A slew of recently formed political parties have been topping polls across Europe – think Syriza, think Podemos. Iceland is no exception. Here the Pirate Party’s pitch for data freedom and transparency is proving popular among Iceland’s 300,000-plus population. Polls in May put the Pirates on just under 24 per cent of the vote, almost doubling in support in just three months.
“We are halfway through a term so it is easy to poll now but we have three MPs who are all doing well,” says Smari McCarthy ( @smarimc), who co-founded the Icelandic Pirate in 2012. The following year the Icelandic branch became the first Pirate party in the world to win seats in a national parliament.
“A few months before the last election a few friends pinned me to the wall and said “well, Smari when are you going to found the pirate party”. We ended up founding it together. It was very short notice, the fact that we managed to poll 5 per cent was remarkable,” says McCarthy down a Skype line from Sarajevo, where he is currently working for an anti-corruption taskforce.
“If you think about he social democratic movement or the green movement, all new political movements over the last century have emerged around an issue – for Pirates it is information.” As McCarthy speaks, I notice a poster on the wall behind him. “Big Brother is Watching You”, it says, in a Lord Kitchener-inspired pose.
Transparency and access to information are sine qua non for a healthy democracy, McCarthy believes. “In any society people need two baseline conditions for democracy: one people need to have the ability to make decisions, the second is people need to have the access to information to make enlightened decisions. If one of those is missing you don’t have democracy.”
In recent years – and indeed recent days in light of the crisis in Greece – Iceland has often been held up as an alternative model for dealing with financial catastrophe. In 2008, the country’s massively over-sized banking sector went into meltdown, threatening to take the Icelandic economy with it. Icelandic politicians liquidated the banks, controls were introduced to prevent capital flight and debt relief was given to some mortgage holders. A handful of bankers have even been thrown in prison.
Although depictions of Iceland as a Nordic Nirvana have been overplayed – the government is cash strapped, everyday life remains difficult for many saddled with huge debts – “there is definitely some overlap between reality and fiction,” says McCarthy. Where there has arguably been the most disappointment for democracy advocates has been the much vaunted crowd sourced constitution. In 2013 Icelanders elected a right-wing government that has blocked any constitutional reforms.
“We wrote a new constitution but it never got adopted because the old politicians refused to adopt it,” says McCarthy. “The current constitution does not support the kind of society we have nowadays, the old constitution was written by and for 19th Danish aristocrats rather than 21st century Icelandic people.”
McCarthy is very much a 21st century Icelander. He started programming computers when he was 12. “When I was around 16 it was explained to me in a serious way that every decision around technology has political consequences, that got me thinking about all sorts of political issues.”
McCarthy started campaigning, eventually working on the seismic Wikileaks cables. Eventually he split from Julian Assange and his cadre. “There were problems with how things are being run, we are trying to make sure we don’t repeat those mistakes, for instance by marking sure there isn’t too much power in any one person’s hands, but also making sure that we value privacy.”
Among the Pirate’s policies are a natural resource tax and a commitment to shrinking the gender gap. Last month Iceland repealed its 75-year-old blasphemy law following a campaign started by the Pirates after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in France. The party has campaigned strongly to end closed committee meetings in the Icelandic parliament; one Pirate, Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, who with his long hair looks more like a heavy metal singer than a parliamentarian, finishes every committee meeting by saying that they should be open by default.
On the European Union – long a vexed issue in Icelandic politics – the Pirates argue that a condition for membership must be an Icelandic exemption from the Data Retention Directive and the regulation regarding enforcement of uncontested claims.
Among the party’s co-founders, and triumvirate of MPs, is Birgitta Jonsdottir, was previously a member of Iceland’s Parliament for the Citizen’s Movement, a party that formed in the wake of the Iceland’s financial crisis. Jonsdottir has previously said that the Pirate’s popularity is “a sign of mistrust towards conventional politics.”
McCarthy believes that protest voters cannot purely explain the Pirate’s growing strength. “There is a protest vote but you can’t explain all the popularity with protest. Currently the political debate in Iceland is very volatile, people are being very opportunistic, there is a lot of shouting and name calling, and so far the pirates have been very consistent and on message, and doing what people expect of them. People are really starting to get the feeling that we are trying do things differently, whether we succeed remains to be seen but we are trying to do that.”
The next Icelandic general election is two years away, and the Pirates are still a long way from power, but for Smari McCarthy the experiences with Wikileaks has given him “a broader perspective of what is achievable in reality. Before Wikileaks I had never done anything on that scale, I didn’t really believe it could be done. Now having done that, doing it again feels easier. Daring to dream huge powerful insane is a very important skill to have, and I don’t think I’d have that without going through that trail by fire.”