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The Bernie Sanders of Iceland is a Pirate, a poet and possibly the country’s next leader

Birgitta Jónsdóttir is a politician and an activist member of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, formerly representing the Citizens' Movement whom she co-founded in the wake of the Icelandic financial crisis and The Movement, but now representing the Pirate Party. (Photo by Giles Clarke/Getty Images)

REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Birgitta Jónsdóttir is a poet, a Web developer and a former WikiLeaks activist. She’s also founder and leader of Iceland’s Pirate Party, which has been at or near the top of polls ahead of national elections Oct. 29.

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Washington Post London Bureau Chief Griff Witte sat down with Jónsdóttir for an interview at her office in Reykjavik on Oct. 19. The following are excerpts from their conversation.

Washington Post: Could you start by telling me what this party stands for, and what are its core beliefs? It's difficult to place on the ideological spectrum of left to right.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir: The Pirate Party started in Sweden in 2006, and it only had one agenda: to change draconian copyright laws. But it's changed and shifted primarily because the questions of human rights and cyber have become much more relevant. So if you want to place it somewhere on the spectrum, I would say it's a party that has its roots in civilian rights. But we are not like many left parties that want to regulate citizens and create nanny states. We believe that regulation should be on the powerful, not the individuals.

WP: How much of the Pirate Party's success is attributable to the aftermath of the financial crisis?

BJ: Many people in Iceland woke up when this big earthquake hit us and we felt that everything we had put our trust in had failed us. Not only the banking sector. The politicians, the academia, the media, the supervisory institutions. So it meant that many people felt that they needed to do something. And we became aware that people could actually change things. It was the people that got the government to resign, the central bank manager to resign, and the financial supervisory board director to resign. So that was a huge wake-up call.

WP: If you are the top vote-getter, and if you do lead the creation of the next government, what should be done about the E.U. membership application?

BJ: Trust the nation.

WP: Hold a referendum?

BJ: Yeah, but it's very important that if you do a referendum like this, we don't want to make the same mistakes that happened in Britain. You have to make sure that it is an informed campaign. People need to know what [membership] implies.

WP: You have said that Edward Snowden could have asylum in Iceland if he so desired. Is that something you see could happening if you win the election?

BJ: I have informed him and his lawyer that he should apply for citizenship, because there's more protections against extradition for Icelandic citizens than there is if you are here with asylum. It is our policy, as a party, to grant him citizenship if he would apply for it.

WP: Will he be applying?

BJ: We will see. It would probably be symbolic unless you get the U.S. government to agree that it would be better for them to have him in a neutral country that doesn't have secret service and is not in a Cold War with them, or a new cyberwar. He has inspired changes and awareness, which is very important in this day and age, and sometimes egos need to be set aside, even with powerful people, and we need to look at the full picture.

WP: You obviously see yourselves as the opposite of Trumpism and Le-Penism and Farage-ism and all of these right-wing populist movements. But there has also been a real left-wing populism, whether with Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain or Corbyn in Britain. Do you see any kinship with those movements?

BJ: I do see some kinship, and also with the Five Star Movement, leaning to the right in Italy. And I have worked with people from all these different groups. In a sense the Pirate Party is very similar to what happened for the Bernie Sanders campaign, where people felt inspired and they felt like they were having an impact, a big grass-roots-inspired movement, in particular with young people. The reason why I am spending time, just a few days before the election, speaking to the foreign press is that I feel it is important to point out that individuals can make a difference, that things that seem impossible one day might suddenly shift into a possibility the next day.

WP: Did you believe when you got started with the Pirate Party that you would be in a position to govern some day?

BJ: Well, not three years after we formed, no way.

WP: But now you are potentially topping the polls. What kind of statement would that make if the Pirate Party does finish at the top?

BJ: People want real changes, and they understand that we have to change the system. We have to modernize how we make laws. We have to make sure whenever you are dealing with big things like global warming, world security, refugees, the E.U. question, access to information, it needs to be done with an awareness that all of these things interconnect. We don't care where the policies come from, we don't care if they come from the governmental party or the opposition or from ourselves. We want to inspire others to be with us, but we want to support good stuff no matter where it comes from. Maybe [Iceland] could be sort of a testing ground for solutions because we are few and because we are really a tech-oriented nation. Everybody is a gadget freak. We spend a lot of time indoors.

Karla Adam contributed to this report from London.

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