Shiver me timbers! Iceland's Pirate Party could seize power

Iceland's Pirate Party's website www.piratar.is
PHOTO: Screengrab

REYKJAVIK - Iceland boasts full employment, a peaceful society and a well-functioning welfare state - yet voters are so frustrated with the political establishment they're ready to elect the Pirate Party to power.

The country's legislative elections are still a year away, but the Pirate Party, started by WikiLeaks activist Birgitta Jonsdottir just over three years ago, has enjoyed enormous backing, garnering a whopping 41.8 percent of voter support in a January 28 poll.

A libertarian movement campaigning for more transparency in politics, Internet freedoms and copyright reform, the Pirate Party is modelled on a Swedish namesake founded in 2006.

Its meteoric rise has even surprised members of the party, which entered parliament in 2013.

When asked if they are ready to take the reins of power, Pirate Party lawmaker Asta Helgadottir, 25, answered with a frank and resounding "No".

"But I think a girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do. If we would get this much (of the) vote, we would be the first to get the right to form a government.

"It would be our duty towards our voters to actually deal with that," she told AFP.

The party's inexperience doesn't seem to put Icelanders off - rather the contrary.

Residents of this large island in the North Atlantic appear ready to turn their backs on the politicians whose complicity with the financial elite led to the spectacular 2008 collapse of the country's banking system.

Andrea Gudmundsdottir, a 54-year-old chef, used to vote for the traditional left-wing, currently in opposition and struggling in the polls, but now she's a strong supporter of the Pirate Party.

She wants to send a message to the traditional parties "telling them that we are fed up with the kind of politics they practice," she said.

"Especially the Independence Party and the Progressive Party," the two members of the centre-right coalition, she added.

Helga Vala Eysteinsdottir, a 24-year-old waitress, also said she saw the rise of the Pirate Party as "a step in the right direction."

"I'm sure the party will get good results in the general elections next year. And I trust them to govern."

From afar, it's hard to see why Icelanders would be so fed up with the establishment. There's none of the anger that led the radical left Syriza party to power in Greece or helped Podemos win 20 percent of the vote in Spain.

Unemployment at the end of 2015 was an enviable 1.9 percent, and purchasing power was boosted by generous wage increases.

Income inequality in Iceland is among the lowest in the world, and the end of the finance bubble helped reduce the gap further. The country's high life expectancy, 83 years, is proof of a good health system.

The country doesn't have much crime to speak of, and as a result the justice system was able to focus on the trials of the bankers responsible for the financial crisis. Almost 30 of them have been convicted.

But a recurring theme in the political debate has been frustration over tax cuts for the rich introduced by the centre-right government.

The Pirate Party sees the cuts as the fruit of an elitist and opaque political system which has rarely been reformed since Iceland gained independence from Denmark in 1944.

Under a left-wing government from 2009-2013, Iceland launched a spectacular project to reform its constitution through crowdsourcing.

A new basic law was drafted by 25 ordinary citizens and included proposals made on Twitter and Facebook. Sixty-six percent of citizens then approved it in a 2012 referendum, but it has remained stranded in parliament since then.

This "parliament still functions as in the 19th century," complained Helgadottir.

With her colleagues in the Pirate Party, she has discovered all the pitfalls elected officials encounter in trying to run the country.

In the Althing - the oldest existing parliament in the world, established in the year 930 - the Pirates have focused on their pet issues: transparency for public figures, human rights, and online privacy.

Their economic policies are however more vague.

Stefania Oskarsdottir, a political science professor at the University of Iceland, predicted the party would not be able to attract voters across the board in the long term.

She recalled that Pirate Party founder Jonsdottir "views the party as a leftist party and is sympathetic to the idea of forming an electoral bloc with the parties of the left." "These developments will deter people," she said.

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