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article imageIceland's Pirate Party ready to board ship of state

By Hugues Honore (AFP)     Apr 11, 2016 in World

Iceland's Pirate Party, founded in 2012 as a marginal protest group, is now unexpectedly in a position where it could seize power in a country fed up with the political and financial establishment.

Recent public opinion polls have shown the party with 43 percent of voter support, with many Icelanders furious to discover that hundreds of their rich and powerful countrymen were named in the so-called Panama Papers leak which exposed hidden offshore dealings around the world.

The Pirate Party, a libertarian movement campaigning for more transparency in politics as well as Internet freedom and copyright reform, is modelled on a Swedish namesake launched in 2006.

"We can't predict whether (voter support) will stay like this or not, but what we can see is that people like our style, our approach," Asta Gudrun Helgadottir, one of three Pirate Party members to hold a seat in parliament, told AFP.

Things have moved quickly for the small party, which in many ways is still under construction.

Its national headquarters, located in Reyjkavik's Old Harbour, consist of a two-room office that looks more like an apartment intended for a tiny protest party breathing fresh air into Icelandic politics, rather than the seat of a party ready to take the reins of power.

Panama papers: trouble in Iceland
Panama papers: trouble in Iceland
, AFP

Birgitta Jonsdottir, a 48-year-old poetess and WikiLeaks activist, founded the party in 2012 after the dissolution of the Citizens Movement, another small pro-direct democracy party for which she was elected to parliament in 2009.

"She was searching for herself. She's a rebel and she had this idea for the Pirate Party, which caught on right away," recalled Stefania Oskarsdottir, a political science professor at the University of Reykjavik.

In 2013 legislative elections, the newly-created party managed to squeeze into parliament, just surpassing the threshold of five percent of votes required to be represented in parliament -- 5.1 percent -- and taking three seats.

Since then it has continued to surprise political observers, gaining much more voter support than a slew of other protest parties founded in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown that plunged Iceland into a deep recession and left thousands heavily indebted.

Birgita Jonsdottir (L)  leader of Iceland's Pirate Party  pictured on election night in the cap...
Birgita Jonsdottir (L), leader of Iceland's Pirate Party, pictured on election night in the capital Reykjavík on April 28, 2013
Halldor Kolbeins, AFP/File

Yet Pirate Party members are trying not to get in over their heads, despite their popularity.

The Pirates main goal is to break with Iceland's old political guard, and put an end to left-right bloc politics.

- 'Everyone takes part' -

"In the other parties, when you're young and get involved in politics, it's simple: you start out listening to the speeches given by party leaders, and you clap. Here, it's not like that. Everyone takes part, everyone can write proposals that will be debated," said Karl Hedinn, a 21-year-old party member who zips around central Reykjavik on a skateboard.

The party insists on a flat structure, almost devoid of hierarchy except for an executive committee consisting of seven members, seven substitutes and a rotating presidency.

Birgita Jonsdottir (4L)  leader of Iceland's Pirate Party  takes part in a TV debate with other...
Birgita Jonsdottir (4L), leader of Iceland's Pirate Party, takes part in a TV debate with other party leaders on election night in Reykjavík on April 28, 2013
Halldor Kolbeins, AFP/File

"This weak structure is the Pirates' strength but also its weakness. They have to find competent people to make it work, otherwise it'll be complicated. In politics you have to be pretty organised so that on election day, your voters actually cast their ballots," Oskarsdottir said.

"For the time being, the Pirate Party is an excellent place to put your voter intent, and send a message. But a lot of voters will ask for more during the campaign", with legislative elections due to be held in the autumn, she said.

Voters may want to know which governing alliances would be expected, in a country where no single party has obtained a parliamentary majority since Iceland's independence from Denmark in 1944.

Officially, no other party has raised the possibility of governing together with the Pirates -- which groups libertarians, far-left activists, centrist or leftwing liberals, and cyberactivists -- and vice versa.

"We will probably work with the left. With the right, the confidence is now broken," lawmaker Helgadottir said.

Last week, Iceland's prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned after being named in the leaked documents of the Panama Papers on offshore dealings, replaced by his party colleague Sigurdur Igni Johannsson.

Thousands of angry Icelanders however have kept up their calls for the entire centre-right government to resign and for new elections to be held soon.

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