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.

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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