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Iceland’s Pirate Party: what is it – and how did it become so popular?

EPA/Birgir Thor Hardarson

Iceland’s Pirate Party: what is it – and how did it become so popular?

Iceland’s Pirate Party started life as a minor political movement inspired by its Swedish and German counterparts. Now it is a credible force. From marginal political interests, it has grown to produce positions on the most important issues of the day and cooperate with like-minded prominent movements across Europe, such as Podemos in Spain and the Italian Five Star Movement.

So what explains its popularity? How has it hit the big time while similar parties have remained on the fringes of national politics? Is Iceland a special case or are we looking at the future of European democracy?

The Icelandic Pirate Party is particularly popular among voters under 40 and has been polling consistently well since 2015. It reached a peak in April 2016 with 43% of voting intentions.

The timing is significant. People in Iceland are clear that they want change after eight years of political and socio-economic turmoil.

Life after the crash

Iceland faced a deep financial and economic crisis in October 2008. This triggered a peaceful revolution – Icelanders took to the streets and elected the first left-wing government in the country’s history. New protest and reformist movements emerged, with the now defunct Citizen’s Movement entering parliament.

The left-wing government, consisting of the (then prominent) Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green movement failed to meet expectations. It was voted out in the 2013 parliamentary elections when a traditional conservative coalition government (consisting of the Progressive Party and the Independence Party) was elected. At the same time, the one-year old Pirate Party entered parliament with three seats.

The Pirates. Day Donaldson, CC BY

But this government took a series of extremely unpopular decisions. It discontinued accession talks with the European Union without calling for a referendum and halted the process of constitutional reform.

The final straw came when the Progressive Party’s prime minister, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, was caught up in the Panama Papers scandal. This led to a week-long protest in which tens of thousands of Icelanders called for his resignation.

During their three years in parliament the Pirate Party has gained influence and diversified its political agenda. It started off focusing on constitutional and direct democracy, which are two core themes of pirate politics as an ideology.

As the public lost faith in the policies of the right-wing government between 2013 and 2015, the three Pirate MPs gained considerably more influence in parliament. They were soon able to establish themselves as a viable, alternative political force.

Now, the party has policies on reviving the constitutional reforms – centering on moves to introduce a crowd-sourced constitution and improve direct democracy – tackling socio-economic inequality and improving healthcare. A referendum on re-activating accession talks with the European Union is also on the table, though the party does not have an official position on whether Iceland should join the EU.

Overall, the Pirates are committed to horizontalism and want to switch the balance of power from the executive to the legislative, bringing citizens back to the centre of Icelandic politics.

It has been ten years since IT entrepreneur Rick Falkvinge founded the first Pirate Party in Sweden. Now there are equivalents in 62 countries. The Icelandic version was not the first movement of its kind to gain seats in a prominent election. The Swedish Pirate Party gained two seats in the 2009 European elections, while the German Pirate Party is represented in three State parliaments (North Rhine-Westphalia, Saarland and Schleswig-Holstein) and gained one seat in the European Parliament in 2014.

But the changing Icelandic political landscape has proved particularly fertile for this kind of operation. In fact, the Pirate Party’s current popularity is mostly the result of the financial and economic crash of 2008. Despite this distressing wake-up call, the well-established political parties failed to deliver any change. They were unable or unwilling to implement the expected socio-economic reforms or regain the trust of the electorate following numerous scandals and broken promises. As a result, a significant proportion of voters looked at alternatives.

That said, one of the main strengths of the Icelandic Pirate Party is its ability to mobilise and its organisational agility. This is obviously facilitated by the fact that Iceland is a relatively small state, where citizens have always played an important role in political arena – certainly compared to other Western democracies.

The Icelandic Pirate Party is already making history. Few could have predicted how big the movement would become. It would be foolhardy to expect all Pirate movements to enjoy the same success as in Iceland, but theyh could learn from its experience.

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