From Iceland — The Gnarr Effect

The Gnarr Effect

We were scrolling through our Facebook newsfeed the other day when we stumbled upon the phrase “the Gnarr effect.” We were intrigued. What is this so-called “Gnarr effect”? WHAT DOES IT MEAN? To learn more, we decided to track down the man responsible for coining the phrase. So, over a cup of coffee, we got Ólafur Þ. Harðarson, dean of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Iceland, to explain the catch phrase, The Best Party’s surprising success, and what it means for Iceland’s four established parties.

In his Facebook diary, Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr recently wrote that he visited the University of Iceland and learned that he had become a concept in political science: “the Gnarr effect.” What was he referring to?

Well I actually met Jón that day and we were discussing The Best Party and what kind of party it was, its ideology and so on, and I told him that I get a lot of international journalists asking me to explain The Best Party and the Gnarr phenomenon, if you like. Through discussions this with journalists, I think I probably coined the phrase, “the Gnarr effect.” So it’s not really a theoretical political science term [Ólafur laughs]. For a new party that is anti-establishment, satirical, and made-up-of-comedians, it is highly unusual to obtain a third of the vote. And as I have been using the phrase, “the Gnarr effect” simply refers to the impact that The Best Party’s extreme success has had on the other parties.

Why was The Best Party so unusually successful?

The reason is two-fold. First, the Icelandic voters had extremely little trust for the four established parties. Second, The Best Party was very different from, for instance, many of the protest parties in Europe, which had been getting up to 10–15% in some cases.

Many of those protest parties have been extremely right wing and xenophobic. There has been some electoral market for that kind of ideology, but those parties are not getting anything like a third of the vote. The Best Party, on the other hand, presented itself as a party with little emphasis on ideology, and the party also had relatively nice, presentable candidates. So my explanation of their success is that many voters thought that they could, by voting for The Best Party, show their dislike of the established parties—at low risk.

Low risk? Jón Gnarr’s platform was about bringing a polar bear to the zoo and things like that.

Ah, yes, but people didn’t take that very seriously. He was basically saying, ‘we are nice guys, we have no extreme ideology and we are fed up with politics as it has been.’ When he was asked detailed questions on policy, he said we have an excellent public administration that will take care of the technicalities. A lot of people were prepared to take a chance on such a party. They probably thought, even if they get some members elected, it won’t be a disaster.

Back to the “the Gnarr effect,” specifically what kind of impact is it having on the established parties?

Well, The Best Party’s success is a powerful deterrent against calling for new parliamentary elections, which some of the established parties would otherwise like to do in light of the present difficulties. To a certain extent, “the Gnarr effect” will also lead the established parties to do some soul searching, to ask, ‘what did we do wrong? What do we have to do to gain back the trust of the people and avoid something like this from happening again?’

Was the crash itself not enough to get the parties soul searching?

To some extent. The SIC [Special Investigative Committee] Report was extremely critical of the political system, the parties, and the culture—basically, how Iceland has been practicing politics for the last decades. The Parliamentary commission’s report also basically concluded that the political culture in Iceland has serious defects, and there are a lot of things, both in terms of legislation and political practices, that should be reformed. The important thing is, one, a committee with representatives from all of the parties came to the same critical conclusion in a resolution and, two, all 63 members of parliament voted for this resolution. That, of course, means that MPs from the parties responsible for those old practices are at least verbally saying, ‘okay, there’s a problem and we have to do something about it.’ Whether or not they are going to do something about it is an entirely different question.

At this point though, do you think it matters if the established parties attempt to reform, or aren’t people just too fed up to listen to them?

It’s impossible to say. Historically, party support stays roughly the same. It’s rare for major parties to die when you have great discontentment among voters—the exception being Italy in the early ‘90s. The old parties almost always adapt to new situations. However, shifting the political agenda is far easier than changing a heavily ingrained political culture. In the worst-case scenario for the established parties, people get completely fed up with those rascals in the established parties and can vote for anything because they think it can’t get any worse. That could be The Best Party. That could be a xenophobic party. That could be a new centre party. It’s impossible to predict. So if the old parties do not adapt and reinvent themselves, there is increasing probability of “the Gnarr effect.”

Do you think The Best Party has a shot in the next parliamentary elections then?

Well, my guess is that most voters would not be prepared to take the risk of voting for a party like The Best Party, which has little experience and almost no ideology, because there is more at stake when governing the country than there is when governing the city. People might think it’s okay to have Jón Gnarr as a nice mayor in Reykjavík, but to have him as a prime minister is another question. Voters will ask questions such as, “Is it likely that Jón Gnarr and those lovable, respectable artists would really be good at reorganising the economy and running a country with no experience in politics?” I think it would be more difficult for a party like The Best Party to succeed at the parliamentary level.

But were you not surprised when The Best Party did so well in the city elections?

Yes, I was surprised. As a political scientist, I am trained in observing politics as it usually is, and then you get something that is completely unexpected and out of the ordinary. One of the fascinating aspects of Jón Gnarr and The Best Party is how ambiguous the whole operation is—you never know when they are serious and when they are not. Are they just making a parody of the political system and warning conventional politicians or is there something else to it? We are in completely unknown territory now, so we’ll just have to see how things unfold. And I have to admit, as a political scientist, this has of course been very interesting—in the same way that economists find economic disasters to be very interesting and geologists find eruptions to be very interesting.

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