, angry voters ushered in the first ever left-wing majority governing coalition, comprised of Social Democrats and the Left-Greens. However, when those supposedly “revolutionary” politicians failed to pass meaningful reform, they were voted out, making way for the Independence and Progressives who had ruled before in 2013.

Enter the Pirates, led by poet and political activist Birgitta Jonsdottir. Founded a decade ago by Swedish Internet activist Rick Falvinge, the Pirate International, which is founded on the idea that the new culture of technology can generate civic engagement and government accountability, now has branches in 60 countries.

However, Iceland is the first – and still only – country where the self-described “raiders” have managed to attain power at the national level. Thanks in part to Ms. Jonsdottir’s charismatic, soft-spoken leadership, the party won 5 percent of the vote in 2013, giving them three seats. Meanwhile, support for them has grown – peaking as high as 40 percent last year – as trust in traditional politicians and politics has ebbed.

Iceland's rebellious streak

The Pirates also benefited from an absurdist spirit peculiar to their small island nation. Witness the rise of Jon Gnarr, a popular comedian who ran for mayor of Reykjavik in 2010 as a lark, calling his one man movement the “Best Party.” To everyone’s surprise, including his own, Mr. Gnarr won, and, even more surprising, went on to serve a reasonably effective term as mayor, before dancing off the stage in 2014.

In April, most Icelanders’ faith in the status quo was further undermined by the Panama Papers scandal, after leaked financial documents showed that Progressive Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson had invested millions in offshore accounts, causing an uproar and forcing Mr. Gunnlaugsson’s resignation. Once again, shouting Icelanders filled Austurvöllur, the park next to the parliament. “That’s another thing about Icelanders that has changed,” says Paul Fontaine, news editor and reporter for Icelandic news site The Reykjavik Grapevine. “They demonstrate.”

Nevertheless, that scandal does not seem to have translated into more backing for the Pirates, whose support has dropped to 23 percent, according to the latest poll. Thordur Juliusson, editor of Kjarninn, an Icelandic news site, is not surprised. “I think a chunk of the vote that have been parked with the Pirates has been dissatisfaction votes from people who did not want to vote for the old political parties.”

In the meantime, a new right-of-center party, Vioreisn, which will put up candidates for the first time in next month’s election, has been polling over 10 percent – further stirring up Iceland's political upheaval.

Honesty and common sense

The Pirates themselves are bracing for the real prospect of being the first of their contrarian breed to form a government. “It’s an exciting time, as well as a stressful one,” confides Ásta Helgadóttir, one of the three standing Pirates in parliament, in her Reykjavik office, the centerpiece of which is a large Jolly Roger flag. “However, we are determined to stick to our guns, so to speak,” she declared. “We want to give the people access to the process.”

Adding to the uncertainty for Icelanders is the Pirates' refusal to enter government with the Independence party if it continues its business-as-usual stance. The pro-status-quo party is expected to capture a similar number of seats to the upstarts. But if a Pirates-Independence coalition is not an option, formation of a new government promises to be a drawn-out affair.

One sometime politician who likes the Pirates is Andri Magnason, a noted author and environmentalist. “The most important thing about the Pirates is that they are honest,” says Mr. Magnason, who made a strong, if unsuccessful, run for president in June. “They have successfully caught the post-crash mood and the need for transparency.”

“I also like the fact that they are calling for a new constitution, which Iceland very much needs, and that they bring different views and methods into our rather stagnant traditional politics,” says Magnason, who is leaning toward voting for the insurgents.

But many wonder whether crowd-sourcing every issue, including the new constitution which the Pirates are calling for, will increase the chances for chaos. Others, like Birna Juliusdottir, a Reykjavik schoolteacher, while sympathetic to the insurgents, wonder, ultimately, how radical they really are.

“As for the Pirates, it’s a little difficult to tell exactly where they are coming from,” she says. “I think they want to present themselves as being radical, when they really are more about common sense, which of course I am all for.”

As Mr. Juliusson, the editor, puts it drily, “There are a lot of ifs about this process.” In the meantime, Icelanders wonder which volcano will blow first – Katla or the Althing.

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