The Pirate Party in Iceland is getting ready for its biggest election victory yet. Recent polls show the party neck and neck with the centre-right Independence Party that governs in coalition with the Progressive Party.
The upcoming vote on Saturday (29 October) is unusual in more ways than one. These elections were called after the Prime Minister, Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson, then-chairman of the Progressive Party, was forced to resign by huge crowds enraged at his family's involvement in offshore tax havens as revealed in the Panama Papers leak in April 2016.
Around the same time, the Pirate Party reached its highest approval rating, with a Gallup poll on 31 March seeing it soar to 36.1%. As the vote approached, the party's popularity diminished, but with the latest polls giving it over 20% of the vote, it is set to win four times as many seats as in 2013 when it took 5.1%.
"It's a new phenomenon that the Pirate Party rank so high in the polls. Also, the Social Democrats are very low [at around 7%], and they used to be one of the biggest party. That's new to the political landscape," said Einar Einarsson, CEO at Gallup Iceland, said to IBTimes UK of the unusually fragmented election landscape.
The Independence Party may win the highest percentage of votes, but will not be able to rule without support of other parties, and it may get locked out by a coalition of the Pirate Party, the Left-Green, who are currently the third-most popular, and a few other opposition parties on the left of the spectrum. "There is no two-party government in the picture right now, at least three or four [parties are needed] to form a government," Einarsson explained.
The Independence Party won the largest number of seats in the 2013 election with almost 27% of the vote, but its popularity has been falling, and it is now polling at around 23%. A recent internal controversy may have further damaged its chances, particularly with female voters. In September, the chair and former chairs of its national women's organisation resigned from the party, protesting over the exclusion of female candidates in top positions in electoral lists, reducing their chances of being elected to parliament.
"I know some women have left the party since. You can see in the polls there are fewer women voting for the party than men, the party is not reflecting the society as it is," said Thorey Vilhjalmsdottir, a former assistant to the minister of interior who was chair of the group between 2013-15. While no longer involved with the party, she is following the elections closely, telling IBTimes UK: "These are probably the strangest polls I've ever seen in parliamentary elections in Iceland. They are changing so much each week."
In comparison to the traditional groups, the four-year-old Pirate Party is able to present itself as an outsider. "They are not perceived to be part of the established system," said Eva Önnudottir, post-doctoral researcher in political science at the University of Iceland. "The Pirate Party voters are those who are both dissatisfied with how the system works and have lost faith in the system. What happens with it if, and once, it becomes part of the system is another story," she added.
To one of their candidates, human rights lawyer Sunna Aevarsdottir, its rise in popularity is due to what she calls "a perfect storm" of unpopular, scandal-ridden government, public frustration and the Pirates' fresh approach to politics. Speaking to IBTimes UK, she said: "We've had some very talented and approachable MPs who tell it like it is, who don't talk like a normal politician and talk from their heart."
Strong focus on social issues
Explaining how the Pirate Party differs from right-wing populists that have been winning support elsewhere, Aevarsdottir described a different approach to the sense of disenfranchisement that fuels those parties' popularity. "What we see from them is a frustration about how they have been left out of this mass global development. On the other side, with the Pirates or Podemos [the left-wing Spanish party], overall the supporters are better off, better educated, still frustrated, but with a sense of justice and wanting to change things," she said.
High on the list of priorities for the party are a new constitution, increasing public involvement in decision-making, redistribution of the country's wealth and natural resources, tackling corruption and reestablishing free healthcare. Health, welfare and education are core topics on which the Icelandic people will be basing their vote on Saturday.
If it is able to form a coalition government, the Pirate Party will be keen on controlling the finance, interior, fisheries and foreign affairs ministries – and, of course, the premiership. "We also want to empower parliament to be the true legislature of the people, so it is also important to us who gets elected to be the whip of the house and who gets to be chair of different committees. But these are things we'll discuss after the elections," said Aevarsdottir, who personally intends to fight for the rights of marginalised people, ensuring their rights are upheld by the state.
Even if the Pirate Party were to end up in opposition, it's likely to be big enough to exert a significant influence. "As lovely as it would be to get a majority, even if we were in the opposition I think we can still do a lot of good," Aevarsdottir concluded.