Published May 21, 2015
It’s a chilly winter afternoon when I check into the front desk of the parliament building in downtown Reykjavík. After warming up in the lobby for a few minutes, I am greeted by a tall, bearded man dressed in a tailored blazer and jeans, who somehow exudes the poise of an experienced politician and the casual ease of a rock star. He escorts me to his office across the street and asks me to take a seat on his blue, L-shaped sofa while he pours me a glass of water to drink. I can’t help but notice the acoustic guitar lying beside me on the couch as I prepare my notes for the interview, cluing me in that I was here for more than just a routine conversation about Icelandic current events and party politics.
This musician-turned-politician is Guðmundur Steingrímsson, the leader of the Bright Future Party—one of the most unconventional political movements in Iceland’s recent history. Tracing its origins partly to the satirical and surreal Best Party, formed by former Reykjavík mayor Jón Gnarr, the Bright Future movement campaigned its way into parliament in 2013, gaining 8.4% of the vote and six members. Some maintain that the Best Party was more like a lifestyle or a philosophy, while Bright Future is a party organized around that philosophy. The Best Party famously pledged to break all their promises; the Bright Future movement simply didn’t make any.
Using politeness and an unconventional way of speaking, Guðmundur and his colleagues have spent their tenure in Alþingi championing a variety of environmental, economic, and human rights causes, all while showing Icelanders just how absurd traditional party politics can be. However, the movement—though comedic and lighthearted—is no joke. The party holds firm policy positions, a comprehensive platform, and a distinctive vision for Iceland´s economic future. Regardless, recent polls from the Market and Media Research Center and Gallup have shown that their positive message has lost support among Icelanders, pushing the party into a state of crisis.
Can this fledgling political movement, which is built on such a satirical premise, maintain its momentum and remain relevant in future elections? Optimistic and determined, Guðmundur readily shares his ideas for moving the party forward and transforming Iceland’s political conventions and discourse, which he believes are in desperate need of reform.
Doing politics differently
“The Best Party and the Bright Future Party started as a sort of joyful revolution against old party politics,” Guðmundur explains, reclining in his office chair. “We shared the goal of doing politics more reasonably and positively, of being more constructive than destructive.” From the moment it was founded, the party’s membership grew rapidly: “When we first started, our email accounts exploded with letters from people interested in joining. Icelanders who never before took part in public affairs were suddenly engaged in political discussions.”
Since assuming the Bright Future Party’s chairmanship, Guðmundur has drawn upon lessons he learned as a musician to inform his party’s unique approach to policy-making. “In my band Ske, we always emphasized the importance of working together, which came naturally. Everything was a collaboration,” he says. “In families, for example, people settle their differences and work together to find rational solutions… I find it interesting how we collaborate to solve problems outside of politics all the time, but the minute we enter the political arena, we forget about finding workable solutions. Why in the realm of politics do we forget that this diversity of opinion is something beautiful, something valuable?”
He also explains the reasoning behind his party’s unusual approach to public relations, an approach characterized by its frankness and honesty. “In our platform, we listed everything as a goal, not a promise, so that people would better understand the reality of our situation… When setting goals, people always say in real life ‘I would like to…’ or ‘let’s try to…’ Too many politicians make grand promises they know they cannot keep… We realize that reaching consensus and accomplishing goals in politics is complicated, so we mean to be forthcoming as a way of building trust with our constituents and doing politics more responsibly.”
Guðmundur and his colleagues also have a wealth of ideas for reducing toxic rhetoric in parliament and improving the way Icelanders debate controversial issues. “I would like to see us sit more at roundtables to have discussions instead of standing so much behind a podium and cutting each other down on live television. The way we do politics now seems to inhibit productive discussions and prevent unity among the parties.”
In May 2014, the Social Democrats swept into power at the municipal level, ending the Best Party’s four-year reign in Reykjavík’s city council. The newly merged Best and Bright Future parties retained only two seats, down from the six places they held under their previous name. Undeterred, Guðmundur actually views these results as a promising victory for the movement: “It’s typical to consider the mayoral election results a loss, but Bright Future is not the same as the Best Party and we never expected to gain the same momentum in Reykjavík as the Best Party did in 2010. For Bright Future to get between 15 and 20% of the vote in the largest municipalities in Iceland is exceptionally good. We gained eleven members in local governments all around the country, and are now taking part in majorities in Reykjavík, Hafnarfjörður, Kópavogur and Akranes, which really gives us an opportunity to show what we are made of.”
- Guðmundur Steingrímsson is the chair of the Bright Future party.
- Before founding the party in 2012, he was a member of both the Social Democratic Alliance and the Progressive Party.
- He used to be the vocalist and keyboard player in the Icelandic band Ske.
- He has worked as a journalist, TV presenter and writer.
- He could see himself being a carpenter post-politics.
However, recent polling dampens Guðmundurʼs optimistic outlook. A group of newly released public opinion surveys named the Pirate Party the largest, most-trusted political movement in Iceland; Bright Future even secured last place in some of these polls. When confronted with these gloomy statistics, Guðmundur stands behind the work he and his colleagues have done and continue to do nationwide: “We don’t have any plans of action other than to keep doing a good job in parliament and the municipalities, get our agenda heard, and I think we’ve done a good job of that. We’ve been professional, tackled politics with great depth and sincerity, not been swayed by private interests but kept public interests at heart and looked at the bigger picture–that’s been our guiding light.”
In fact, Guðmundur and his fellow Bright Future parliamentarians are hard at work building a platform that appeals to a broader range of constituencies. “Right at the beginning, we realized the need to increase variety in our industries and focus on creating jobs that are suitable for young people… Polls among young Icelanders show that they are considering moving abroad, which is of great concern to us.” In light of these troubling statistics, the Bright Future Party has fought to fund more research and development, the green economy, and the creative industry—things they consider of great importance to Iceland’s younger population.
Far from a passive, one-issue party, the Bright Future movement has also taken some more contentious policy positions on key issues, supporting EU membership and staunchly opposing the majority coalition’s mortgage bailout. “Politics is a funny place to be in,” he notes. “One party is successful if 80% of the people are against it. To gain support, a party must simply seek out those who agree with it and try to enlarge that group. There will always be people who vote for the most populist, irresponsible party there is, the one that promises big results quickly… However, we are not a populist party; we try to base our policies on facts and sound statistics. This means also that we will always fight against prejudices, including those kinds of nationalistic movements that are growing in Europe and that we might be starting to see here. We reject politics that are based on ignorance. We embrace variety and peace.”
Guðmundur’s bright future
After discussing and debating politics for almost two hours, I finally ask Guðmundur what a “bright future” for himself might look like. “Well, I would like to accomplish a lot of things in politics, but perhaps I will quit public life someday and work full-time as a carpenter,” he says, smiling and stroking his beard pensively. “I would like to lead a happy life with my wife and kids in our house, which we are currently renovating. I also write novels and have an open document on my computer at all times with stories and thoughts… I would, of course, like to perform more music [Guðmundur is an accomplished accordion player] and just enjoy the moment… oh, and hopefully not contract any ugly or deadly disease.” We laugh.
Realizing the time, I gather up my notes, and Guðmundur walks back toward the parliament building with me, cracking jokes along the way. We say goodbye and part ways, but I ponder our discussion long into the afternoon and evening. It remains to be seen if the Bright Future movement’s influence is here to stay or simply a flash in the pan. For now, Guðmundur and the party he chairs are the clear underdogs, holding fast to the idea that even something as bitter and brutal as politics can still be done with civility, positivity, and a dose of good humour.