This could have been the story about the rise of a modern political movement, firmly rooted in the 21st century, to come to power in an European country.
This could have been the story of how established parties failed their people and paved the way for a much needed change. This could have been the story of how the Iceland Pirate Party reshaped Iceland’s political landscape, reinforcing trust and transparency between voters and politicians.
Instead, this is a very different story altogether, a story of missed opportunities and maybe even proof that the establishment it’s not so easily overthrown after all. That change, even if it’s society’s core desire, takes time and care.
But then again, why should we care about the Pirate Party? Why should we care about Iceland, a country of less than 350,000 inhabitants, whose national dish is fermented shark? Because maybe we can learn a thing or two from the events that unfolded following the Panama Papers scandal early this year. A breaking point that skyrocketed the then small Pirate Party to unexpected heights and resulted in a surprising turnout in the Iceland national elections held three weeks ago.
Pirate Parties are by no means a new phenomenon in politics. The movement started back in 2006 when the Swedish Pirate Party was founded and quickly spread across the globe, spawning similar parties in other parts of Europe, Israel and the US. While being independent parties in their own right, they all share the same ideologies, some of which include copyright and patent law, information privacy, internet neutrality, civil rights and direct democracy. Their approach to politics is not an entirely new one, but mixed with topics that more closely relate to a younger generation and mirror the technological advancements made in society, it becomes an interesting concept to consider at the very least.
But let’s reassess the political events in Iceland first, starting with the Panama Papers scandal. After learning that about 600 people (a large proportion of the relatively small population) had money stashed in offshore accounts, ranging from business owners to government officials including the prime minister, it sparked an outrage. Betrayed in their trust the call for action by Iceland’s population forced prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson to resign and his predecessor to hold the national election six months prior to its scheduled date. What makes this situation even more irregular is the fact that elections in Iceland have been a straight forward affair in the past, with five elected presidents over the course of more than 72 years. The now former president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson held his position for 20 years and if it weren’t for the Panama Papers suggesting some shady business on all levels, there wouldn’t be any reason to expect a change in this year’s national election.
This year in general has been the year of people making bold decisions at the ballot to voice their anger about the current state of their nations, like the Brexit vote in the U.K. or, more recently, the election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States. Instead of resorting to right winged parties in search of change, the people of Iceland sought a different approach. Iceland’s Pirate Party.
Offering full transparency and a direct democratic way of leading the country, they promised to counteract everything wrong with the current political system with fresher ideas that addressed the anger created by corrupt politicians. But how would that work?
According to the party’s Manifesto it should be the right of every citizen to either propose or veto legislation, to voice their opinions about any decision made and to have an impact on how the country is run. This would add a layer of supervision and transparency and help to tackle corruption within the government. Another big point in the Pirate Parties Manifesto for the election was the redistribution of wealth, suggesting that all natural resources that are not privately owned should benefit the general public, much like a joined ownership. Adding the proposal of re-activating a free healthcare system that could be funded by the aforementioned natural resources, the offerings of the Pirate Party were an all so sweet deal coming after a government shakedown.
After achieving more than 5% in the 2013 national election (which was already more than any Pirate Party ever achieved in any national election worldwide) polls leading up to the 2016 election saw the Pirate Party up as high as 40% in popular votes, potentially securing them a prime spot to lead the country in a new direction. The end result however, was a different one, with the Pirate Party not even reaching 15% in the popular vote and only gaining ten out of the 63 seats, making it uncertain at this point in time if the party will actually be part of a ruling coalition or the opposition.
Having talked in depth about the situation in Iceland and the prospect of a ruling Pirate Party, what does this potentially mean for the rest of us? What can we take from this in the end?
Nowadays a significant amount of people feel that politicians have failed them, that they’re not relatable and therefore are a source for significant frustration with the political system. That is one of the reasons why Great Britain will leave the European Union for good or why Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. Because what Trump says and what he does is, rightly or wrongly, relatable to at least half the nation who voted for him. Not necessarily because they agree with every word the oddly orange-skinned billionaire said, but because people want a change.
The concepts offered by the Pirate Party could be a step in the right direction, still relying on paid professionals to do the job, but offering citizens a permanent and meaningful say in legislation. As coalition talks continue in Iceland, we might even see a coalition with the Pirate Party involved, most likely side-by-side with some left-winged parties, which might even be the best case scenario for Iceland.
While offering a very progressive program, the Pirate Party still falls short in a lot of areas outside their scope, with sparsely fleshed out ideas (if any at all) on important topics like education or social matters. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to Iceland, as other Pirate Parties struggle with similar issues when it comes to actually playing a part in the government. The Iceland Pirate Pirate will probably benefit from the participation in a broader coalition, combining a number of programs and potentially still incorporating the direct democratic approach. One can only speculate what form the new government of Iceland might look like, but in any case I hope to see significant improvements and a broader scope in topics addressed by the Pirate Parties, not only in Iceland.
At this point we have to keep in mind that Iceland already had a foot in the door with direct democracy, so the concept of it isn’t entirely new for the country. In 2012, a new constitution was written by members of the public while being completely approachable and open to suggestions of Iceland citizens. This constitution was then ratified by a national census to be implemented in the future, something the ruling parties managed to forget entirely after the 2013 elections, failing its citizens on an entirely different level. This makes it even more interesting, that one of those parties, the Independent Party, still managed to increase its seats in this year’s election. If at all this is a sign, that change can be overcome by convenience and habits after all.
The times are changing and evolving constantly and so should our democracies. I am not suggesting that Pirate Parties are the answer to all our problems or even some of them, but looking at our world in 2016, it is clear that there is an increasing disparity between established politically parties and their citizens.
If the Iceland Pirate Party becomes a part of the ruling coalition it could be the experiment needed to prove, that it actually is a working alternative and not just a new political theory.
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