Avast, mateys: A band of pirates could oust Iceland’s conservative government

The Pirate Party’s commitment to freedom of information has struck a chord with Icelanders.
The Pirate Party’s commitment to freedom of information has struck a chord with Icelanders.
Image: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue
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Iceland is a land of extremes—from its unique glacial landscapes to its unpredictable political climate. Now, a group of pirates are gunning to take over the small nation of 330,000 inhabitants. And if polls from the last 10 months are any indication, Iceland’s Pirate Party may soon topple its center-right government.

The Pirates tout a leftist political platform geared to the realities of the digital age. Freedom of information, privacy, data freedom, and transparency are among the party’s core issues. The party has been topping opinion polls in the country since April. It now has the support of 37.8% of Icelanders, according to the latest opinion poll from MMR, a market research company in Iceland. The Independence Party, a part of Iceland’s ruling coalition, came in at a distant second with the support of just 19.5% of voters.

So why is Iceland swinging left after a recommitment to conservatism in the last parliamentary elections in 2013? One theory is that the 2008 financial crisis prompted many Icelanders to distrust the government and become more interested in transparency and data freedom. Another factor may be the current coalition’s decision to break a campaign promise to hold a referendum on whether to join the European Union. Thousands of Icelanders joined protests and signed petitions when Iceland’s foreign minister declared the EU talks over.

All this has paved the way for the rise of the Pirate Party, founded in 2012. It won three seats of the 63-seat parliament in its first parliamentary election in 2013. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a self-described “poetician” (poet and politician) and co-founder of the party, holds one seat. Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, a former programmer and hacker, and Ásta Guðrún Helgadóttir, a recent graduate student in political science, hold the other two.

“I’m very shocked [by the polls] and I don’t know how long it will last,” Jónsdóttir tells Quartz. There’s plenty of time for public opinion to change, with the next parliamentary elections slated for 2017. But Jónsdóttir does have a theory about why Icelanders are flocking to support the Pirates.

“I think it’s an expression of the lack of faith in the current, traditional parties in power,” she says. “We are offering them alternative solutions. It’s important to have a collective broad vision of how to move forward as a nation and the party sees the nation as a reverse tax haven—a transparency haven.”

Hackers in parliament

The Pirate Party is not exclusive to Iceland. In fact, the international movement began in Sweden in 2006. The Swedish Pirate Party focused initially on freedom of information and copyright reform, ideals that quickly spread to other countries in Europe.

Icelanders’ particular thirst for government transparency can be linked to its devastating financial crisis. The country’s its debt-burdened commercial banks ultimately collapsed under the strain of the worldwide credit crunch. As the value of the Icelandic krona plummeted, Iceland was forced to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund and European allies.

“In the wake of the crisis, people had a deep understanding that not only the banking sector failed them, but other sectors like media, academia, politicians and the regulatory system,” Jónsdóttir notes. The Pirates’ avowed commitment to transparency has led Icelanders to hope the party can do better. “I consider myself a hacker in parliament and I’m there to find the loopholes and help to construct a new system,” she says. “We need a robust system to deal with these issues.”

A significant win for privacy proponents was the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI), a broadly supported bill sponsored by Jónsdóttir that passed parliament in 2010. The resolution was designed to protect freedom of expression for the media as well as for individuals. The agenda includes protecting whistleblowers, ensuring more public access of information, and strengthening the government’s obligation to make its case records public.

“There is a lot of concern over who controls the media in Iceland and how news is reported,” say Jónsdóttir. “It’s important because Icelanders are connected. For a nation that lives in the middle of nowhere, it’s important to know how we are connected and that expression is connected.”

Protecting the press

As the international nonprofit organization Reporters Without Borders has noted, political interests have hampered freedom of information in Iceland in the aftermath of the 2008 crash. The report criticizes the country’s unduly harsh defamation laws and the fact that the broadcasting company RUV became state-owned in 2008, a move some argue has compromised the company’s editorial independence. Across public broadcasting channels, “almost all of the leading media editors have had to stand down,” the report notes.

Given the small size of the country, it makes sense that privacy is an issue close to many Icelanders’ hearts. “We live our day to day lives online and there is a lack of laws about privacy,” says Birgitta. “Everyone knows everyone in Iceland.” Yet the initial wave of support for the Pirates came as a surprise to Jónsdóttir, whose impression was that Icelanders were largely unconcerned with these issues.

“I often find it disappointing that it’s difficult to get local media to analyze and make the effort to make sure people are informed about privacy, and the right to access information,” says Jónsdóttir. “But there is so much interest. We need an environment for journalists to be able to investigate and be critical.”

“The Robin Hood of politics”

The Pirates’ agenda stands in sharp contrast to the current governing coalition. The Progressive Party (Framsóóknarflokkurinn) was formed in 1916 to protect the interests of fishermen and farmers. Today the party, along with the Independence party, are favored by the country’s most committed capitalists, even batting around the idea of privatizing health care. The issues of data protection and transparency have taken a back seat.

The Progressives are watching the poll numbers closely as the Pirates gain ground. In comments this summer, prime minister Sigmundur Davið Gunnlaugsson warned that a Pirate Party victory would ultimately turn out badly for Icelandic citizens.

“If general discontent led to a revolutionary party—a party with some very unclear ideas about democracy, and a party which wants to upheave the foundations of society—becoming influential, that would be cause for concern for society as a whole,” he told Icelandic newspaper DV. “It would take society in a whole other direction, where it would be difficult to hang onto those values that we possess and have been building on for decades.”

Still, many Icelanders appear ready to impact the Pirates’ resolve. “People see the Pirates as the Robin Hood of politics, to move power away from the powerful to the people,” says Jónsdóttir.