Faced with street protests, and opinion polls showing a surge in support for the opposition Pirate Party in the wake of the Panama Papers scandal, Iceland’s government is resisting calls for early elections.
THROWN INTO DISARRAY by a Panama Papers scandal, Iceland’s coalition government appointed a new prime minister on Thursday, refusing to call early elections to resolve a crisis in public confidence brought about by the revelation that three senior ministers had secret offshore accounts.
Opinion polls suggest that the government would be trounced in any immediate election, and most likely replaced by Iceland’s branch of the Pirate Party, a pan-European movement founded in Sweden in 2006 to fight for internet freedom and direct democracy. The Icelandic branch currently holds just three seats in the nation’s parliament, the Althing.
Protesters, who have massed outside the Althing in Reykjavik’s Austurvöllur square every day this week, have made it clear that they are not satisfied with just the bizarre resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, who intends to keep his seat in parliament and remain in charge of his party despite officially ceding power to his deputy, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannesson.
Opposition parties are also outraged that the finance minister, Bjarni Benediktsson, and the interior minister, Ólöf Nordal, have not resigned, despite also being named in the Panama Papers investigation as the holders of offshore accounts.
On social networks, Icelanders shared memes describing the slightest of reshuffles as merely a cosmetic change.
After Benediktsson spoke to the press on Wednesday night inside parliament, alongside the prime minister’s hand-picked replacement, Jóhannesson, one of the three Pirate representatives, Ásta Helgadóttir, expressed her indignation at the finance minister’s claim that the government had to stay in place because the opposition was “rubbish.”
Helgadóttir phoned The Intercept from the Althing a few minutes later to say that the reshuffle was “a farce” and the coalition’s plan to delay elections until an unspecified date in the autumn is “not what the people are asking for.” The current crisis, she added, demonstrates that the country needs the new constitution her party has promised to implement, “with some sort of mechanism” for more direct democracy and ways to ensure that “politicians have to listen to the people.”
Helgadóttir also said that while the party is still focused on issues related to the web, “This is all interconnected — internet freedom is about how to practice fundamental human rights in the 21st century, and democracy is one of those rights.”
Another of the Pirates in parliament is Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a free speech and digital rights activist who helped edit the WikiLeaks video “Collateral Murder,” and has led the effort to make Iceland a haven for whistleblowers.
Speaking to Democracy Now on Wednesday, Jónsdóttir pointed out that the Pirate Party has consistently led in the polls for the last year.
Writing on the party’s website, Helgadóttir, Jónsdóttir, and their colleague Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson admitted on Thursday that they are “still surprised by the popularity of the party,” themselves. “It’s the big riddle we’re always trying to solve,” they wrote.
By way of an answer, they suggested that the population is ready for radical change:
The confidence of the Icelandic people we believe rests in us, not only because we are a party that has not been a part of government, but also we think it is because people sense that we stand for enacting changes that have to do with reforming the systems, rather than changing minor things that might easily be changed back. Our policies therefore stand in stark contrast to what appears to be the pattern of modern politics; minor changes but always the same dysfunctional system. We do not define ourselves as left or right but rather as a party that focuses on the systems. In other words, we consider ourselves hackers — so to speak — of our current outdated systems of government.
They added, “The Icelandic Pirate Party will not be able to solve all of the ingrown problems in Iceland, but it will certainly be able to offer new hardware, complete with a new set of rules based on how we operate as a collective community.”
When the Pirate Party’s surge in the polls started last year, then-Prime Minister Gunnlaugsson cast them as dangerous anarchists in an interview with Visir, a Reykjavik newspaper. “If general discontent led to a revolutionary party — a party with some very unclear ideas about democracy, and a party which wants to upheave the foundations of society — becoming influential, that would be cause for concern for society as a whole,” he said. “It would take society in a whole other direction, where it would be difficult to hang onto those values that we possess and have been building on for decades.”
Less than a week after that dire warning, the Pirates celebrated their first legislative success, leading an effort to repeal Iceland’s law against blasphemy.
The Pirates, along with three other opposition parties, introduced a motion of no confidence in the government Gunnlaugsson has left behind, to be debated on Friday. By then, popular anger is likely to have ratcheted up still further, following reports on Thursday that three bankers who were jailed last year for their part in the collapse of Iceland’s Kaupthing bank in 2008 were granted early release, as the result of a new law passed by the current government.