'Arr!' Forget Icesave, Iceland's Next Scare Is the Pirate Party

Birgitta Jonsdottir

Pirate lawmaker Birgitta Jonsdottir stands for a portrait amongst the smundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum.

Photographer: Giles Clarke/Getty Images
  • Party vows bank shakeup, 35-hour work week ahead of 2017 vote
  • Prime minister says Pirate-led coalition unlikely to last

From Spain’s Podemos to France’s National Front, anti-establishment parties are clamoring for power across Europe. Up north in Iceland, it’s Pirates who are making the biggest ahoys.

With just over a year until parliamentary elections are due, the Icelandic Pirate Party has been consistently topping opinion polls.

Should that support translate into real votes, it would win more than a third of the ballots, making it the biggest party in a country traditionally governed by coalitions.

That could have a revolutionary effect on a country that’s only now returning to normal after the 2008 collapse of its biggest banks. While the Pirates’ main focus is on direct democracy and less stringent copyright laws, they also want to introduce a 35-hour work week and split the investment and commercial units of banks.

The country’s prime minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, isn’t too concerned.

Asked in an interview in his office in Reykjavik how he would react to a Pirate victory, the prime minister said : "If it happens I will consider going into hiding until the next election... I’m kidding."

Come 2017, the joke could be on him.

Promises, Promises

Like elsewhere in the West, the party is profiting from a growing antipathy toward traditional politics.

Founded in November 2012 by former WikiLeaks spokesperson Birgitta Jonsdottir and fellow Internet activists, the party won three seats in its first parliamentary election. Next year it could have as many as 19 in the 63-strong Althingi, should current projections materialize. Computer-savvy voters seem to like it the most, with party co-founder Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson voted "Politician of the Year 2015" in an Internet poll by news service Visir.is.

"I don’t think there’s any one explanation for our popularity," Jonsdottir said in a telephone interview. "People are obviously tired of being promised the world ahead of elections, only to see political parties negotiate among themselves and back away from their promises after the elections."

Sensing the momentum, the party has started asking other political parties to state in advance whether they are prepared to join them in a coalition government. According to Jonsdottir, some of them are listening.

"We definitely don’t anticipate that the next election will bring about the same results that the polls have been showing,” she said. “That’s too optimistic. But our support has forced other parties to take a closer look at themselves."

The group can already claim some success, but it’s far from unique. The first of its kind was founded in Sweden in 2006 to defend Internet file sharing, and Pirate Parties have since competed in dozens of national elections across Europe, Canada and Australia. Yet none of them have come anywhere near the Icelandic branch in terms of popularity.

Gunnlaugsson said that anti-establishment movements are doing well across the Western world -- the prime minister includes Donald Trump in that list. What’s unique to Iceland is a particular level of mistrust in traditional politicians, and the banks in particular, as a result of the 2008 financial crisis.

So, what might a Pirate-led Icelandic government look like?

"There’s a strong anarchist streak there," Gunnlaugsson said, so "such a coalition would soon unravel."

But first, he needs to ensure he doesn’t walk the plank.

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