Revolution rocks Reykjavík as local elections take a funny turn


Artists, actors, comedians and housewives formed the Best Party and ran in Iceland’s local elections as a protest against the status quo – and won six of the capital’s council seats, writes STEINUNN JAKOBSDOTTIR

IN LAST WEEK’S municipal elections in Iceland, voters sent the old party system a clear message. Majorities fell in almost all major municipalities, and Iceland’s capital, Reykjavik, saw the new Best Party take six out of 15 council seats and more than a third of the vote. What had been called a satirical joke party without a clear platform effectively won the elections by protesting against a system it says has failed.

“Historic victory,” said local media. “Welcome to the revolution!” shouted the party leader and most likely next mayor of Reykjavik, Jón Gnarr, as his supporters applauded him as a hero. Gnarr, a popular comedian and radio host, formed the party only six months ago, to stir things up in Icelandic political life.

Candidates for the Best Party (Besti Flokkurinn) included artists, actors, musicians, housewives, writers and producers. Most are well-known faces in the local cultural scene but new players in politics. The party’s campaign video, posted on YouTube, promised a “polar bear for the city’s zoo”, “free towels at swimming pools”, “a drug-free parliament by 2020” and “sustainable transparency” – to the soundtrack of Tina Turner’s Simply the Best.

These might not seem like the most pressing issues in the midst of the country’s most severe financial crisis, but the election results clearly show that their comic approach to political discourse hit the mark.

Charm, jokes and celebrity status alone don’t explain such a huge turnout for the party, says Haukur S Magnússon, editor of the Reykjavík Grapevine newspaper. “Folks here are sick of politics, sick of politicians. I like to think of this as folks rebelling against the system. The four-party system,” he says.

Until now Icelandic politics have been dominated by a power struggle between a quartet of leading parties: the Independence Party, Social Democrats, Left-Greens and Progressive Party. Since the Icelandic bank crash and currency collapse, and the international disputes over Icesave accounts, Icelanders seem to have lost confidence in their leaders. Many say the close relationship between political parties and bankers was responsible for the failure of the economy.

“I think the main reason [for the Best Party’s popularity] is profound dissatisfaction with the traditional parties. Voters blame the parties for the economic collapse,” says Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson, professor of political science at the University of Iceland.

The municipal elections were Icelanders’ second chance in 13 months to vote for change. In last year’s parliamentary elections, voters ejected the governing Independence and Progressive parties, and the Social Democrats and Left-Greens formed a left-wing coalition. So far, however, the coalition has been unable to handle the task of rebuilding the country after the crash, which can partly explain the huge support for the Best Party. The party’s campaign might have seemed like a joke, but its electoral success means it is a serious matter. Running Reykjavik is a hard task, especially when cuts are unavoidable, unemployment has reached a record high and welfare issues are at the forefront.

A coalition between the Best Party and the Social Democrats now looks likely, but many residents look on anxiously, unsure of where the party stands on important issues.

Asked about the next step, Prof Kristinsson says: “No one knows. They don’t have any experience of working in politics . . . They will need to make very hard decisions in the future, and no one knows how they are going to handle it. We are heading into very uncertain times.”

The party insists it will take its new role seriously. Gnarr says there is no need to fear the unknown and has told the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service, RÚV: “No one needs to be afraid of the Best Party. Then it would be called the Bad Party, or the Worst Party.”

“I’m very excited,” says Einar Örn Benediktsson, musician, former Sugarcubes singer and soon-to-be councillor. “We are not a joke party. We have been called a joke, but we use comedy as a way to point out the seriousness of the situation we are in. We stand for an honest approach and participation when it comes to governing the city. [Our support] is a reaction to politics and politicians who have been unwilling to stand up and admit they are responsible. [The elections] were a democratic protest against negligence. All of us, we saw how much bullshit politics has turned into, and we wanted to point that out. The way we did that – making fun of the established parties and typical political phrases, telling jokes and promising somewhat ridiculous things – saw support, and now we hope we can change the way people think about politics.”

Gnarr has said he wants to bring humour into politics, to make it less boring and change the way things are done in the city council. Perhaps that’s just what politics needs.