The pirate party pillaging parliamen

Standing at 36 percent in the polls, Iceland's Pirate Party is shaking up the political establishment and could transform the country for good

On the walls of the office is a poster of Bradley Manning with hair drawn on to turn him into Chelsea Manning. Next to the portrait is a large V for Vendetta poster and blocking most of the window is a huge Jolly Roger, the skull-and-crossbones symbolising piracy.

In Iceland’s 2013 election the Pirate Party received just five percent of the vote, enough for three of the 63 seats in the Icelandic parliament, Althingi. But in early 2015, the party’s popularity started to climb. In late November, they polled at 36.3 percent, which makes them the single most popular party. The coalition government – the centre-right government of the Progressive Party (Framsóknarflokkurinn) and the Independence Party (Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn) – together only poll at around 40 percent.

The Pirate Party is a strange political organisation and its cofounder and Captain Birgitta Jónsdóttir is an odd politician. Her job title doesn’t read politician, but rather ‘poetician.’

“I was raised by a radical mother, a musician who performed at rallies against the US garrison in Iceland. I was in a way a born activist as I was never able to remain silent when I saw something wrong. I’ve been involved in environmental protests, fought against the Iraq War and for nine months I protested weekly outside the Chinese embassy against their human rights violations. There is something special and fun about being at a protest, the unity makes me feel the same way some people feel about football matches.”

Jónsdóttir got heavily involved in the weekly post 2008-crisis protests in Reykjavik and, in 2009, was elected to parliament for a new party called The Citizen’s Council (Borgarhreyfingin). The party disbanded soon after due to infighting. Not long after Jónsdóttir – who was among the first female computer programmers in Iceland – attended a conference where she met Wikileaks founder Julian Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg. Their discussion lead to the creation of the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), which sought to turn Iceland into a leader in the fields of freedom of expression and information. IMMI was unanimously passed by parliament in 2010 and would later provide the foundation for the Pirate Party.

Only in Iceland
IT entrepreneur Rick Falkvinge founded the original Pirate Party in Sweden in 2006 to combat and challenge copyright laws. It spread to other parts of Europe, but aside from one German MEP in the European Parliament, it has failed to gain significant traction outside Iceland.

“I think we have succeeded in Iceland because we started dealing with bigger things and looking at the systems in society. I think what also hurt the original pirates was that they focused too technically on issues of copyright laws and were unable to convey their message in a language that people could relate to.”

Stefanía Óskarsdóttir, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iceland, admits to being just as surprised and stumped as everyone else.

“Nobody knows the answer, even them. But it seems that politics changed drastically after the 2008 financial crisis,” she explains. “Party allegiances have weakened, while the general trust in parliament has dropped. The four traditional parties have all suffered and there is an air of suspicion against the system. The Pirate Party ticks the anti-establishment box, they represent something different. At first I didn’t think they could maintain momentum, but now it is impossible to say.”

Challenging the norms
Jónsdóttir wears the badge of unorthodoxy proudly and laughs as she talks about breaking Althingi’s inner laws, by disregarding the strict dress code, taking a computer to the floor, and inappropriately addressing the president of Iceland.

“I think people are responding to the fact that we don’t know how to be politicians. We don’t talk or look like other politicians and we have this Robin Hood attitude by taking power and giving it to the people through a more direct democracy. What we have also been doing is what all good hackers do, looking at the systems in society and finding the cracks.”

The party’s high-profile bills have been both popular, like the creation a new constitution, and radical, such as the proposal for a basic income for everyone. Óskarsdóttir  says the party must tread more carefully in the lead up to the 2017 election, when they have to find candidates.

“We have explained our positions a billion times, but people try to spread nonsense, like the allegation that we are against all forms of copyright laws,” says Jónsdóttir, before, turning on the finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson, who has criticised the Pirate Party for being “flaky and lacking structure.”

“I find it hilarious when Benediktsson says things like that about us,” says Jónsdóttir. “He is somebody who routinely makes promises but then goes back on his words.” M


By Elias Thorsson

Managing editor. @Eliasthorsson

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