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.