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  October 31, 2016

Iceland's Pirate Party Wins Big Gains in Parliamentary Election

The Reykjavik Grapevine's Paul Fontaine discusses the possible outcomes after Saturday's parliamentary vote
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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Iceland’s Independence Party, currently the junior party in the government’s coalition has come out ahead after a parliamentary vote on Saturday October 29th, in an election called after the Prime Minister resigned as a result of the Panama Papers scandal this year. The Independence Party were followed by the Left Green Movement and the new antiestablishment pirate party which came in third. This is Pirate Party leader Birgitta Jónsdóttir.

BIRGITTA JONSDOTTIR: The message is that the Pirate Party is going to change five fundamental things: we want to honor the wish of the nation from the referendum a few years ago about the new constitution, and to put that on the agenda again, we want to change the fisheries system so that we can move our collective assets into the collective funds so we can resurrect the healthcare sector, but we also want to change the system so that they become more functional and more humane towards the people that need to live by them. Because it is important, no matter who asks for this job to be a representative, that we are always aware of that we are here in service, number one.

NOOR: The Pirate Party had been riding a wave of anger against the establishment in a country that was one of the hardest hit in the 2008 financial crisis when it’s banking system collapsed, hitting thousands of savors. It’s still too early to say however which party or parties will get the mandate to form the next government. The center right Independence Party won almost 30% of the vote and the Left Green Movement got 15.9% while the Pirate Party was third with 13.4%.

Well now joining us from Reykjavik, Iceland is Paul Fontaine, news editor and reporter for the Reykjavik Grapevine. Thanks so much for joining us.

PAUL FONTAINE: Thanks for having me.

NOOR: So, give us your response to how the election played out. Some polls had the Pirate Party doing much better than third place, where they ended up. In the introduction I mentioned some of the anger, they were riding and some of the policies that they were supporting taking a very left even radical position on even issues such as giving citizenship to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

FONTAINE: Well I think the results of the election reflect a number of different facets of Icelandic society. It’s correct as you point out that there was a lot of anger towards the establishment in the wake of the 2008 financial crash as well as the Panama Papers scandal. However, the Independence Party is a very old and very established party in this country. They have a significant number of their voters are what we call hereditary voters in that you have voters who vote for them simply because their parents did and their parents before them did. It’s a very old lion, blue blood, conservative party. At the same time there have been factions within the right in Iceland and we saw that play out in the Restoration Party which is another center right party like the Independence Party. They’re in favor of joining the European Union.

So, a lot of dissatisfied voters from the Independence Party and the progressives who might have put their vote towards a pro EU left, put their votes into the Restoration Party and as you saw that did very well for them. They’re a brand-new party, they have no seats in parliament and now they have 7. So while yes there were a great number of people who put their dissatisfaction with the status quo towards the Pirates and the Left Greens who also did incredibly well for themselves, the right win in Iceland is still very much established in this country and it’s an uphill battle.

NOOR: And talk about what’s next because no party got a majority so there’s going to be a process now within the next 10 days or maybe sooner, maybe perhaps longer that some parties will have to come together and form a coalition government. Talk about what this process involves and what that process may result in.

FONTAINE: Okay. Well, Iceland’s a parliamentary system like a lot of European parties will have a ruling coalition which is almost always 2 or more parties and an opposition which is everyone else. Since no one party as you point out got a clean majority of Iceland’s 63 seat parliament, they’re going to have to talk with one another. Who leads the next coalition is ultimately in the hands of our president because he’s the Head of State. Now in terms of deciding who is the party that the president chooses there’s a number of factors to consider. It’s not just who got the most seats which in this case is the independence party but also another factor that’s also included in that is who increased their seats the most.

You know the Restoration Party going from 0 to 7, they’ve argued we should be leading the next coalition. The Pirates more than tripling their numbers. The Left Greens showing an incredible upswing in support just before the elections. They’ve argued by the same logic that they should be involved in this as well. Icelanders are typically allergic to ruling coalitions that have more than 2 parties. But we may be going in that direction anyway. So, the way the breakdown is now, yes the next coalition might be led by the Independence party by their sheer number of seats or we could have as a minority government wherein we would have the Pirates, the Left Greens, the Restoration Party also involved in this with the support of the Social Democrats and Bright Future which is a center left party who would be supporting the ruling coalition even though they’re not technically in it.

I know it sounds a little complicated but when we have 7 parties now coming into a 63-seat parliament, we have to get a little creative with how we form a ruling coalition if we even form a ruling coalition at all. There is precedent for what’s known as a national government in which all the parties have to share all the power together and try to work out something resembling consensus when it comes to passing legislation.

NOOR: So, that’s certainly going to be different from what most of our viewers are used to in the US when you have two major parties and third parties have limited political power, especially on a national level. So, I wanted to ask you, we know that Iceland has been sort of creating a new crowdsource constitution which the previous government had blocked its implementation. Talk a little bit about what this would involve and is there a chance for it to be implemented now depending on what kind of government is formed over the next few days.

FONTAINE: I’d say so. There’s one caveat is that the constitutional draft was not crowd sourced. It was written by an elected 23 member constitutional committee. They in turn posted this draft on a website where they fielded questions and commentary and suggestions from the general public and that feedback was in turn folded in to the eventual constitutional draft which was submitted to parliament. It died in parliament in 2012 over a number of disagreements in terms of different articles of this proposed constitution that some parties liked, some parties didn’t like so much and since they couldn’t reach any consensus it just kind of fizzled out.

This time around if we do end up with this minority government involving the Pirates and the Left Greens and the Restoration Party, that process might be a bit easier. However, by Icelandic law, what needs to if you adopt a new constitution is that parliament needs to be immediately dissolved and you need to have new elections. The only way to get around that would be to pass legislation that changes that legislation making that a requirement. So, either way even if there’s complete 100% political will to adopt a new constitution, it’s still going to be a fairly complex and mess process as democracy usually is.

NOOR: So Iceland was one of the hardest hit countries in the 2008 financial crash. It was also one of the few maybe only countries that jailed bankers as a result of it and we saw the Prime Ministers had to resign this year because of the Panama Papers. Talk about how the financial crises have impacted the election and going forward as well.

FONTAINE: The 2008 financial crash definitely had an impact on these elections. I have been living here at the time before that and what’s interesting about the crash and one thing that needs to be understood is that while if you were to read articles in the international press you might be under the impression that Icelanders are the sorts of people who love to motivate, love to organize, and love to protest. It wasn’t always this way. When Iceland was roped into the coalition of the willing in the invasion of Iraq, nobody protested and I used to ask Icelanders why is no one protesting this? Everyone I talk to seems to be angry about it and I was just told Icelanders don’t protest, we’re not that kind of people, you know only hippies and radicals protests.

But the financial crash changed the national character and that’s very significant in that the change that occurred was that Icelanders learned that they can organize, they can perform a mass action and they can have a real-time effect and Icelanders have not forgotten that lesson. So, they’ve basically been riding that momentum since then. We’ve had massive protests for a number of different things. The Panama Papers saw the largest protests in our history. About 10% of the population descended on parliament calling for the dissolution of the government.

We had another protest shortly before then which was also massive, not quite 10% but still fairly massive, simply because the foreign minister sent a letter to Brussels saying Iceland doesn’t want to join the EU anymore. Icelanders wanted to have a referendum on this. And so they protested. So, that change in spirit, that change in democratic involvement, that change in attitude that one person can make a difference and that you can actually organize people to have a direct influence in the government was the sentiment and spirit that was very much in line with the Pirate Party and I think that that contributed significantly into the level of support that they got in this election.

NOOR: Alright Paul Fontaine thanks so much for joining us and we’ll certainly keep following developments as Iceland works to create a governing coalition or one of the other possibilities that you had discussed. Thanks so much for joining us.

FONTAINE: Thank you sir.

NOOR: And thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


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