Reykjavík, Iceland—Though she’s grown out the blue-dyed coiffure, Birgitta Jónsdóttir still brightens up the anodyne halls of the Althing, Iceland’s parliament in Reykjavík, the country’s capital. In stockinged feet, a white-cotton hippie skirt, and a dark-blue embroidered waistcoat, the 49-year-old Jónsdóttir refuses to fit the classic mold of politician, even though she’s occupied a parliamentary seat for seven years, since 2012 as the front person of the Pirate Party. Jónsdóttir, the former WikiLeaks spokesperson and a published lyricist, calls herself a “poetician,” since verse is her true calling, she says, not the daily grind of politics. Yet if Iceland’s national elections were held today and not on October 29, the Pirates could head up a new government on this rugged island of 330,000 souls—possibly with Jónsdóttir as prime minister.
Iceland’s political status quo—a Nordic-style parliamentary democracy, dominated for decades by pro-NATO conservatives—was shattered when the country went bust in the 2008 financial crisis, pitching Iceland into its deepest crisis since full independence and the republic were declared in 1944. This year, Iceland was rocked again when the Panama Papers leak exposed corruption among top politicos, including the prime minister, who resigned under fire. “People here are angry and frustrated,” says Karl Blöndal, deputy editor of the center-right Morgunbladid. “In the minds of many voters, the Pirates are the only untainted party, and with them Birgitta carries authority. She’s been the face of the opposition since the crash.”
Although the Pirates began surging in polls more than a year ago, peaking at 43 percent in April, Jónsdóttir has been coy about whether she’d take the country’s highest post if elections go in the party’s favor and supporters insist on her as prime minister. (Iceland’s Pirates have slipped considerably in surveys since early this year; currently, they’re neck and neck with the ruling Independence Party.) The object of her desire, she says, is the Althing’s presidency, an office from which she could reinvest power in the legislature—one means of bringing politics nearer to the people, a cause close to Pirate hearts.
“We’re fighting for fundamental democratic change,” Jónsdóttir says in her office in the Althing, its walls decorated with a “Free Bradley Manning” poster (Chelsea’s hair added in magic marker), a picture of the Dalai Lama, and an oversize black flag bearing the skull and crossbones. The top shelf has a hand-held red megaphone. If she can’t spearhead meaningful structural reform in the upcoming term, she’ll step back from politics. “I won’t be here in four years,” says Jónsdóttir, who insists she won’t stand by to watch the Pirates devolve into just another hack party in a dysfunctional system.
Iceland’s Pirates, though they currently hold only three spots in the 64-seat parliament, are among the highest-profile of Europe’s Pirate parties. The anarchic hacker-led movement, global in scope, focuses on privacy rights and freedom of expression in the digital age. Born a decade ago in Sweden, and since turbo-charged by WikiLeaks’ and Edward Snowden’s disclosures about NSA surveillance, the Pirates have dozens of chapters worldwide, from Australia to Canada, and a headquarters in Geneva. Iceland’s Pirates were the first in the world voted into a national legislature.
Indeed, Jónsdóttir and Iceland’s Pirates see themselves as part of something greater than the direct-democracy uprising they’re leading in the chill North Atlantic. They understand Iceland as the “test grounds for radical progressive changes,” and they stand for an international legalization of WikiLeaks, asylum for Edward Snowden, and legalizing drugs across Europe. They say they’ll turn diminutive Iceland (a country so small its citizens are listed in the phone book by first names) into an international digital safe haven where data, such as whistle-blower revelations, can be securely transmitted and stored.
The forms of grassroots democracy they’ve been experimenting with—participatory budgeting at the municipal level and crowd-sourced legislation, among others—feed into an international network of lateral-thinking local governments and movements from below that employ the Internet to bridge the gap between the grassroots and the halls of power. The broad-scope platform of Iceland’s Pirates, which also includes a basic-income guarantee and radical action on climate change, has kept it from the fate of other, more narrowly conceived Pirate parties in Europe, like Germany’s, which has withered since it burst onto the stage in 2007 with demands for Net neutrality and data-retention limits.
Yet, though often compared to Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos, the Pirates aren’t classic leftists, and they wave off labels. “We do not want the nanny state that is often the traditional leftist perspective in Scandinavia,” Jónsdóttir has said. “But we want to empower people.” Labeled or not, they’re also for jacking up taxes on the wealthy and have siphoned off swaths of voters from Iceland’s Left-Green Movement and Social Democrats.
The centerpiece of the Pirates’ election campaign is the promulgation of a new constitution. A crowd-sourced draft, conceived by about 1,000 randomly chosen citizens and a much smaller legal committee that wrote it, was formulated in the wake of the economic crisis. The draft included stipulations to renationalize natural-resource-based industries and institute mechanisms for civic governance. In 2012, 66 percent of Iceland’s voters approved the draft in a nonbinding referendum.
The current Constitution, originally promulgated in the 19th century, when Iceland languished under Danish rule (the term “monarch” was simply replaced by “president”), is a woeful anachronism, Jónsdóttir insists. The laws of the land, though not exclusively responsible for the 2008 crash or Iceland’s corruption, enabled the executive overreach and cronyism that made it possible. The public has no say in its processes except for elections, and there’s a strong executive with too little oversight. The draft constitution’s frontal attack on the elite’s power, she says, is why it remains stonewalled in the Althing. (Other observers, including Icelandic scholars as well as the Council of Europe, say that legal irregularities and structural weaknesses make the draft constitution unacceptable.)
Iceland’s tumultuous politics, and the pirates’ unlikely popularity, are the fallout of autumn 2008 and its aftershocks. A decade ago, Iceland’s economic miracle was sold as a laissez-faire fairy tale. From the late 1990s through the ’00s, Iceland rode high with newfound wealth created by the neoliberal policies that its champions proudly hailed as the legacy of Reagan and Thatcher. In Iceland, though, it wasn’t mortgages that fueled the virtual boom, sending investors and lay people alike scurrying to borrow and buy, but rather fish. (So central to Iceland’s economy are the fisheries that when an Icelander catches a whiff from a fish-processing plant, he or she smiles approvingly and says, “Ah, the smell of money.”) The privatization of the fisheries in the 1990s created billions in fish stock that were invested and used as collateral to borrow abroad and spend wildly as traditionally poor Iceland never had before. In 2008, before the economy’s implosion, Icelanders were spending 213 percent of their household income a year.
During the binge, Iceland’s politicos slashed taxes, cut banking regulations, and, along with the fisheries, privatized telecommunications, energy, and banks. From 2002 to ’08, Iceland’s stock market soared by 900 percent. The bold, risk-taking alpha-investors were referred to as Iceland’s “business Vikings,” national heroes who had finally discovered a way for Icelanders to get rich by doing nothing, rather than trolling the high seas or herding sheep.
And then, like a house of cards, it all came crashing down when the foreign bonds came due. Iceland’s national debt breached $175,000 a head, a financial train wreck of epic proportions, and overnight the country found itself caught in the vortex. Its currency, the krona, plunged on world markets as speculators bet against it. The economy nose-dived, Iceland’s three biggest banks collapsed, and the country’s billions in virtual wealth were wiped off ledgers. The debt, though, wasn’t. Unemployment tripled, thousands of businesses failed, and young Icelanders fled abroad.
In contrast to Europe and the United States, however, Iceland refused to rescue the banks with taxpayer money; instead, the failed banks were renationalized. Iceland chose instead to protect its citizens, first by imposing capital controls so that money couldn’t leave the country and, second, by expanding the social safety net. “Iceland did the right thing…creditors, not the taxpayers, shouldered the losses of banks,” said economist and Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz in 2011. The bankers were eventually sent to jail: 26 financiers received sentences totaling 74 years.
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The government’s initial refusal to resign triggered the so-called Pots and Pans Revolution, as a quarter of the population took to the streets night after night for a week, loudly banging on the kitchen hardware of their stressed household economies. Jónsdóttir was at its forefront, as co-founder of a new group called Citizens’ Movement. After the government’s resignation, new elections resulted in a Left-Green/Social Democrat coalition, the first ever in Icelandic history. (The new prime minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, became the world’s only openly gay female head of state.) Jónsdóttir entered the Althing as the sole representative of the people’s movement. Among the new leadership’s first moves, in addition to banning strip clubs in feminist-minded Iceland, was to initiate a participatory process to formulate a modern constitution, a key demand of the protesters.
At the time, with her blue hair, Jónsdóttir was likened to the older sister of Swedish author Stieg Larsson’s cyberpunk heroine Lisbeth Salander. (These days, the rangy woman with an unruly mop of brown hair and ice-blue eyes more resembles a Waldorf school teacher.) And her CV looked nothing like that of a typical Icelandic politician. Jónsdóttir was born in 1967; her mother was an Icelandic folk singer, her stepfather a fisherman. As a child, she worked in her village’s fisheries—until she discovered punk rock, anarchism, and psychedelic drugs. At 22, she published her first book of poetry. Jónsdóttir traveled the world, including a stint in Philadelphia, where she worked as a door-to-door saleswoman of vacuum cleaners. Then, back in Iceland, the single mother of three (each with a different father) dived into the Internet, teaching herself software development.
In 2010, Jónsdóttir, by then an MP and digital activist, was among the inner circle of volunteers in Iceland (where WikiLeaks had been founded in 2006, though without Jónsdóttir’s participation) who helped Julian Assange assemble the secret footage of a bloody 2007 US helicopter attack on Iraqi citizens in Baghdad, the primary source of which had been US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea Manning. The product was the “Collateral Murder” video, which put WikiLeaks and Assange on the global map and made Jónsdóttir a valued member of the international WikiLeaks team. (In the 2013 thriller The Fifth Estate, Jónsdóttir is played by Dutch actress Carice van Houten, whom we now know as Melisandre in Game of Thrones.) Since then, she’s toured the United States and beyond to speak about the video, the jailed Manning’s plight, and international free-speech laws. In 2011, the US government served a subpoena demanding personal data from her Twitter feed, which she has fought in US courts.
Iceland’s first and probably last ever red-green government lasted exactly one term before voters chased it out of office in 2013. Like other debt-stricken European nations, Iceland was compelled to implement an austerity program designed by the International Monetary Fund while in deep recession, sharply reducing many social expenditures and raising taxes. Even though their bite never lived up to their bark, the leftists hardly deserved the drubbing they got, and even less so their replacement by the conservatives, who had set the country up to belly-flop a mere five years earlier. But the painful austerity measures condemned the leftists to suffer their countrymen’s ire. Soon thereafter, Icelanders soured on the conservatives again, even though the economy was experiencing a remarkable upswing, which had begun to kick in during the latter years of the red-green coalition. Although today there’s still outstanding debt and the economy’s performance falls well short of its highs 10 years ago, by 2015 joblessness was down to 4 percent, with growth ticking up at the same rate.
The recovery had two pillars. One was Iceland’s traditional mainstay, fish exports. A new cash cow, however, namely tourism, baffled no one more than Icelanders. The April 2010 volcanic eruptions at Eyjafjallajökull, which left Europe in a blanket of fine gray ash, set off a tourism bonanza that continues to this day. “From one day to the next, our stands at tourism fairs were mobbed,” says Halldóra Mogensen, who works in the tourism branch. Tourism doubled in volume, surpassing 1.3 million people in 2015—four times Iceland’s population. Judging by the boutiques in downtown Reykjavík and the astronomical prices of everything (a plain pizza in an unspectacular restaurant goes for $32), it’s a distinctly high-end tourism tsunami that has flooded the country. Whether it’s a visit to the Blue Lagoon (the open-air turquoise geothermal pool outside of Reykjavík), whale watching, or volcano tours, the lines are longer every year. (And don’t even try getting into Kaffibarinn—the bar made famous in Baltasar Kormákur’s cult comedy 101 Reykjavík—on the weekend.)
But Iceland’s feel-good recovery hit a speed bump that threw the island nation into turmoil once more. In April, the Panama Papers exposed thousands of people with offshore businesses being used as tax havens or to conceal other types of fraud. The politicians implicated included Iceland’s prime minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who had campaigned on promises to clean up the banking system. Although his millions in foreign holdings broke none of the country’s laws, the hypocrisy infuriated a nation still smarting from the economic collapse. Initially, Gunnlaugsson refused to step down—until Icelanders piled into Austurvöllur Square behind the Althing once again. He finally resigned on April 5, his successor bowing to the pressure to call new elections.
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Although much of Jónsdóttir’s and the Pirates’ popular esteem hinges on their antiestablishment cred, the party and its civil-society allies have some real achievements to their credit, the likes of which few of their global Pirate counterparts can claim. For example, at the Pirates’ prodding, Iceland repealed its blasphemy laws in the wake the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks in France—a victory for free-speech advocates. And the party’s call to offer asylum to Edward Snowden has found sympathetic ears, even if, as Jónsdóttir believes, Iceland wouldn’t be safe for him.
With its geothermal resources, strong winds, and plentiful rivers, Iceland could be a world leader in sustainable development, the Pirates insist. “Climate change is in our faces, and nobody gives a fuck,” Jónsdóttir says. She argues that Iceland could be fossil-fuel-free in the near future, if it only set its mind to it.
The question that the October elections may answer is whether the Pirates are simply a flash in the pan, nothing more than a protest party. Its comedown in the polls this year has led some observers to believe that when Icelanders enter the voting booth, they’ll back their traditional parties.
Iceland’s leftist parties attack the Pirates for being vague and amateurish: For example, they’ve struggled to stock their election slates with acceptable candidates or even to thrash out a common platform. Silja Bára Ómarsdóttir, a political scientist close to the Left-Green Movement, notes that there are central issues, like agriculture reform, on which the Pirates have no position at all. “If the Pirates are for putting laws and policies to referenda or crowd-sourcing legislation,” Ómarsdóttir asks, “then what is the elected representatives’ political stand on these issues? What is one voting for when one votes for the Pirates? Who are these people voting online to determine Iceland’s policies?”
If Jónsdóttir doesn’t want to be prime minister, others argue, then whom are Icelanders voting for when they cast their ballot for the Pirates? And, given Jónsdóttir’s principled refusal to compromise, how will the Pirates negotiate with potential coalition partners? Moreover, say critics, the average Icelander beyond Reykjavík’s hipster bars worries more about bread-and-butter issues than Internet freedom and Snowden’s fate.
“I believe Iceland’s ready for real change,” Jónsdóttir counters. “We’ve mobilized a quarter of Icelanders to be Pirates. That’s pretty cool.” Nor will the Pirates end up like Syriza in Greece, she says. “Syriza just caved in. I’m doing everything to get us ready. We may fail, but we’re not going to compromise like that. We’re not going to take power for the sake of power.”