Pirates face rough seas as incumbents lead in Iceland vote

AP Photo
AP Photo/Frank Augstein

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — Iceland looked likely to steer away from a Pirate takeover Sunday, as voters favored the incumbent Independence Party over the upstart band of buccaneers advocating direct democracy and Internet freedom.

With roughly half of votes counted from Saturday’s election, the Independence Party had about 30 percent of ballots and the Pirate Party about 14 percent, putting them in third place behind the Left-Green movement.

It’s a worse result for the Pirates than some polls suggested, and a better performance than predicted for the Independents, who have governed in coalition since 2013.

Coalition governments are the norm in Iceland’s multi-party system. It was not immediately clear whether the Independents would be able to assemble a coalition with other centrist and right-wing parties – or whether the Pirates and other opposition forces would get the numbers to govern.

Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson said he was “extremely happy” with the early results. He said that given the party’s strong showing, it would be “extremely hard to not include us” in the next government.

Saturday’s election was held amid widespread public discontent with Iceland’s traditional elites, with debate focusing on the economy and voters’ desire for political reform

It was called after then-Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned in April during public protests over his offshore holdings, revealed in the Panama Papers leak.

The tax-avoidance scandal outraged many Icelanders, who suffered years of economic upheaval after the country’s debt-swollen banks collapsed during the 2008 global financial crisis.

The chief victim of voters’ wrath was Gunnlaugsson’s Progressive Party, which looked set to lose more than half its seats.

A kingmaker in government negotiations could be Vidreisn, or Renewal, liberal party formed this year that advocates Iceland joining the European Union. It looks set to gain a handful of parliament seats.

The Pirate Party, founded four years ago by an assortment of hackers, political activists and Internet freedom advocates, drew international attention as its support surged among Icelanders fed up with established parties after years of financial turmoil and political scandal.

Some polls had given the Pirates the support of a fifth of voters, potentially poised to become the biggest group in the volcanic island nation’s parliament, the Althingi.

Pirate lawmaker Birgitta Jonsdottir said the early results were in line with the party’s own prediction of between 12 and 15 percent – up from the 5 percent it secured in 2013.

“If we get more than 15 percent, we will be deeply thankful,” she said. “We’re just amazed that we’ll possibly maybe triple our following from last time, and it’s only three years.”

The Pirates campaigned on promises to introduce direct democracy, subject the workings of government to more scrutiny and place the country’s natural resources under public ownership

The party also seeks tough rules to protect individuals from online intrusion. Jonsdottir, the Pirates’ most prominent voice, is a former ally of WikiLeaks who has called on Iceland to offer citizenship to U.S. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

Opponents claim the inexperienced Pirates could scare off investors and destabilize an economy that is now recovering, with low unemployment and high growth.

As she cast her ballot Saturday, Jonsdottir urged voters to take a chance on her untested party.

“Change is beautiful. There’s nothing to worry about,” she said. “We are ready to do whatever people trust us to do.”

A wind-lashed volcanic island near the Arctic Circle with a population of 320,000, Iceland has become known in recent years for large street protests that ousted one government after the 2008 financial crash and dispatched another in April. It also has strong Scandinavian policies in support of social equality and women’s rights.

But Icelanders – infused with a spirit of Viking self-sufficiency – also have a strong conservative streak that leads many to mistrust the Pirates.

“They’ll make chaos,” said fishmonger Marselius Gundmundsson.

The Pirates have no experience of government, and some voters seeking change said they were sticking with established parties like the Left Greens or the Social Democrats.

As scores of Pirate supporters watched the election results come in at a Reykjavik brewpub, the boisterous mood was tinged with disappointment.

“I’m really sad and I’m really disappointed in our young generation,” said 22-year-old student Bylgja Gudjonsdottir.

“This is our next generation that is taking the country to the next level. But they keep voting for the criminals we have here,” she said.

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