REYKJAVIK, Iceland – The past few years have been stormy for Iceland, a country threatened by volcanoes and brought low by bankers. Now, Icelanders are thinking of putting their trust in pirates.
The Pirate Party, an anti-authoritarian band of buccaneers that wants to shift power from government to people, is one of the front-runners in an election triggered by financial scandal in a country still recovering from economic catastrophe in 2008.
Polls suggest the party – formed in 2012 by a group of anarchists, hackers and internet-freedom activists – is supported by as many as one in five voters and could emerge from Saturday’s parliamentary election at the head of a new government. Pirate policies – including public vetoes over new laws and strict safeguards for individuals’ online and offline privacy – have dominated the election debate.
The party’s sudden success has surprised Birgitta Jonsdottir, the most senior of three Pirate lawmakers in Iceland’s 63-seat parliament, the Althingi. (The party eschews formal leaders).
“We have managed to catch and capture the spirit of change with so many young people in Iceland,” said Jonsdottir, who describes herself as a “poetician.”
“We are very much about modernizing our system, so that people don’t fall through the cracks all the time,” she said during an interview in a Pirate Party office bustling with election activity.
Single parties rarely win outright in Iceland’s multiparty electoral system. Saturday’s vote is likely to produce either a centre-right coalition involving the Independence and Progressive parties that have governed since 2013, or a left-of-centre coalition led by the Pirate Party, known locally as Piratar Party.
It’s a choice between business as usual and dramatic change. But Icelanders have become used to uncertainty.
Jonsdottir calls Saturday’s vote Iceland’s first “Panama Papers election.” It was triggered when Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned amid popular protests in April after leaked papers from a Panamanian law firm revealed details of accounts he and his wife held in an offshore tax haven.
Many Icelanders saw the tax-avoidance scandal as evidence that not much had changed since the global credit crisis devastated the country’s economy in 2008.
Iceland, a wind-lashed volcanic island near the Arctic Circle with a population of just 320,000, went from global financial superstar to economic basket case within a week when its debt-swollen banks collapsed.
The value of the country’s currency plummeted, while inflation and unemployment soared. Iceland was forced to seek bailouts from Europe and the International Monetary Fund.
The crisis left many Icelanders feeling humiliated – and furious. A wave of popular protests dubbed the Saucepan Revolution – because of the pots and pans banged by the demonstrators – brought down the government in 2009.
Eva Heida Onnudottir, a political scientist at the University of Iceland, said the financial calamity of 2008 produced a political crisis that is still unfolding.
“People in Iceland felt that their world had kind of broken down,” she said. “The perception was that the system wasn’t working as people thought it was working.”
She said that since 2008 Iceland has had governments of both left and right, “and people have not been happy with how they managed austerity or how they managed the economy.”
The Pirates, with their outsider image and jaunty black-flag logo, are perfectly poised to take advantage of the dissident mood – especially in a self-reliant country with a strong anti-authoritarian streak.
“This is a society that is very loosely organized in many ways,” said Asgeir Jonsson, a University of Iceland economist. “We don’t have an army, we never had a king. We hate all central authority.”
The Pirates promise to implement a new national constitution – partly crowdsourced through a social-media ideas campaign – that would introduce direct democracy, subject the workings of government to more scrutiny and place the country’s natural resources under public ownership.
The party also seeks tough rules to protect individuals from online intrusion. Jonsdottir is a former ally of WikiLeaks who has called on Iceland to offer citizenship to NSA leaker Edward Snowden.
A lawmaker since 2009, she is among the most politically experienced Pirates. Many of the party’s candidates and organizers are internet rights activists or veterans of the Saucepan Revolution with little experience of conventional politics.
Opponents say the inexperienced Pirates could destabilize the country and scare off investors, undermining an economy that is recovering strongly on the back of a tourism boom.
“I’m a little bit afraid that some of the political parties out there, they want to make a lot of spending,” said bank worker Bjorn Atlason. “But we have to have money to spend. It goes both ways; you have to have income for your expenditures.”
Jonsdottir insists the Pirates would not make major economic changes.
“We will not be flipping Iceland in any way,” she said.
Still, the Pirates remain an unknown quantity to many voters.
Hanna Sigurdardottir, an unemployed 59-year-old, said the Pirate Party was “an interesting and refreshing experiment” – but she hadn’t decided whether to vote for them.
“They sound a bit confusing at times, but I believe they will be doing something good,” she said.
Jonsdottir sees the Pirates as part of a global movement for change that includes Spain’s Podemos, Italy’s Five Star and the grassroots coalition that backed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in the United States.
“I would like everybody in Iceland to find the pirate within,” she said. “Because the pirate within really represents change and a collective vision for the future.”