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Iceland Pirate Party polling first with Birgitta Jonsdottir at the helm
Date May 24, 2015
Europe CorrespondentView more articles from Nick Miller
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Interconnectivity: Birgitta Jonsdottir says voters know the Pirate Party wants to “change the system on a really deep level”. Photo: Halldor Kolbeins
Iceland has always been a bit different.
Until last month, it was legal to kill any Basque person found in the Western fjords. The 400-year-old law was rescinded in April at a ceremony at the Museum of Icelandic Sorcery.
Iceland politics is also pretty unusual. Their prime minster is the world’s youngest democratically-elected head of government, and the previous one was the world’s first openly lesbian head of government.
But the most interesting things about Icelandic politics is that the pirates are taking over.
At a nondescript building near the centre of Reykjavik I press a button marked “Piratar”, and Birgitta Jonsdottir buzzes me in.
She is the “poetician” for the Pirate Party in the Icelandic parliament (the “Althing”). She signs her emails “with rebellious joy” and for a while she lived in Mullumbimby, NSW (she also spent some time in Forest Hill in Melbourne’s suburbia, where she admired the art deco styling but generally found it “really horrifying”).
Jonsdottir and her colleagues are still coming to terms with the fact that, in the latest polls, they are the most popular political party in the country. Not only that, they are more popular than the next two parties put together. The ones that form the coalition government.
“We started climbing quite rapidly,” she says. “We were the third biggest party [in the polls] and I said to my colleagues I’m not going to celebrate until we’re bigger than the Social Democrats. Then two days later we were, then all of a sudden we’re biggest.”
At the 2013 election, the first the party fought, they got 5 per cent of the vote, which translated to three seats on the proportional system. They are now the favourite party for a third of voters.
“They know we want to transform and change the system on a really deep level,” she says.
A recent paper by think tank Demos found that social media is changing politics: “social movements are emerging … and challenging existing [political] parties in a way unthinkable a decade ago,” the report said. “The size, diversity and dynamism of social media platforms allow people to connect and form social movements outside the existing political channels far more quickly and easily than ever before.”
The Pirate Party is like Syriza in Greece, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, or the pirate parties in Germany or Sweden (where the first party of that name emerged in 2006).
But Iceland is the pirates’ greatest success, even before its latest surge – Jonsdottir puts it down to the depth of the country’s financial crisis. “In a crisis time there’s a window that is open for change.”
She saw that window and opened it.
Jonsdottir sits in her office puffing an e-cigarette, behind a laptop with a sticker that says “NSA monitored device”. She’s an easygoing, instantly-likeable techno-hipster, the sort of person you’d share a latte with in Fitzroy or Surry Hills before an evening of slam poetry, hacktivism and boutique vodka shots.
A poet, a web developer, she was one of the early online pioneers, exploring the power of the internet to break down geographical and social barriers 20 years ago, when like-minded activists envisioned a digital utopia of open democracy and innovation.
“Around that time you sensed that you are really on a new planet,” she says. “We had a very strong sense, those of us working in these days of pioneering that the online culture that was being developed with this interconnectivity would make the offline world better, too. It was like seeing the Earth for the first time from space, that blue dot. It was transformative.”
After the financial crash there was political turmoil in Iceland and Jonsdottir found herself, as a long-time activist, called on to take a lead. She entered parliament in a feisty coalition called the Civic Movement (she agreed to stand at the last minute, because the party didn’t have enough female candidates).
Then she discovered WikiLeaks and met Julian Assange. She says they “used to be” good friends: “We hung out for about five months while he was in Iceland and did many great brainstorms and important work together”, but is a little shy of discussing him. However she is proud of her work for the organisation, especially her contribution to Collateral Murder, the leaked Iraq video and accompanying research that first drew widespread attention to WikiLeaks (and landed then-Bradley Manning in jail).
“It was my task to go through the video frame by frame, to pull out the stills and do the research on the people who were killed – it was the most horrifying experience I’ve ever had,” she says. “But access to information keeps governments honest, that’s the gift that WikiLeaks gave us. They broke the ice.”
If her party’s popularity can transform into power, Jonsdottir wants to upgrade the “hardware” of Iceland’s democracy. She and her colleagues want to push through a new constitution that protects human rights but gives new powers for the masses to influence policy as it is shaped, that makes government decision-making extraordinarily transparent, that dismantles corporate copyright and promotes Iceland as a safe haven for privacy, and a voice for freedom of expression.
She knows the internet can be ugly. It always has been. She has been the target of sustained trawling and trolling.
“As a woman it’s meaner and more disgusting, but I am for freedom of expression,” she says. “When I get trolls on my Facebook or whatever I just ‘delete’. I don’t roll in the filth with them.
“I believe people should be able to anonymously express themselves. If you take it away because you want to get rid of trolls then you are also taking away the right for an activist to be able to speak freely about a corrupt regime, or a dangerous situation.
“I’m not for the sort of society where you try to block out the ugliness in the world.”
Spoken like a true pirate. And with some rebellious joy?
“Always,” she laughs.
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