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The Pirate Party Is the Most Popular Political Party in Iceland

When the party's leader heard the news she blurted out, "You must be joking."

An Icelandic opinion poll revealed on Thursday that the nation's most popular political party is Píratar, or in English: the Pirate Party. This young and iconoclastic cadre of technorati usually get single digit results in such polls, but it appears that 23.9 percent of the nation would vote for them if a parliamentary election were held today. That's a massive figure, considering that the center-right Independence Party, which has dominated Icelandic politics since independence in 1944 and is the lead partner of the ruling coalition, only scored 23.4 percent support in the same poll.

"You must be joking," Brigitta Jónsdóttir, a Pirate Member of Parliament and the leader of the Party, blurted out to mbl.is when they told her about the results of the poll that morning.

"To be completely honest," she elaborated to Visir later in the day, "I don't know why we enjoy so much trust. We are all just as surprised, thankful and take this as a sign of mistrust towards conventional politics."

"It is good that people are rejecting corruption and hubris. We take this with humility. This must be a clear message to the government, especially to the Independence party and their arbitrary government."

Supporting Jónsdóttir's anti-establishment hypothesis, the poll also saw a drop in support for the Progressive Party, the Independence Party's coalition partner, from 15 percent in February to 11 percent today. Popular support for the ruling coalition has also fallen to 33.4 percent recently. Meanwhile support for alternative parties like the Green Party and the antinomian Bright Future (itself formed in 2012 as a non-partisan, populist protest to existing parties) also rose from 10.8 percent and 10.3 percent in February to 12.9 percent and 15 percent this week, respectively.

Iceland's Pirate Party is part of an international political movement that originated in Sweden in 2006 under the leadership of Rickard Falkvinge. Along with many folks who worked on the torrent site The Pirate Bay, from which the movement derives its name, the Swedish techie-turned-activist started stumping for technologically facilitated direct democracy, anti-corruption efforts, net neutrality, and a liberal freedom of information policy. Likeminded individuals throughout the world, but especially in Western Europe and North America, have since formed their own Pirate Parties along the same lines, 22 of which coordinate their platforms with the help of Pirate Parties International, a non-governmental organization formed in Belgium in 2010.

In most of Europe, the Pirates' homeland, they've gained little real political power. In 2009, Sweden managed to send two Pirates to the European Parliament, but in 2014 support in the nation dropped from 7.1 percent to 2.2 percent of the vote. That year's European Parliamentary elections saw just one Pirate elected, representing Germany to the EU. (That EUMP, Julia Reda, has had a powerful impact on the continent, writing a draft proposal on a new harmonized and liberalized European copyright regime this January for consideration this spring.) Elsewhere, Pirates have only been elected to a few municipal or provincial offices, but none outside of Iceland have made it to national legislative seats. For the most part they make their name off stunts like the one pulled this January by Swedish Pirate Gustav Nipe, who tricked top national politicians, military officers, and journalists into logging into an unsecured Wi-Fi connection he was running at a security conference to protest surveillance programs.

Yet somehow the party took off more rapidly and effectively in Iceland than anywhere else. The local party was founded in November 2012 by Jónsdóttir (a poet-turned-politician who was at the time a WikiLeaks volunteer and member of Parliament) and a few other Icelanders famous for their support of internet freedoms and direct democracy. Within five months, in the April 2013 parliamentary elections, they'd won three seats for Jónsdóttir, a computer programmer named Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, and a college student named Jón Þór Ólafsson—the first and, to date, only national legislative win for any Pirate Party. Currently the sixth largest member of the national government, sitting in the opposition, they also hold one of 15 councilor seats in the government of the capital and local metropolis of Reykjavik.

Within the past two years, the sitting Pirate representatives have made a name for themselves by promoting crowd sourced governance initiatives and a vision of Iceland as a digital data haven. In July 2013, just a few months into their first term, Gunnarsson and Ólafsson drew international attention by proposing that the parliament grant Edward Snowden, then hiding in the Moscow airport, Icelandic citizenship so that he could arrive and seek refuge in the nation without fear of extradition. A symbolic gesture, it had no chance of passing, but it was great press for the cadre.

However even given their impressive track record, this was a huge jump for the Pirate Party. In the 2013 elections, they scored just 5.1 percent of the national vote. Over two years they slowly climbed to 12.8 percent (versus 25.5 percent for the Independence Party) in the February 2015 MMR opinion polls. Then suddenly they climbed last Friday (according to a poll conducted by the major Icelandic newspaper Fréttablaðið) to 22 percent support, putting them in second place relative to the Independence Party. And within days they've hit first place.

"I didn't really expect this to happen within a decade of the first party founding," Falkvinge said of this rapid rise in a recent Reddit post, expressing the general bemusement of observers in Iceland and abroad. "That's kind of cool. No actually, it's bloody awesome."

Despite the steady increase in Pirate approval since 2012, this sudden jump could be a knee jerk reaction to local politics (maybe misgivings over the manner of the current regime's revocation of Iceland's EU membership application, but no one's sure) that will cool down in a few weeks. But Iceland is the nation that, almost by instinct, elected an absurdist comedian as mayor of Reykjavik in 2009 and kept him around until 2014—so they just kind of roll with their guts these days, rapidly overturning old norms, meaning the Pirate Party's numbers could hold. And if they do, they could claim up to 16 seats in the 63-seat Alþingi (parliament) when the next elections come around in 2017. That'll give them the leverage to possibly join a ruling coalition, putting Pirates in charge of an entire nation, which would just be a fascinating experiment in outsiders-turned-insiders and open democracy to watch, making it an outcome worth rooting for. Go Pirates, go!

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.