What should the President of a country be? Ástþór Magnússon is a peace activist, a politician, a businessman, and an author. But above all these things, he’s an idealist. He’s run for President of Iceland three times previously, starting in 1996. He hasn’t won yet.
The Eurocard, Iceland’s first credit card, was his gift (or curse) to the Icelandic people, but he wants you to give back. Not only by voting for him, but also by believing in yourself as a nation that can decide things for itself. Can the champion of the people become the people’s champion?
I called Ástþór and told him my ignorance of history and my enthusiasm for hearing what he had to say.
How did this start? How did you begin this nearly two-decade quest for the Presidency?
In 1994, I founded the Peace 2000 Institute in Reykjavík. My co-founders were around 1000 people from 100 organizations around the world. Our opening meeting was in Háskólabíó. One of the founders was the former Prime Minister of Iceland. There were many people of the United Nations. The aim of this organization is to come with new ideas in world politics.
I wrote a book called ‘Virkjum Bessastaði’. The main idea was that the President of Iceland would become an ambassador for peace—spreading a new idealism based on Iceland’s history of the Alþingi and the meeting that took place at Thingvellir in the year 1000. Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði averted a civil war in Iceland there, dealing with a clash between Ásatrú and Christianity, by stating that people should be allowed to practice other religions, quietly. He came with a compromise that the people accepted and avoided a civil war. This is the story that I want the Icelandic President to tell the world. I think this story is as important for the people of earth to hear as the story of Christ. We have to have tolerance for all religions but have to avoid them clashing. God is like a mountain. It just depends where you are looking at the mountain. You will see different facades.
I said in 1996, “I will sponsor anyone who will spread this message, but if nobody picks it up, I will run myself.”
In Iceland, it’s commonly seen as rude to run against an incumbent President. How has this affected your mission?
It’s almost seen as a crime to run against an incumbent President, but it was different in 1996. SHE was stepping down and there were five of us running. I was too centrist. There was Ólafur Ragnar, a man of the left, and Pétur Kr. Hafstein, a conservative candidate. People kept coming to my office and telling me they had to vote for Olafur Ragnar to make sure the conservative candidate didn’t win.
Since your initial run, you’ve been running almost consistently and consecutively. Why do you want to be President?
It’s not about me being President. Well, at least not as much as I want the nation to use the Presidency as an advocate for peace around the world. In 1996, at the same time I was running for President, I also put forth an idea to start a Peace University—studying new ways to structure democracy. I pointed out that Iceland is a small society. It’s an ideal breeding ground for new ideas and a great place to test them on a small scale. We could test direct democracy here fairly easily.
I have also given the idea that our bank machines, our ATMs, could be used as voting machines. Every so often you could vote on major issues in a place that has security and anonymity. It’s an idea that I think would work.
But basically, I want the Presidency to be an advocate for peace and for the environment. If we are going to have a home on this planet, there are two issues: we have to live in peace and we need to take care of the environment. We need to change politics in a way to enhance this.
How can the President advocate for peace? What does that mean other than an empty gesture?
With the way we are going on in the Middle East, we are feeding a snake in the sand which will eventually rise up against us. If you look at ISIS, that is a snake rising up against us. We have been spilling the blood of innocent people in the Middle East and for what? Profits of oil or whatever. This is not the way we need to run this planet.
How can we be doing better for the environment? What is the President supposed to do?
We could do incentives, making it more economical to do things in an environmentally friendly way. This could be done with taxes or other incentives. Also, we could be looking into other energy sources.
A lot of your ideas line up with the ideas of the Pirate Party…
The Pirate Party is saying many of the things I said in 1996 and in my book. We are both talking about direct democracy. I think finally that people are realising that more direct democracy is a good thing, not a bad thing. If you can trust the nation to select their representatives, you can trust the nation to know what to do with the major issues.
The problem is: if it’s only left to members of parties, a member of parliament will lose his independence to stay in line with his party. A party can push agendas, sometimes hidden agendas, that might not be in the interest of the general public.
If the general public is making decisions on major issues, doesn’t that give the media significantly more power?
You can form public opinion with the media. We need to be very strict and have declared legislation around media. Every media should have to put aside a certain amount of air time for each candidate.
For twenty years I’ve been up against this. In 1996, Ólafur had the largest independent media organization supporting him. The managing director of that media company was campaign director for Ólafur. In a way, this is why in Iceland we have a banana republic.
We’ve had editorials in Iceland criticizing the presidential election in Russia—because the candidates didn’t have access to the media! It was like throwing stones in a glass house. That is exactly what was happening to me.
From a media standpoint, especially in the visual culture we’re living in, you seem like an easy target for internet memes and jokes. You seem to be characterized as eccentric because you always have your eyes bulging wide open in a comical way.
Well, of course I have my eyes wide open. I am the only one who can see things clearly.
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