Pirates and Populism: What Iceland Did Differently

Pirates — those ancient swashbucklers or their contemporary illegal-downloading counterparts — seldom conjure images of political savvy or engagement. Iceland, however, is a different case. The island nation in the north Atlantic has seen its political landscape altered by self-styled “pirates.” This transformation hasn’t erupted from smash-and-grab stunts or insurrection; these “pirates,” rather, are members of an upstart political party, aptly named the Pirate Party, which recently tripled its membership in the Icelandic Parliament. By achieving mainstream political success, the Pirates have distinguished themselves from other movements with distinct, populist roots. And unlike their forebears, the Pirates will be able to directly bring grassroots concerns to a national legislative body. This ability marks the Pirates as a unique exception to the landscape of contemporary populist movements. Though the Bernie Sanders campaign — and the Occupy movement before it — captured and channeled powerful anti-establishment frustrations, such movements were unable to secure broader support or success. Those movements may have altered the liberal landscape, but ultimately their bark lacked a truly meaningful bite. The Pirate Party’s success, however, is both bark and bite; it represents a dissolution of distance between the electorate and the political elite. But it is not without unique challenges, namely: Can the party stay true to its ideals while inhabiting the very stations of power and influence that it set out to reimagine?

The answer to this question lies, at least in part, in the biographical details of the Pirate Party. For starters, the Icelandic Pirate Party, formed in the fall of 2012 by Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a former Wikileaks activist, is actually an offshoot of an identically named party that started in Sweden in 2006. The Swedish Pirates initially focused on combating European copyright laws, which Jónsdóttir has called “draconian.” They rejected the laws by citing their perceived inflexibility. They considered them both arbitrarily different, even within the European Union, and claimed they did little to protect “the rights of the public.” A little less than a decade later, it seems as though the Party has been successful. In 2015, a representative from the German branch of the Pirates was selected to lead a revision process for European copyright laws.

This seminal episode, despite its humbleness, speaks to the ideological stances that continue to define the core of the Pirate Party’s platform. In the words of Jónsdóttir, their platform is singularly focused on advocating for “civilian’s rights.” The seeming nebulousness of this term is not an accident. Rather, it reflects the increasing relevance of discourse related to the interactions between technology, government, and personal privacy. Importantly, this notion of civilian’s rights has served as more than lip service for the party. The translation of a philosophical stance into an actionable reality, best exemplified by the 2015 revision, bolsters the bravado of the Party’s stance. In doing so, it places the Pirates’ ultimate aim of “moderni[zing] how we make laws” within the realm of political possibility. Further, it demonstrates, in part, that the Party is capable of both inhabiting legislative power and reforming it.

The Pirate Party’s success is both bark and bite; it represents a dissolution of distance between the electorate and the political elite.

The Pirates have also offered a rather concrete vision of what this “modernization” process might entail. In simplest terms, it would be a return to direct democracy. This measure, they hope, would do more than solely redirect political power to Iceland’s citizens. If properly implemented, it would increase governmental transparency while encouraging private engagement with, or interest in, political affairs. Further unique to the Pirate Party is its dearth of hard and fast policy positions. On questions like Iceland’s potential admission to the EU, for example, the party would put its money where its mouth is and let the Icelandic people decide via referendum.

These measures are far from a panacea, however. One need not look further than the United Kingdom to see the potential pitfalls of leaving issues of national importance in the hands of the electorate. Jónsdóttir acknowledges the potential for misinformation to taint the democratic process and would call for an “informed campaign” to adequately spell out the pros and cons of a given referendum. Yet, it is not clear what an “informed campaign” might entail. Ultimately, this exemplifies larger concerns regarding how the Pirate Party would implement its vision for Iceland or how it would potentially govern without explicit policy positions.

These concerns have done little to detract from the party’s popular appeal. Indeed, the party’s recent gains in the legislature suggest that an attitude of suspicion towards the traditional political elite outweighs vague concerns regarding implementation or practicality. In that regard, it is not without cause that Iceland has been home to such popular support for the Pirates. The past decade has been littered with episodes that have likely undermined popular faith in both government and big business. In 2008, the country was rocked by a financial crisis, after three major banks — together ten times the size of the national economy — collapsed. Iceland did stage a remarkable recovery, with GDP reaching surpassing pre-collapse levels in 2014, but frustrations still lingered as the Parliament neglected to ratify a new constitution that garnered 67 percent approval in a national referendum. And in April of this year, Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned after documents that were part of the Panama Papers release indicated he might have harbored a conflict of interest.

Ultimately, the electoral success of the Pirate Party reflects Iceland’s shifting sociopolitical clime. However, the disillusionment with career politicians, traditional political parties, and ineffectual rule that catalyzed this change will likely dominate election outcomes in continental Europe and farther afield.

That being said, Iceland’s Pirate Party may still be an exception, rather than a rule. The island nation is home to a particular blend of technological savvy, political openness and optimism, and a history of ineffectual governance that provides opportunities for upstart political movements. These factors likely contribute to the broader success of the Pirate Party, especially when compared to American counterparts like the Sanders campaign. But, despite this optimal environment, the Pirates still only hold about a sixth of the Icelandic Parliament. The burden of representing populist ideals when trying to bridge political divides is, seemingly, a challenge on either side of the Atlantic. Time will tell if the idealism and radical stances that define the party will continue to flourish within the confines of the legislature. Regardless of that outcome, the rise of the Pirate Party is a powerful example of how popular politics can land in the national arena.

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