PIRATES RISING IN ICELAND (CSM 9/27/16)

AS HISTORIC ELECTION APPROACHES, THE PIRATE PARTY PREPARES TO ENTER GOVERNMEN

By Gordon F. Sander

Special to The Christian Science Monitor

ICELANDERS are talking about two volcanoes these days—a real one named Katla, and a metaphorical one also known as Althingi, or parliament, each of which has been rumbling ominously. The difference between the two, besides their size—Katla is six miles wide–is that while Icelanders are unsure if and when Katla will blow, they know the exact date, October 29th, when the latter will erupt, or at the very least, undergo a dramatic transformation.

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

“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 Birgitta Jonsdottir, the poet-cum-activist who founded the Pirates four years ago. 

According to the recent polls the Pirates, whose irreverent platform is based on transparency and Internet freedom, should be able to do just that on October 30th. The latest Gallup poll shows the Pirates garnering 25% of the vote, giving them a plurality in the Althing, with 17 seats, more than enough to storm the creaky, scandal-buffeted parliamentary ship.

“It is highly unlikely that the Pirates will not be part of the next Cabinet,” says Thordur Juliusson, editor of the influential news site, Kjarninn. “There is a clear will of change here and two thirds of the voters seem hell bent on not voting for the Progressives and Independence Party,” he continued, referring to the two parties which comprise the current, center-right coalition.

Well and good. The nub is that the Pirates’ most likely coalition partner, which is on track to gain a roughly equal number of seats—16 according to Gallup—is the ruling Independence Party, which is expressly committed to the status quo. Put simply, an unstoppable political force is bound to meet an unmovable object. End result? “Who knows?,” says Paul Fontaine, news editor for the English language news site The Grapevine. “The truth is, no one knows exactly what the Icelandic political landscape will look like on October 30th.

“The only thing we know is that it will look very different,” says Fontaine, who points out that 18 MPS, or over a quarter of the current body, have announced that they will not run for another term.

To be sure, as both journalists 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. That breach of faith is the result of a series of financial disasters and scandals over the last decade.

The first was the country’s infamous banking crisis in 2008, which saw the Iceland’s three largest, greed-driven banks inflate themselves ten times their size, while also inveigling hundreds of thousands of Britons and Dutchmen to invest their savings with them, before collapsing, causing the economy to plummet and the national currency to fail and blackening Iceland’s name.

The voters’ anger ushered in the country’s first ever left wing majority governing coalition, comprised of the Social Democrats and the Left-Greens. However when those supposedly “revolutionary” politicians failed to pass meaningful reform, and agreed to what many felt were the International Monetary Fund’s extortionate bailout demands, they were voted out, making way for the much-maligned Independence and Progressives to return in the last election, in 2013.

It was then that the local branch of the Pirates, led by Jonsdottir, made their first appearance. The Pirates were founded in Sweden a decade ago by Rick Falvinge, an Internet activist disturbed by what he felt was the suppression of online freedom. Over the last decade the Pirates have expanded into an international movement based on the idea that a new culture of technology can breed civic engagement and government accountability.

The Pirates now have 60 branches, however Iceland was the first—and still the only—country where they have managed to achieve power. Thanks in part to the charismatic Jonsdottir’s leadership and “anti-politician” manner, the party won 5% of the vote, giving them three seats. In the meantime their support has grown, as trust in traditional politicians and politics has ebbed.

The Pirates also benefitted from a certain absurdist spirit peculiar to their island nation. Witness the rise of Jon Gnarr, a popular comedian who ran for mayor of Reykjavik as a lark, calling his one man movement the “Best Party” and saying that he would only work with legislators who had watched the TV series “The Wire.”

To everyone’s surprise, including his own, Gnarr won, and, even more surprising, went on to serve a reasonably effective term as mayor, before dancing off the stage in 2014.

In the meantime, support for the Pirates has ballooned, as Icelanders’ trust in traditional politics and politicians has ebbed. By 2015 they had become the dominant force in Icelandic politics, polling as high as 40% at one point.

Icelanders’ faith in the status quo was further undermined by the Panama Papers scandal, after leaked financial documents showed that Prime Minister David Gunnlaugsson, of the ruling Progressives, had invested millions in offshore accounts, prompting his resignation. Once again angry Icelanders filled the square next to the Althing. “That’s another thing about Icelanders that has changed,” Fontaine points out. “They demonstrate.”

Oddly, that scandal does not seem to have translated into more support for the Pirates, whose support has fallen to the current estimated level of 25%. Juliusson, for one, does not think that is strange. “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 10%. Clearly, Icelandic politics is in a high state of flux.

In the meantime, 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,” says Asta Gunnarsson, one of the three standing Pirates M.P.s in her office, the centerpiece of which is a large Jolly Roger flag hanging in the window. “However we are determined to stick to our guns, so to speak,” she declared. “We want to give the people access to the process.”

Many wonder whether that by crowdsourcing every issue, as the Pirates would like, will lead to chaos. Others, like Birna Juliusdottir, a Reykjavik schoolteacher, while sympathetic to the insurgents, wonder, ultimately, how radical they really are, or whether the disorganized party will get its act together before the election. 

“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.”

Juliusson, for one, is impressed by the party’s increasing seriousness. “The Pirates have become more party-like in the last few months,” he says. “They have formed policies on most important issues.”

One sometime politician who has become a Pirate fan is Andri Magnason, the noted Icelandic author and environmentalist. “The most important thing about the Pirates is that they are honest” says Magnason, who made a strong, if unsuccessful run for Icelandic president in June. “They have successfully caught the post-crash mood. They may be a bit disorganized, maybe even a bit nerdy with all their talk about the crossroads between technology and democracy, but people think they are honest. They think they can be trusted.”

Significantly, the Pirates have stated that, if elected, they will not follow the norm of simultaneously sitting in parliament and sitting in government. “This will not be a technocratic government,” states Gudjon Idir, a party spokesperson. “We need to make a clear distinction between the executive and the legislative branch. We may appoint ministers outside of our group of MPS, and MPs may also become ministers, however they will then have to give up their seats.”

As far as whether the Pirates will share power with the conservatives, Idir is cautious, but adamant about she believe and wants for Iceland. “It is far too early to say,” she says. Nevertheless, she continues, “The conservatives have said that they will first and foremost protect the status quo and prevent systemic change. If they adhere to this it will be impossible to work with them.”

As Thordur Juliusson 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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