Reykjavik, Iceland – The small island nation of Iceland may soon be the first modern country ruled by pirates.
Not swashbuckling bandits with eye patches, but political pirates bent on rooting out corruption and transforming society through direct democracy.
Their brand of politics is hacktivism meets revolution. Dominated by young people, the Pirates have grown from their founding in 2006 as a small Swedish movement battling restrictive copyright law into a quasi-mainstream political force.
While the Pirate Party in Sweden, and Pirate Parties around Europe, have struggled, the Pirate Party in Iceland has surged to the top of the election polls, from a mere five percent a few years ago, to 38 percent in February. With three members of parliament elected in 2013, they were the first Pirates in a national parliament anywhere in the world.
Currently with a projected 22 percent of the vote – just ahead of the incumbent Independence Party – they may well win the election when Icelanders go to the polls to vote for members of the Althing, Iceland’s parliament, on Saturday.
The Pirates embrace their place as current front-runners in a worldwide movement against government corruption. From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street to Podemos in Spain to the Five Star Movement in Italy, to the recent Bernie Sanders campaign in the United States, cries for real change, accountability and direct democracy are resonating widely across the political spectrum.
“All of these groups have one thing in common,” says Birgitta Jonsdottir, MP for the Pirates in Iceland. “They have managed to get people from the streets into actually wanting to be part of the change by going inside, figuring out how things work, and then provide that information to others. I see the Pirate Party in Iceland as a Robin Hood of power. We take the power from the powerful and give it to the people.”
A cofounder of the Pirate Party in Iceland, Birgitta hails from an artistic family. Her mother, Bergthora Arnadottir, was a famous Icelandic folk singer. She grew up a poet and punk and considers herself a poetician and activist.
She was a close confident of Julian Assange and has been active in the issue of copyright reform, a founder of an effort to make Iceland a digital safe haven, and supports giving Edward Snowden asylum in Iceland. A painting of Chelsey Manning hangs on the wall of her office in downtown Reykjavik.
“What we see going on here is what I call trickle down ethics,” she says, referring to the corruption in Icelandic politics, “and if you don’t know how the system works, you can’t change it.”
Following the financial meltdown of Iceland’s banking system in 2008, Iceland shot back onto the world stage in 2016 with the release of the Panama Papers.
Sigmundur Davio Gunnlaugsson, then the prime minister of Iceland and once regarded as a world leader in the fight against bank bailouts, was forced to resign earlier this year when it was revealed he was keeping a large, personal, undisclosed account in an offshore tax haven.
“Right now there is very little trust in the economy and the government and its institutions,” says Smari McCarthy, a candidate for the Pirate Party in the southern constituency of Iceland.
McCarthy was on his way to talk to a small gathering at the Pirate office in Keflavik, a short drive from the capital, about the ways in which the corruption works. “Corruption is seen as a major problem in this election.”
Half Irish and half Icelandic, McCarthy grew up on the small southern fishing archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar, famous for a volcanic eruption that almost engulfed the island in 1973. McCarthy spent the last several years in Bosnia as chief technologist at the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project battling corruption in Eastern Europe and central Asia.
Inspired in part by the Panama Papers, he returned to Iceland to run for office and root out what he sees as the corruption endemic in the Icelandic system.
“The fisheries is a very big industry that has corruption problems,” says McCarthy on a drive through Keflavik, a city that used to be home to one of the most robust fishing industries in the country. “Tackling corruption in the fishing industry, and building a fair fisheries management system is absolutely crucial.”
Quotas for cod and other fish were handed out by the government decades ago to the larger fishing companies in power, and they are now bought and rented out by large corporations for significant profit. Small fishermen can’t compete. Entire villages have had their quotas bought and moved away so there is no fishing left for the local population.
“If one of the fishing companies were to lose its ability to fish for its quota, then there is a large chance that the town will become economically unviable,” explains McCarthy. “Just a couple of months ago, a fishing company sold 1,600 tonnes of quota away, and this, of course, means that all of the people whose job it was to process this fish now no longer have jobs.”
Icelanders have had enough: from cod quotas traded in back-room deals favouring major fishing businesses, to entire companies sold off to relatives of government officials, to the failure to pass a new constitution. The fate of the Icelandic constitution is particularly troubling for many Icelanders.
In 2011, the country came together through a democratic and inclusive process to draft a new constitution. Iceland had been living with a constitution handed down by Denmark after it achieved independence in 1944. “Constitutions are not like a religious text – they are not hammered into a rock,” says Birgitta. “Constitutions should be reevaluated with each generation.”
And the new constitution was a point of pride. “It was such a beautiful healing process after the crash in 2008,” says Oktavia Hrund Jonsdottir, who is running along with McCarthy for a parliamentary seat in the southern constituency. “We as a nation came together, we made our own constitution with the things that are important to us, such as natural resources belong[ing] to the Icelandic people.”
But four years later, after being approved by 67 percent of voters in a referendum, nothing has happened. Under the ruling conservative party, the process of ratification has stalled in parliament. There is no lack of blame to go around, but the Pirates say the ruling party simply doesn’t want change, in part because the constitution calls for things such as assigning the rights to natural resources – the major source of income in the country – back to the people.
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For many Icelanders, the Pirates are a welcome alternative to this ongoing political stalemate, and the Pirates are drawing support from many different quarters.
The Pirates don’t follow the classic notion of left versus right politics. They represent a new type of political ideology – one based on transparency, direct democracy, and empowerment of the individual. “It’s not really about the ideologies, but much more about the method of how you are going to change things,” says Birgitta.
Some critics point to this approach as evidence that the Pirates don’t have clearly defined policy positions, and therefore won’t succeed in managing the government. But the Pirates maintain that it is up to people to decide what they want. The structure of direct involvement in decision-making, and having open access to information, is what they believe to be most important.
And their focus in the run-up to the elections has been on practical concerns to voters, such as better healthcare and lower-cost housing, programmes they hope to fund by ending corruption and redirecting the wealth of the country to the people.
Most Pirates are self-proclaimed nerds, and proud of it. Having grown up with the freedom of the internet, the access to information, and the community it provides, they are equally concerned with online and offline legislation.
“The meet space versus the online space, there is no difference,” says Oktavia Hrund Jonsdottir. “We need a new approach that recognises all rights.”
Oktavia, who considers herself a systems nerd, lived abroad for many years working as a holistic security adviser, helping activists in conflict zones protect themselves online.
Privacy for the individual and transparency in government are dual and complementary narratives that drive the Pirate movement. To achieve their aim, they have set their sights on what Oktavia describes, with a laugh, as hacking the government – an antiquated, non-transparent and nepotistic system in deep need of repair.
Some Pirates even say their goal is to get rid of representative democracy entirely in favour of direct democracy. This may be a step too far for a country known for having the oldest parliament dating back to 930 CE. But most Pirates running for office strike a balance between revolutionary idealism and the practical nature of governing.
“It’s true we have a history of parliament that spans almost 1,000 years, but that doesn’t mean it was a parliament in the sense that we have now; it wasn’t a democratic parliament. It was a parliament that was basically ruled by the one who had the most power,” says Asta Guorun Helgadottir, a Pirate and current member of parliament, referring to the ancient lore of the Albingi as she drove around Reykjavik dropping off Pirate leaflets in the mailboxes of cement apartment buildings along the water.
“It was a judicial gathering. The Pirates are now advocating changing what parliament means and what purpose it has in our culture. We want a new constitution and to reconstruct the balance of power between the ones who have it and the people.”
Helgadottir is another rising star of the Pirate Party in Reykjavik. At 25, she is one of the youngest members of parliament. She spent the last two years working to pass legislation and battling against bills she thought were unfair, such as the recent effort to raise interest rates for student loans.
Helgadottir became an political activist after Iceland moved to ban internet pornography, believing that such a law would be the beginning of the end of online privacy. “It’s about protecting the rights of the individual,” she says. “That is what we are fighting for.”
In an unprecedented move in Icelandic politics, the Pirates announced earlier this week they were in talks to form a coalition government with three of the other parties. It is part of the Pirate effort at transparency, letting the voters know in advance exactly how they would form a government – and a high-stakes gamble. How the public will respond won’t be known until Sunday.
Whether the Pirates take control of the Icelandic parliament at the end of October or claim a significant number of new seats, for Birgitta, it is all part of a ongoing process.
“We are just individuals who took this famous phrase to heart: We can and must change the world. Hopefully, we will be able to do something that others will be inspired to do.”