If you’ve been online in the past seven years, you most likely know that the world has a minor fascination with Iceland’s criminal justice system. A number of stories with a varying degree of accuracy—some wholly false—have gone viral, trumpeting Iceland’s unique crackdown on crisis-related corporate fraud.
Last week, a conservative parliamentarian flipped the meme on its head by casting aspersions on an organisation with roots in post-collapse protests. In a floor speech, Independence Party MP Vilhjálmur Bjarnason called the Pirate Party a group “which associates with organised crime.” Given the Pirate Party’s origins and the trail of criminal financial calamity that friends of the Independence Party have left in their wake, the irony was rich.
Whether a ham-fisted attempt at humour or a genuine suggestion from a government that has cited labour disputes and the protests of 2008-2009 as justification for arming cops with submachine guns, the quip neatly tapped into the mainstream of contemporary Icelandic politics. The coalition government is stumbling from one crass scandal to the next. The Pirates, meanwhile, have been channeling the popular wrath with aplomb.
Untainted by pre-collapse politics, informed by the experience of the past few years, the upstart party was, according to an MMR poll in March, the most popular faction in Iceland, with 23.9 percent voter approval.
“A serious matter for the whole nation”
Public opinion over the past few years might speak more to the coalition government’s woeful shortcomings than to a genuine rise in support for the Pirates. In the aforementioned poll, the Progressive-Independence coalition government garnered just a 33.4 percent approval rating, down from 50 percent in October 2013. In the same time frame, support for the Pirates has mostly, until recent times, fluctuated between six and ten percent.
The Pirates’ good fortune in the past few months does, however, seem somewhat attributable to their responses to government cock-ups. When the coalition found itself subject to intense criticism after leaking false information about the Nigerian asylum seeker Tony Omos, for example, the Pirates said they were considering introducing a confidence vote on now-former Interior Minister Hanna Birna Kristjánsdóttir (she eventually resigned). In response, Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson mocked the Pirates as “the biggest supporters of leaks, legal and illegal”—a swipe at some Pirate MPs’ Wikileaks past. The party coolly replied with an acerbic missive pointing out the difference between individuals and institutions of state power. “It is a serious matter for the whole nation that the Prime Minister does not understand what government transparency entails,” the Pirates said in a statement.
Similarly, in response to Vilhjálmur Bjarnason’s comments, founding party member Smári McCarthy said the party’s name pointedly revels in its opposition to stringent intellectual property law, calling it a celebration of “a movement of people ostracised by well funded monopolists.” He urged Icelanders to see the insult for a ruse and to consider the idea that “organized crime is better recognized by patterns than names.”
“Alternatively, we could look long and hard at Icelandic society and ask ourselves whether there are any well funded monopolists engaged in any activities that follow the patterns of organised crime,” he said through online chat, from his current home in Sarajevo. “It’s almost amusing how quickly results crop up.”
The Pirates have also profited from the nature of the coalition’s foibles. Since they assumed power, the Independence and Progressive parties have enacted unpopular policies they didn’t campaign on in 2013—namely, the lowering of fees charged to fishing vessel owners, cuts to social services, and an attempt to unilaterally withdraw Iceland from European Union membership negotiations. Whereas other opposition parties have only taken issue with official policy, the Pirates have long intoned that betrayal is a feature, not a bug, of the system.
In an email, Pirate MP Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson pointed out that it isn’t clear if the coalition’s most recent high profile disdain for popular opinion—its executive initiative on the EU issue—has driven disaffected voters to his party’s ranks. Either way, he sees room for cooperation. “Whether this is support for our cause, or discontent with everyone else, the call is the same: democratic reform,” Helgi said.
The party has been a strong supporter of the post-crisis constitution drafted by an elected council only to stall in Parliament before the 2013 election. Among its sweeping devolutionary provisions are stipulations that essentially turn the electorate into a fourth branch of government. Articles 65 and 66, for example, set out a process that gives voters the power, via petition, to demand referenda—both on bills passed by Alþingi and on voters’ own proposals.
If the Pirates had their way long ago, the coalition government would have never gotten away with its shenanigans without having its feet held to the fire. Pirate MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir said, in the aftermath of the polling news, that she would be willing to work with parties dedicated to both constitutional reform and holding a referendum on EU membership.
All in favour, say “Arr”
That, of course, is one answer to the million krónur question: how will the Pirates and public opinion polls continue to affect one another?
One worry on the mind of party officials and supporters is how their infrastructure will scale. Based on an online system of constant feedback, the Pirates’ attempt to inject direct democracy into its deliberative process could mean the difference between lasting success and going the way of protest factions before it.
“Hopefully, we will manage to build up our infrastructure alongside this increase in popularity,” Helgi said.
Arnaldur Sigurðarson, member of the Pirate executive council and wearer of many hats for the party, said that the Pirates were gaining around 100 new members every day, around the time that news broke of their plurality.
“Last time I heard we were somewhere between 1,300 and 1,400,” Arnaldur said, via Facebook chat. In September, when the Pirates were still polling in the single digits, he said they had about 800 registered members.
Gunnar Grímsson, one of the two developers behind both Better Reykjavik and Better Iceland (online platforms used by the city and national government to solicit input on legislative matters) said that the importance of the party’s technology can’t be understated. Spats about the online platform Liquid Democracy, he said, have contributed to the Pirate Party of Germany’s woes of late.
But equally important, Gunnar said, will be to ensure the quality of Pirate candidates by weeding out opportunists, should the Pirates find themselves vying for a dozen seats at the start of an election campaign.
If the Pirates aren’t up to it, it’s likely some other entity will prove itself an outlet for anger. After the past few months saw public pressure force the resignation of Hanna Birna—only the sixth government minister in Iceland’s history to step down—one gets the feeling that even with the old guard back at the helm, Alþingi, after 2008, continues to be an exciting place for a strong chorus of minority voices once shut out of power.
Sam Knight is a journalist based in Washington, DC. He is writing a book on the Pirate Party and post-collapse political movements in Iceland.