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How internet pirates became a political force in Iceland

In 2013, the Pirate Party won three of Iceland’s 63 parliamentary seats. The trick? A broad, radical policy.

Iceland’s parliament, the Althing, was the world’s first. Today, some 1,086 years later, this small island nation that also gave the world its first openly gay female head of state is again leading the way. In 2013, five months after its founding, the Pirate Party won three of Iceland’s 63 parliamentary seats – the only one of the world’s thirty or so officially registered Pirate Parties with a presence in a national legislature – and it is expected to gain between 15 and 20 in the elections later this year. It has been quite a rise for an activist movement that initially focused on internet freedom and copyright reform.

One of its emerging stars, Thórhildur Sunna Aevarsdóttir, sweeps into the part-cafeteria, part-library area of the Kex Hostel in Reykjavík, shaking off the rain. The staff here rotate between tasks – now on reception, then collecting laundry, then in the kitchen – which seems to reflect the sort of co-operative, non-hierarchical society that the Pirates, with their crowdsourced constitution and “consensual, horizontal structure”, espouse.

After studying law in the Netherlands, Aevarsdóttir came home in 2013, intending to stay “only for a couple of years”. She was disappointed that the Independence and Progressive Parties – the kind of establishment parties that she considers “responsible for the financial crisis” – won the elections that year and formed a coalition. “I thought all hope was lost in terms of Iceland learning something from the crash and building a more sustainable society.”

With few jobs in the country for lawyers, she began to write articles for magazines, one of which dealt with the investigation into the country’s first-ever fatal police shooting in December 2013. This brought her to the party’s attention.

“I’d been watching the Pirates from afar,” she says, “but hadn’t really imagined myself participating in political life in Iceland, because I’d always found it such an ugly profession. Mostly, it’s who can shout the loudest, rather than who has the soundest arguments. That was until I got to know the Pirates.”

By last summer, she was on the party’s executive board. In October, she will stand in the parliamentary elections. She is second on the list of the Pirates’ nominations for a district that, under Iceland’s proportional representation system, provides 13 MPs and in which the party is polling at 25 per cent. She is a safe bet.

Photo: Thórhildur Sunna Aevarsdóttir by Julie Rowland

The Pirates have already made their presence felt, proposing the successful repeal of Iceland’s blasphemy laws (though an attempt to have formal asylum offered to the US whistleblower Edward Snowden didn’t get through). Aevarsdóttir ascribes their popularity to the credibility built by “three great parliamentarians”, as well as “the bombshell” of the Panama Papers in April 2016. Contained in the 11.5 million leaked documents was information about the Icelandic prime minister’s financial affairs, which resulted in his resignation. After that, the Pirates polled at 43 per cent – 14 points higher than the governing Independence and Progressive Parties combined.

“There’s been one scandal after another,” she says, “and this government has, in my view, been so incredibly disrespectful to the voters. It’s so obvious that they’re working for special interests. They’ve even stopped hiding it.” She complains of how “the highest tax authority in the country” – the finance minister, Bjarni Benediktsson – was named in the Panama Papers.

The Pirates’ internet-friendly message may have appealed initially to young people, but recent polls suggest that nearly half of the country now supports them. Their straightforwardness, allied to the speed with which new ideas can take hold in a small community, has secured their rise, Aevarsdóttir argues. “Not to take yourself too seriously and to be willing to admit mistakes: this is a really important part of why we’ve had so much traction.”

She believes that the success of Iceland’s Pirates compared to other European Pirate Parties is down to “expanding from those two single issues – copyright reform and internet freedoms. These aren’t things that greatly concern the general voter base. They don’t impact their lives.”

Powdering her face, Aevarsdóttir runs through Pirate policy – from challenging fishing monopolies and decriminalising drugs to a referendum on Iceland’s EU accession. She happily admits that there are areas with which she isn’t conversant and directs me to the website to check.

Sunna by name and sunny by nature, Aevarsdóttir scowls only to vent at the political establishment, yet she smiles at the prospect of her party becoming a significant part of the new government.

“To some people, we are this little country of 300,000 people that doesn’t matter much, but I think Iceland is in the spotlight,” she says. “You can see that in the amount of attention we got for jailing our bankers. People are watching what’s happening here, so if we could just set this example, then other countries would have the courage to try. And you only need one small step for great changes to happen.” 

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war

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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.