Published November 12, 2013
The boring answer is that he is the mayor of Reykjavík. He has been in the news lately because he announced that he was not seeking re-election in next spring’s municipal elections. The more exciting answer is that he is a Predator-style alien who descended upon planet Icelandic Politics and wreaked havoc.
Does that mean he’s got a shoulder cannon and can go invisible?
No, but that is how he described himself in an interview shortly after his 2010 electoral victory. While the Predator never ran for political office, Jón Gnarr did come out of nowhere to triumph against seasoned political warriors. Prior to his political career, he was famous as a stand-up comic, radio comedian and actor. He founded his political party, Besti flokkurinn, or The Best Party, pretty much as a joke, but then harnessed the anger that many people felt towards politicians after the financial collapse and rode that anger to victory.
And behold an angry horse, and he that sat on him had a shoulder cannon and could go invisible at will.
His party formed a coalition with one of the established parties, Samfylkingin, The Social Democratic Alliance, so he did not operate completely on his own like an alien hunter from outer space. But there were times when Jón Gnarr probably wished he could go invisible or shoot people with a shoulder cannon. The part of the political world that did treat him like a beast out of the Book of Revelations was the right-wing Independence Party.
Did they dress his likeness up in drag and call it the Whore of Babylon?
No, but he himself made it a yearly tradition to dress in drag and speak at Gay Pride. It will be interesting to see if future mayors continue that tradition. And while it would not surprise me if the more extreme activists in the Independence Party referred to him as the Whore of Babylon, they never have done so in public. They have, however, shouted rude words at him in public.
That doesn’t sound terribly extreme. That happens to politicians all over the world.
That is true, but it is pretty unheard of in Iceland, especially in the context of the most famous incident, which took place at a neighbourhood meeting. In Reykjavík, these meetings are traditionally about as raucous as a dentist’s waiting room and cause about the same level of excitement as a yearly prostate exam. The chair of the local Independence Party association used that as a platform to say some quite nasty things to Jón Gnarr’s face.
How did Jón Gnarr and his party manage to gain control in the city and anger their opponents so thoroughly?
The short answer is instability. Since the financial crash public opinion has swung behind one politician after another, only for that politician to lose favour almost immediately after being embraced. The long answer is also instability. From the end of World War II until the Cold War sputtered to a close, there was a fairly stable system of four parties, the largest being the Independence Party. The other three were Framsóknarflokkurinn, the Progressive Party, a party of farmers and cooperatives; Alþýðuflokkurinn, Social Democrats; and Alþýðubandalagið, Communists. Things have changed a lot now. The Progressive Party still exists, but has travelled far from its agrarian roots. The Social Democrats, the Communists and two other parties joined together to found Samfylkingin in 1998, but then the Left-Greens started up as a more left-wing alternative in 1999.
Wait, hold on… you said that there was a four party system, but then how did four different parties join up to found Samfylkingin?
The four party system was never very rigid, many other short lived parties flamed across the political firmament. This became even more pronounced as the firm lines of cold war politics started to crack. The feminist Women’s List had representation in parliament from 1983 until 1999, when it joined Samfylkingin. The list of other shorter lived parties is long and too boring to get into.
When things are boring, it’s easy for a funny guy to get attention.
And when ideological lines are muddled and people are angry, it is easy for a smart, charismatic politician to be embraced by the public. Fortunately for all, Jón Gnarr turned out to be a pretty decent administrator whose thirst for power was limited enough that he decided to step down after one term in office. And I suppose we citizens of Reykjavík can also be happy that a charismatic politician who attained executive power during times of financial turmoil and political disillusionment did not turn the city into a private hunting reserve to shoot us with his shoulder cannon, like Thatcher did.