'Distrust of the establishment': Pirate Party likely to win big in Iceland's parliamentary elections

Despite being derided for its name and its apparent pro-piracy stance, a large number of Icelanders are likely to vote for the Pirate Party at this weekend's election.

With Icelanders enraged by the Panama Papers scandal, for much of the past year the anti-establishment Pirates have been the preferred choice of one in five voters.

The party made up of hackers and geeks could win more than 18 seats in Iceland's 63-seat parliament that was only started four years ago, but its members have a very specific objective.

"The new constitution," candidate Jon Thor Olafsson told Yahoo7.

Iceland Prime minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson (L), leader of the Progressive Party, Pirate Party candidate Jon Thor Olafsson (C), and Oddny Hardardottir, leader of the Social Democratic Alliance. Source: EPA
Iceland Prime minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson (L), leader of the Progressive Party, Pirate Party candidate Jon Thor Olafsson (C), and Oddny Hardardottir, leader of the Social Democratic Alliance. Source: EPA

After a cabal of bankers wrecked the economy in the GFC, an assembly of citizens and special interest groups decreed a more representative constitution was needed.

Icelanders overwhelming backed the change, but nothing has been done.

"The Pirates exist to change laws and regulations of the country," Olafsson said, adding that the party's main concern was "protecting civil rights and enhancing democracy".

A purple pirate revolution is coming to Iceland. Source: AP
A purple pirate revolution is coming to Iceland. Source: AP
Pirate Sara Oskarsson painting her nails in the party colours. Source: Nicholas McCallum
Pirate Sara Oskarsson painting her nails in the party colours. Source: Nicholas McCallum

Fellow Pirate candidate Sara Oskarsson said the party wants to act for the overwhelming majority who want a more direct democratic system.

"I think that's probably in a dream world of politics, that you would get a national consensus that makes everyone happy," said Oskarsson.


When it comes to government, Icelanders have not been happy for some time. In April around 10 per cent of the population protested outside parliament to call for Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson to resign after his name came up in the Panama Papers. Government ministers were also named.

The nation of less than 330,000 people was still stinging following the collapse of its financial system in the 2007 crash. Bankers have been jailed, but the people are unhappy with the status quo.

Iceland's Pirate Party has been boomed in popularity over the past year. Source: Nicholas McCallum
Iceland's Pirate Party has been boomed in popularity over the past year. Source: Nicholas McCallum

"Populism thrives on a distrust of the establishment," Olafsson said at Tortuga, the party's headquarters in Reykjavik.

"And of course the Pirates are not populist in the negative way – that you are selling something to the population for your own private empowerment.

"That's what populism comes from."

Pirate Party leader Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a former resident of Australia who worked for Wikileaks, told the Washington Post Icelanders had a "huge wake-up call" when they "became aware that people could actually change things".

"It was the people that got the government to resign, the central bank manager to resign, and the financial supervisory board director to resign," she said.

Birgitta Jonsdottir of the Pirate Party in Reykjavik. Source: AP
Birgitta Jonsdottir of the Pirate Party in Reykjavik. Source: AP

Eva Heiða Önnudóttir, a political scientist from the University of Iceland, said the wave of populist support would only carry the Pirates so far. If they want to change the constitution, they will have to play politics.

"Constitutional changes might be a challenge for them, both in terms of changing it, and in terms of possible compromises it will have to do with other parties in the parliament," she said.

Önnudóttir said while many Icelanders were outraged by recent scandals, "older voters are slightly less likely to support the Pirates, and slightly more likely to support the Progressive Party and the Independence Party".

'I've always been a pirate': Olafsson. Source: EPA
'I've always been a pirate': Olafsson. Source: EPA
Tortuga: Pirate Party headquarters in Reykjavik. Source: Nicholas McCallum
Tortuga: Pirate Party headquarters in Reykjavik. Source: Nicholas McCallum

With winds of change blowing at his back, Olafsson said in late August that his party's success was worrying the country's establishment, leading to warnings about economic and natural disasters.

Concerns that the large volcano Katla was about to erupt was so pervasive, the Met Office had to issue a statement to quell people's fears. The worry cost the Pirates in the polls.

"We went down four per cent," Olafsson said. "There is a democratic tilt toward the establishment. Volcanos might erupt, economic collapse... (Voters) were running for safety."

Amid fear of the unknown, Oskarsson added Iceland seemed "like a whole nation with PTSD".

Open government: Pirate Party members discuss education policy. Source: Nicholas McCallum
Open government: Pirate Party members discuss education policy. Source: Nicholas McCallum

Many younger Icelanders see keen to take a chance on the Pirates, several telling Yahoo7 they were "excited" about the election. They just need to turn up and vote.

A poll published by MMR on the eve of the election put the Pirate Party at 20.5 per cent, behind the right-of-centre Independence Party that leads with 24.7 per cent.

While there are more than 70 Pirate parties established around the world – including Australia – they are anything but conventional.

"Pirate politics" come out of the information age, with the movement's central policies built on copyright reform, protection of personal privacy and open and transparent government.

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