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Why is Iceland’s Pirate Party so successful?

National polls suggest that the Icelandic Pirate Party, the local branch of the worldwide social protest movement spawned by the digital revolution, might be within striking distance to form a government in Iceland by the end of this month. In essence still a protest movement, the Pirates find themselves in a neck-and-neck race with the right-leaning Independence party, both polling at around 20%. Their German peers, still Europe’s biggest Pirate Party, are stuck at 1 to 2%, on the other hand. How come?

Well, it’s not the superiority of Icelandic policy pledges or party manifestos, I can tell you that. Pirate policy pledges, which per definition tend to be slightly intangible, do not differ greatly between countries. What it boils down to is:

  • a profound overhaul of copyright rules (an unambitious reform attempt by the European Commission is underway),
  • updating fundamental rights to the digital age,
  • decriminalisation of drugs (first and foremost cannabis),
  • online-based direct democracy,
  • anti-mass surveillance,
  • introduction of a basic income.

So why is the Icelandic wing of the Pirates so successful, while having been diminished to irrelevance in most other European countries?

An explanation attempt.

 

Iceland is in a protest mood

First, Iceland is different. They famously let their financial institutions go bust following the economic meltdown of 2007/08, showing that Icelanders are willing to go “politically rogue” (in a positive way) way beyond the average European electorate. Throughout the past decades, the islanders have experimented with far more extreme forms of economic and political ideology, from embracing an ultra-liberal stance on globalisation to an almost left-wing revolution and nationalist revolt.

Most importantly, Icelandic politics experienced yet another moment of truth not too long ago. Former Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, of the centrist Progressive Party, toppled from power following revelations connected to the Panama Papers scandal earlier this year, leaving Iceland in a serious anti-establishment protest mood. No wonder almost half of the Icelandic electorate is willing to cast a protest vote (to Pirates or Independence Party).

 

Organic growth and political credibility

What is more, in a small, closed media economy like Iceland, the Pirates’ crowdfunding approach to political campaigning doesn’t put them to a communicative disadvantage as in continental Europe, where the movement struggles to break through the phalanx of established media outlets (also due to their naïve communication approach).

During a short period of rapid growth, other Pirate Parties, in particular the Germans, had to absorb an uncontrollable amount of people from across the entire political spectrum joining their ranks, which, to a degree, prevented them from forming a coherent and presentable political core. That’s much easier when you have to “oversee” a small group of individuals like in Iceland, many of them nationwide known activists or former parliamentarians.

Quite impressively, the Iceland’s Pirates appear to know their place in the political world. They are a protest movement and thus rely on protest votes. That’s why they focus on issues where they can make an impact. For instance, party leader Birgitta Jónsdóttir publicly said that she feels unfit for the office of the Prime Minister and won’t be seeking it; also no one calls for a radical transformation of the financial system. Rather, they strive for the presidency of the parliament and a “constituent assembly” for the review of Iceland’s Constitution.

A clever move: They stick to their bread-and-butter issues, embrace parliamentary rather than executive democracy, and sport uncorrupted, authentic personalities. Thus, they convey “political credibility” – with a special appeal to young voters.

 

In a nutshell: Much of the present success of the Icelandic Pirates is anecdotal and its explanation is limited to the dynamics of Icelandic politics. However, they managed to offer an authentic, uncorrupted and progressive political alternative that caters to (and is the result of) a deeply rooted disenchantment with political elites, globalisation’s promises and the welfare states’ long-term viability.

Even though the Pirates’ political messages haven’t swept them into parliaments all across Europe, their ideas are here to stay.

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