Iceland’s Pirate Party edges toward parliamentary majority

For months, polling data has been showing a Pirate victory in Iceland, where voters are still smarting from the 2008 economic crash and deeply distrustful of government.

Frank Augstein/AP
Birgitta Jónsdóttir of the Pirate Party speaks during an interview in Reykjavik, Wednesday, Oct. 26. Parliamentary elections will be held in Iceland on Oct. 29, after Iceland's president dissolved Parliament on Sept. 20.

The year 2016 has been marked by unprecedented elections and dissatisfaction with the democratic process. And while third parties have not thrived in the United States in this climate, they've had more success elsewhere.

In Iceland, the Pirate party is poised to win the parliamentary election on Saturday. Founded by a former WikiLeaks collaborator, the party’s goal is to create a direct democracy for the digital age, one where policy ideas are crowdsourced online, drugs are legalized, power is put in the hands of the powerless, and Edward Snowden is offered asylum. For months, polls have been showing a Pirate victory as Iceland, still smarting from the 2008 economic crash and deeply distrustful of government, looks for something new.

"We stand for enacting changes that have to do with reforming the systems, rather than changing minor things that might easily be changed back," said Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the party's leader, reported USA Today. "We do not define ourselves as left or right.”

The Pirate Party was founded in 2006 by Swedish internet activist Richard Falkvinge, a Julian Assange-like figure, with the goal of ending internet copyright laws and using digital connectivity to launch renewed interest in civic engagement and hold governments accountable.

Growing in popularity among the online community of internet hackers, the party now has branches in more than 60 countries, but the 4-year-old Icelandic chapter would be the first with substantial legislative power.

The party won five percent of the vote in Iceland's 2013 election, earning them three seats in Parliament. Ms. Jónsdóttir, who holds one of them, said that her time in Parliament has provided valuable training for the fledgling operation. Since then, support for the group has grown, and most polls over the last 18 months show the Pirate Party winning the majority of the vote, although the center-right Independence Party is also polling well.

So how did a nation with a population half the size of Boston, made up of traditionally conservative fishermen, end up supporting a radical left-wing party calling for a cyber-driven direct democracy?

Over the past 10 years, electoral control has flip-flopped between right wing and left wing governments, leading to a deep and pervasive distrust of the government, said Baldur Þórhallsson, a professor of political science at the University of Iceland.

"First the Icelandic people voted for the left and then the old-guard again – so who's left?" the professor asked NBC. "Many voters are not voting for internet freedom and drug decriminalization, they are protesting against the traditional parties."

In fact, the main idea driving the Pirate Party is not their platform but their push to reinvent government.

“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,” Guðjón Idir spokesperson for the party, told The Christian Science Monitor in September.

Guiding this goal is a commitment to evidence-based politics, as opposed to religious or cultural tradition, and a Robin Hood philosophy of giving “the powerless the power to monitor the powerful.”

While Iceland's economy has recovered from the crash of 2008, the people’s trust in government has not. During the crash, the government allowed banks to fail, causing people to lose savings and business to go bankrupt. Although then-Prime Minister Geir Haarde was convicted of not doing enough to prevent the banks from failing, he received no fine or prison term.

Earlier this year, when the Panama Papers revealed that Iceland's Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson was investing millions in offshore accounts, he was forced to resign, leaving the people even more distrustful of government.

“The most important thing about the Pirates is that they are honest,” Andri Magnason, an Icelandic writer who ran for president in June, told the Monitor last month. “They have successfully caught the post-crash mood and the need for transparency.”

Some observers say that much of the Pirate support seen in polls simply reflects public anger at institutions – anger that is easy to share with a pollster, but harder to vote for on election day.

It is certainly odd timing for a radical liberal government to crop up in Europe as the rest of the continent trends more toward conservative values. Additionally, the Pirate party is calling for a direct democracy in the same year that Brexit, the FARC peace deal, and Hungary’s immigration vote all show that direct referendums are far from perfect.

"The Pirates are a radical anti-establishment party," said Professor Þórhallsson. "But there are still lots of questions: How will the Pirates be in government? Will they be able to function in government?"

In Iceland’s multi-party elections, one party rarely gains the 32 parliamentary seats needed to win control of the 63-seat Parliament. Instead, like-minded parties form coalition governments.

While Jónsdóttir says she has accepted that the Pirate Party will have to learn to compromise if they gain a plurality of the seats, that may not be enough. The two parties most likely to win the election, the Pirate Party and the center-right Independence Party, have already refused to work together. Therefore, the process of actually forming the new government and electing a prime minister may not end until well after the Oct. 29 election day.

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