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Iceland’s Pirate Party Is Preparing for an ‘Unprecedented’ Election

Following Panama Paper scandal, Iceland’s Pirate Party is demanding change.

by Daniel Oberhaus
Apr 10 2016, 7:08pm

Image: Birgir Þór Harðarson

Over 20,000 protesters descended on the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik last week following the release of the Panama Papers, over 11 million files from the database of Mossack Fonseca, one the world's largest offshore law firms. Gathered in front of the Icelandic Parliamentary building, the protesters were calling for the resignation of their prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson after the Panama Papers revealed that he and his wife had major financial conflict of interest tied up in a shell company in the British Virgin Islands.

On Tuesday, Gunnlaugsson bowed to the will of his constituency and appealed to Icelandic president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson to sign for his release and hold a recall election. Gunnlaugsson's request was denied and instead Grímsson requested Gunnlaugsson to resign and appointed Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, Gunnlaugsson's deputy, as the new prime minister.

Many Icelanders have criticized this move as a meaningless political reshuffling, seeing as Gunnlaugsson is still retaining his position as chairman of the Progressive Party and a member of Parliament, and nearly two-thirds of Icelanders say they don't trust the new government.

"People are extremely unhappy because they don't think the change that was made is good enough."

Still others saw this as nothing more than a political move meant to suppress the ascendancy of Iceland's unlikely political champion: the Pirates.

Founded in 2012, the Icelandic Pirate Party was modeled after the Swedish organization of the same name founded six years earlier. An anti-establishment party founded on principles of direct democracy, copyright reform, and personal privacy, the Icelandic Pirate Party elected its first representatives to Parliament in 2013.

In recent years, the Pirate Party has enjoyed an astounding level of popularity in the country, becoming the most popular political party in Iceland in early 2015. In the wake of the Panama Papers scandal the Party's popularity has only increased, with a recent poll suggesting that 43 percent of the roughly 320,000 people that call Iceland home support the Pirates.

"This whole situation is unprecedented," said Ásta Guðrún Helgadóttir, who has served as one of the three Pirate Party representatives in the Icelandic Parliament since 2015. "People are extremely unhappy because they don't think the change that was made is good enough. Technically speaking there is a new government, but almost nothing has changed—except now the government doesn't have any trust at all."

Although the transfer of power brokered by Iceland's president was entirely legal, Helgadóttir believes it is undermining the democratic process in the country by refusing to allow the constituency to elect a new leader. She cited several "official" excuses for why the president appointed a new prime minister rather than holding a snap election, including the upcoming presidential elections in June and the Pirate Party's surge in the polls.

"The president basically took away people's power to have their say," Helgadóttir said. "I think [the incumbent administration] has been using the Pirate Party as a means to reach a deal with claim holders. They're using the Pirate Party as a threat and they're trying to blame the minority for [making the elections impossible] which is not true."

Although the Icelandic administration appears to be using the Pirate Party as a bogeyman to stave off elections, the Pirates' widespread support is undeniable. According to Helgadóttir, this widespread appeal is likely due to the Pirate Party filing a massive gap in the Icelandic political landscape, which is largely comprised of conservative parties.

"At first we might appear as a fringe party, but once you start actually looking at what we are doing and what we are saying, we are just speaking honestly," said Helgadóttir. "We want to have more transparency, because we are doing things that are going to affect people's futures. We think people should have the right to know [what the government is doing]."

According to Helgadóttir, the Icelandic administration has promised elections in the fall, but has yet to set a firm date. This vague promise has led most of the protestors to concentrate their efforts on securing an immediate vote while the Pirate Party prepares its election campaign.

Over the last two years the Icelandic Pirate Party has focused on polishing their policy platform, which includes a number of sweeping changes such as drug policy modeled after Portugal and overhauling the Icelandic constitution. In the wake of Gunnlaugsson's resignation and the party's surge in the polls however, the Pirates' efforts have turned toward drumming up popular support and figuring out who is going to run for prime minister and seats in Parliament.

Although the Pirates have yet to name a candidate for prime minister, Helgadóttir expects the Party to put forth a nomination in the near future. She remains optimistic that the Pirates will have a solid base going into the elections and anticipates the party gaining several more seats in Parliament. Beyond that, said Helgadóttir, she and her colleagues are just taking things one day at a time, waiting to see how Iceland's political drama unfolds.

"I'm really excited to see who is going to answer our call when we ask people to join us," said Helgadóttir. "It's going to be a real party, not just a political party. This is a chance to fix this broken democracy that we have and maybe it will survive this crisis that democracies all around the world are facing. We're going to have so much fun together, and if [our agenda] goes through, democracy might have some hope in this world."

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