Europe's New Populists
Hoist the Black Flag and Start Winning Votes

Iceland’s Pirate Party, a populist protest group that started off as an anti-copyright movement, may well win the island’s next elections. Currently, the party has three seats in the 63 member Althingi (parliament). But as the Guardian reports:

Propelled by public outrage at what is widely perceived as endemic cronyism in Icelandic politics and the seeming impunity of the country’s wealthy few, support for the party – which hangs a skull-and-crossbones flag in its parliamentary office – has rocketed.

A poll of polls for the online news outlet Kjarninn in late June had the Pirates comfortably the country’s largest party on 28.3%, four points clear of their closest rival, the conservative Independence party.

That lead has since narrowed slightly but most analysts are confident the Pirates will return between 18 and 20 MPs to the Althingi in October, putting them in a strong position to form Iceland’s next government.

The specific incident that brought the concerns about cronyism to a head was the naming of Iceland’s Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson in the Panama Papers. Gunnlaugsson publicly denied that he’d had an offshore account; when it was confirmed that he’d lied (and in fact had an account with millions in it), mass public protests led to his resignation.

So a Pirate Party success would seem to fit into a new dynamic in politics that’s rearing its head on both sides of the Atlantic: Western elites act corruptly and/or dishonestly, their misdeeds are revealed by hackers, and then populists with unrealistic, idealistic aims flood the gap. Often the hackers have ties to foreign powers (especially Russia) and therefore are trying to achieve geopolitical aims rather than just good government. Some blame the elites for being corrupt to begin with, some blame the foreign powers for interfering. But either way, it’s becoming a pattern.

A Pirate Party leader told the Guardian that they are “popular not populist,” but it’s not hard to detect a Left-populist Syriza-like vibe. The party has vowed only to form a government with other groups that embrace its goal of “fundamental change.” And its platform “includes direct democracy, greater government transparency, a new national constitution and asylum for U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden.” Promises of protection for IP piracy, a founding issue for the party, could cause Iceland serious diplomatic problems, too.

On the other hand, as befits their Icelandic roots, this party also has elements of techno-libertarianism, with a focus on using technology to increase Iceland’s already traditionally strong direct-democracy and update it for the 21st century. If they are able to implement this part of their platform, it could be an experiment in governance worth keeping an eye on.

But “if” is an important word there. So far, populist parties promising the sun and the moon have found the reality of governing pretty tough going. In many parts of Europe, that has deepened the cynicism and anger that led to their election in the first place. Maybe the Pirates can be the first ones to really bring home the booty, but we’d say they arrrgh more likely to follow the rule than be the exception.

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