Icelanders voted in parliamentary elections on Saturday. Even before the results were in, it was clear that something unusual was going on. Just a couple of years ago, few would have predicted the near evisceration of the center-left Social Democratic Alliance, although it fits a pattern we are seeing throughout Europe. Also noteworthy was the fact that the anti-establishment vote did not go to the xenophobic right or the radical left, as in many other European countries, but was divided among a number of new political parties that mostly shun traditional political labels. Taken together, such parties took a third of the vote. Although this reflected a deep distaste for politics as usual, it seemed to be an unusually moderate revulsion.
Meanwhile, voters who could still stomach the traditional parties opted mostly for the further ends of the political spectrum. The right-wing Independence party won 29 percent of the vote while the Left Green Party received 15.9 percent. These are substantial gains for both parties. In Iceland, then, the extremes have held, while the political landscape is being redrawn as a result of an unstable center of parties that disavow the customary categories of left and right.
Of the new political movements, the Pirate Party has garnered the most media attention by far, and not without reason. The Pirates are hardly your typical politicians. Pirate Parties started cropping up in Europe in the mid-2000s. Although they were intrinsically antiestablishment — gleefully flying black pirate flags as their symbol — they initially were narrowly focused on a narrowly libertarian set of issues. Issues such as transparency, Internet freedom and copyright reform were at the core of their agenda. Still, in the political turmoil of the early post-crisis, these parties gained some momentum and Pirate candidates took office in a handful of European parliaments.
Their greatest electoral success was in Iceland, where they received just over 5 percent of the vote and won three out of 63 parliamentary seats in 2013. The Icelandic Pirates-turned-parliamentarians stuck to the Pirates’ core agenda: One of their first parliamentary motions was to offer Edward Snowden asylum. They then set out to make Iceland a digital data haven, or “Switzerland of bits” in the turn of phrase of noted cyber-libertarian John Perry Barlow, offering a place where people could store data that might be politically problematic elsewhere. Radical transparency has remained a core part of their platform from the outset.
However, they also quickly began carving out a broader set of policies for a range of issues. True to form, they did so largely through extensive and democratic online mobilization of their quickly expanding grass roots. While the center-right governing coalition was mired in scandal as the Panama papers revealed that three of its ministers held offshore accounts and much of the opposition was embroiled in bruising infighting, the Pirates were painstakingly, and sometimes painfully, building a platform, issue by issue.
Incoming Pirate parliamentarian, journalist and stand-up comedian Gunnar Hrafn Jónsson thinks that this process was key to the Pirates’ momentum: “While other parties were either fractious or caught up in corruption scandals, we showed that we could be a force for reform. This inspired a lot of people to join us and help further hone our agenda. In this way we both broadened our appeal and proved that we could grow beyond a single-issue party.”
All this, and the fact that at times they polled as high as 40 percent, made the Icelandic Pirates a bit of an international cause célèbre. On the eve of the election, party leader Birgitta Jónsdóttir was trailed by dozens of foreign journalists — an unusual situation for an Icelandic politician, to say the least. A number of international media outlets framed the election as an epic confrontation between the upstart Pirates and the entrenched right-wing Independence Party. Pirate puns abounded. It made for a great story.
Yet the exclusive focus on the Pirates yielded a skewed picture of the Icelandic elections. In the end, the Pirate Party got 14.5 percent of the vote and 10 parliamentary seats — an impressive jump, certainly, but by no means the explosion in support many expected. The other big gainer from the elections, which has received scant international attention, is the newcomer Viðreisn party, which received just over 10.5 percent of the vote and seven seats.
Where the Pirates reveled in their unorthodox approach to politics, Viðreisn was its virtual opposite, carefully building up an image of the respectable protector of common-sense politics. However, while market-friendly and pro-European, Viðreisn, like the Pirates, avoided explicitly positioning itself on the left-right axis. Yet a closer look at the respective agendas of the two parties shows that traditional political labels still hold analytical traction.
Thus, the Pirates’ agenda has some of the hallmarks of traditional social democracy, albeit mixed with a stiff dose of techno-optimism, while Viðreisn espouses policies that are considerably further to the right than the moderate image the party projects might suggest. For example, the Pirates unequivocally favor free government-sponsored universal health care, while Viðreisn supports a mixed system of private and public health-care provisions where patients would have to co-pay for their health.
Although neither party offers a very detailed economic vision, their divergent emphases are telling. The Pirates stress more effective taxation with a focus on cracking down on offshore evasion and corporate inversions. Viðreisn, on the other hand, has invested a great deal of political capital in promoting the idea of a currency board as the solution to Iceland’s currency dilemma. It is interesting to note that their discussion of this rather radical policy move does not discuss how this policy ties the hands of the central bank, imposes limits on public spending and encourages privatization, as scholars of political economy like Jonathan Kirshner have shown.
The center-right government that has been in power in Iceland for the past three years was forced to call Saturday’s election because of the revelations of the Panama papers. It has certainly lost its majority.
However, if Viðreisn joins the coalition, the right coalition becomes viable again and stays in power. Although other permutations are certainly possible, this coalition seems the likeliest outcome.
Other combinations would require the cooperation of a number of parties with very different politics and vocal supporters who will not let them stray far from course. The shifting terrain suggests that many former supporters of the Social Democratic Alliance opted for Viðreisn this time around, probably drawn to the party’s pro-European stance. However, this sort of coalition is almost certainly not what these voters had in mind.
There are at least two lessons here. One is that sometimes the real radicals aren’t the ones carrying the pirate flags. The other is that explicit left-right labels can help; even parties that claim to have transcended ideological categories, usually fit better on the left or right than they might like to admit.