Pirates Causing Trouble in Iceland

Hafnarfjorður, Iceland.

On a sunny but chilly afternoon last Friday, I interviewed Jón Þór Ólafsson, one of the three MP´s of the Pirate Party in Iceland and the first and only ones in a national parliament anywhere. We met in the Party´s office at the Parliament Building or, Alþing, in Reykjavík, often described as the oldest Parliament in the world. The modernist architecture of the halls, sleek cafeteria and bright reception areas contrast with the older parts of the building where he gave me a tour of the main chamber where parliament convenes and its surrounding spaces. This Nordic modernism adjoining a traditional 19th century ambience also contrasted with our meeting place. Their office has a college dorm room feel to it: a poster of poet Anne Waldman giving a reading, some Free Tibet posters, an anarchy “A” symbol anchoring a wall clock, and the hip miscellany of a shared office for a new political movement of people calling themselves Pirates and now making waves.

The Pirates believe (among other things) that given the right tools, the people will assuredly make wise choices in remaking their democracies for the 21st century. And so they focus their attention on seven issues: transparency, self-determination, personal privacy, freedom of information, civil rights, free speech and direct democracy.

It may not be a fashionable message but their sincerity is endearing, even if their style is techno-cheeky at times. And because the dominant political parties are so reviled and distrusted in Iceland, stretching from those on the left to those of the right, the Pirates are doing very well in the polls. So well, in fact, that they are now over 30% in a recent Gallup Poll, insultingly humiliating the two-headed hydra which generally rules here: the Progressive Party and the Independence Party.

These two center-right parties funding comes primarily from the owners of the country – the fishing “sea Barons,” and the large agricultural interests. Their combined lock on the political system is partly derived from the doling out of nepotistic favors to “their” people. No Icelander I have ever met denies this. (None. Ever.) But Icelanders are on the whole, very careful about speaking about this too openly, as the beneficiaries of said dolings might very well be a distant relative or friend. Such is the endogamous nature of Icelandic politics. Still, after Jón Gnarr´s successful tenure as Mayor of Reykjavík despite all fears of disaster, (as head of the farcical Best Party) Icelanders seem willing to think out of the box and try something – anything – new.

Growing numbers of Icelanders are seething over the inability of any political party to tackle corruption and related issues and the Pirates are stealing support from all sides. They are currently seen as honest straight-shooters, unafraid to demand change, and they are slyly bringing this tension of demand for an end to a corrupt system while maintaining civility to the forefront of Icelandic politics, though in a decidedly untraditional manner. Whether it´s bypassing direct confrontation by advocating a strong, direct democracy or teasing the traditional parties with rebellious logos, The Pirate Party is attracting more than just attention these days – they are getting real numbers. (When registering for the last election, they submitted the Icelandic letter Þ, pronounced, “thod”, as their electoral symbol, making it eminently suited to artistically decorate as a waving pirate flag, which is their logo now.)

Jón Þór Ólafsson, 38, is a former business administration major and author of the instruction-like tract, “The game of politics: Pursuit of power over people”. On Iceland´s Alpingi TV channel, he is generally seen wearing a black jacket with matching t-shirt and pants, which is the same “uniform” he wore when we briefly met over coffee in the Party´s office. Not your typically suited parliament member. He reads (and freely quotes) management guru Peter Drucker, while at the same time stressing that he desires greater democracy than Iceland has and an end to corruption. He has been an MP for 2 years and, while remaining very active in Party politics, he is ready to move on this coming Fall and turn over his seat to the next Party member poised to take his position in this parliamentary system. Our meeting was short but animated and a brief follow up filled in the blanker spaces where my hand couldn´t keep up with the torrents of words but the essence of our talk is here for CPers enjoyment.

JOSÉ: So, according to a recent poll, the Pirate Party is at 30 % in polls and you are a young party. What´s up with that? What does it mean? Are you guys serious?

JÓN: Yes, we´re serious…we are the information tech. department to [the] 21st cent society! Another way to describe us is we´re those who see the necessity of updating “civil rights” by including information and cyber-rights for example, as printing created a revolution in information [hundreds of years ago] the new information revolution has been “operating” on same [level] with social media. Zbigniev Breszinski called it a “global political awakening” [and we agree.]

There was a traditional monopoly of interpretation in media… [but] social media [is] today allowing us to get around that monopoly. And there are fundamental shifts in priority as people now expect politicians to deliver…so how should we do it? I don´t know…I know one thing, though, people [should] have the veto power, say 10% on a referendum, as part of a more direct democracy…with transparency and privacy [guaranteed]. We also believe that money is not being used properly. The entire system is not up-to-date and we want to change that.

JOSÉ: People say they want change but still, in the last election, Iceland´s voters put back into power the same coalition that ran the country just prior to, and was responsible for, the economic crash. Why did that happen? What didn´t the Left-Green/Social Democrats make the changes the people wanted?

JÓN: Two things: first the Social Democrats and the last government did a lot of good things in a very hard situation but they broke quite a few election promises, second, the Progressive Party made a huge election promise of cash handouts [when they took power]…Sure, they took ownership of the ICESAVE [debacle] they were “victors” against these evil, foreign vulture funds. But the expectations they built up could NOT be delivered…300 billion ISK went down to 80 billion… so the expectation vs. delivery [has dampened the public´s enthusiasm.]

JOSÉ: So what does the Pirate Party stand for (in general)? How is the Pirate Party in Iceland different from the Swedish one or the other ones around Europe?

JÓN: For the Pirates in general and for us here in Iceland, the political “weather” is not blowing left or right; this is not a left-right [orientation] but an up-down one. Corruption and the abuse of power are our main focuses and so I would say we are libertarian-liberal…We´re not against capitalism, we are for free markets with a strong safety net in the tradition of the Nordic countries. But I´m NOT talking about laissez-faire capitalism.

JOSÉ: What does the PP want to do with Iceland were it to get a majority or plurality in the next elections? What would be the first set of legislation you would offer or try to pass? Let´s talk some specifics. In domestic policy, what are the three biggest initiatives you guys would push for if you won a majority in Parliament?

JÓN: We have a dual focus: to introduce “third generation information rights” that is, everything should be open by default. [Related to this] we want a popular referendum law passed: 10% of the people can demand a legally binding national referendum to veto any decision passed by Parliament. I think most Pirates want free health care and free education. Personally, for me, I´m very libertarian but I´m willing to have high taxes [to pay for this].We can afford this. Corruption and abuse of power are [also] big issues and we also want the new Constitution, designed by the people, to be approved.

JOSÉ: What about foreign policy?

JÓN: The issues important to Pirates that need to be tackled globally include protecting privacy and copyright reform. Birgitta [Jónsdottír, one of the other Pirate Party MPs who has been publicly advocating Iceland´s granting of citizenship to Edward Snowden] has been empowered by the IPU (Inter-Parliamentary Union) to work on a push for increased privacy protection. We are also still working on understanding the intricacies of the global copyright regime. But both issues would be important foreign policy issues.

JOSÉ: One MP from the Independent Party characterized you guys as “criminals”. What was your reaction to that?

JÓN: We have been very fortunate that political attacks have always turned into increased positive attention for us. This was one case in point, and another just after it, coming from the ex-prime minister of Iceland for 16 years who gave us the public discussion stage for the days during the parliamentary holiday over Easter. A time we would not easily get attention with [as] parliament [was] not in session.

JOSÉ: Who make up the Pirate Party now (demographics) and what would you like to see them become in the future?

JÓN: Another recent Gallup poll showed we have 38% of people under 40 and 27% of those 40-50 with it declining after that. So we are the future!

JOSÉ: Considering that there are about 325,000 people in Iceland and one could jokingly say (though with some truth) that you are all cousins of sorts, how is any substantive change possible? For example, taking away the fishing quotas would cause a strong reaction among a sector of the population which presently has a huge control over the wealth of the country. How would that be handled without causing massive social rifts between friends, families, and co-workers?

JÓN: All countries are led by a small percentage of the population. But a rule of a minority that was established in an un-transparent representative democracy is not stable and under a great pressure from an information technology revolution that has changed peoples values to demanding much greater transparency and a more direct democracy. Like in the other technology revolutions the last 500 years, if such an [older] establishment resists representing these new values history shows it will lose power. On the other hand if it opens up and lets go of enough power to the people it will lose some of the basis for its [present] organization, but might survive and thrive in a more democratic world. So I think you have to do it in a national assembly, a deliberative process. I don´t think you´ll ever completely stop money in politics but if the people are more informed there´s less chance to abuse the system. Then at least that would create a society of greater inclusion so the people can decide.

José M. Tirado is a Puertorican poet and political writer living in Hafnarfjorður, Iceland, known for its elves, “hidden people” and lava fields. His articles and poetry have been featured in CounterPunch, Cyrano´s Journal, The Galway Review, Dissident Voice, La Respuesta, Op-Ed News, among others. He can be reached at tirado.jm@gmail.com.


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José M. Tirado is a Puertorican poet, Buddhist priest and political writer living in Hafnarfjorður, Iceland, known for its elves, “hidden people” and lava fields. His articles and poetry have been featured in CounterPunch, Cyrano´s Journal, The Galway Review, Dissident Voice, La Respuesta, Op-Ed News, among others. He can be reached at tirado.jm@gmail.com.    

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