Can Europe Make It?

Iceland: portrait of the pirate as a young politician

Halldór Auðar Svansson, 34, is the first Pirate Party member to be part of a majority coalition, in Reykjavik. He talks about the Pirate Party movement, e-democracy and the necessary generational shift among professional politicians. 

Anne-Charlotte Oriol
13 September 2016

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 20 August 2014.

In 2007, Halldór Auðar Svansson, 27, was working as a programmer in one of the main Icelandic banks, Kaupthing Bank. As a young professional, he was seduced by Kaupthing’s stated ambition to become one of the world’s top ten banks. Seven years later, Kaupthing Bank has collapsed and Svansson is the first Pirate to sit in a majority coalition, in the Icelandic capital city Reykjavik. I met him a few weeks after he took office.

Among the consequences of the 2008 Icelandic financial crisis, two were particularly instrumental in Halldor's decision to get involved in politics. The first one started with a joke. In 2010, the Best Party (a “joke party”) Halldór Auðar Svansson. Creative Commons-PPIS. and its self-declared “anarcho-surrealist” leader, Jón Gnarr, won the Reykjavik municipality, a key position in the country's political life. For Svansson, “2008 movements did actually change the way politics was done. The Best Party was a direct response to how people were disillusioned with the political system. It was a ‘parodic rebellion’, which turned out to be probably the best thing that could have happened to Reykjavik at that point.” The second development that cemented Svansson’s decision to enter politics occurred three years later, in 2013, when three members of the Pirate Party were elected to the National Parliament only a few months after the Party was established. In the Pirates, Svansson found a party to which he could commit fully. He got involved at the grassroots level before running in the primary organised by the party ahead of the 2014 Reykjavik City Council elections.

He now intends to use his seat in the majority coalition of Reykjavik and his chairing of the municipal Committee on Administration and Democracy to instigate the changes he and his party have been calling for, especially regarding governance. “This is,” Svansson acknowledges, “a very interesting challenge for me and the Pirates in Iceland as well as for the Pirates as an international movement because we are pretty rebellious and we are trying very actively to change the system itself, to be critical of the establishment. Now we're trying to do this from within the system.” 

Of course, joining a majority coalition (with the Social Democrats, Bright Future and the Left-Greens) didn't happen without debate in the Icelandic Pirate movement: “Some people were a bit sceptical, but after the discussion and after the coalition had drafted an agreement, people in the Pirate Party were generally pretty happy with it. Of course it's very good to have differing opinions, some people who monitor what you're doing and tell you if they're not happy. I think I would have a hard time functioning as a politician if I had to go it alone and only have my own viewpoint to guide my decisions. The Pirates are all about involving as many people as possible and being democratic. I think that this is a good opportunity to see how this works in practice.”

As part of settling into his new job as city councillor, he has spent most of his first weeks meeting with people “interested in democratic reform and transparency” and listening to various stakeholders. He has no problem admitting when he lacks knowledge about a certain topic, or that he needs to get input from others. That is a lesson Icelandic politicians have learnt since the crisis he says: “it used to be that the people in charge believed that if they admitted there were some things they didn't know enough about, or that they wanted other people to help them take decisions, they would be seen as weak or not doing their job. I think that people like Jón Gnarr and other unconventional politicians have helped to change that a bit.” Svansson’s own political involvement exemplifies this change: he is one of the people who entered politics not wanting to become a professional politician. “Two years ago,” he says, “I wouldn't have imagined that I’d be sitting in the majority in Reykjavik today.”

The Icelandic Pirate party. CC-PPIS.But novice as he may be, Svansson does not intend to be a figurehead on the city council. He is set to chair Rekjavik’s Committee on Administration and Democracy, which deals with issues relating to transparency and the democratic functioning of the municipality. “This Committee,” he says, “did already exist but didn’t have a formalised status and it held meetings pretty sporadically. So it is being elevated so to speak. It's really going to do something.” Although the Committee's agenda hadn't been fully adopted when I met him, Svansson had some ideas on what it could do. He showed, for example, a keen interest in the issue of transparency. Svansson intends to use the committee to tackle this issue, notably by streamlining existing data, making it standardised and ensuring the public can use it.

Iceland, according to Svansson, has much progress to make on the issue of transparency. While it is often presented as a “laboratory” or an “example” to follow, Svansson says, “Iceland has this tendency to overlook things that have worked in other countries and to always go full steam ahead trying to reinvent the wheel.” He wants to avoid this, for he is aware of the “good work done in the UK, Finland and Germany and in some areas of the USA” on the issue and thinks it “worthwhile” to go over these experiences before launching Reykjavik’s new transparency policy. 

If transparency is a crucial issue on the Pirates' agenda, they are also expected to address topics such as digital literacy, surveillance and e-democracy. But while the party does pay attention to these issues, being a Pirate doesn't automatically make you a self-satisfied technophile with a digital solution to any political or societal problem. It is in fact the opposite: the more you know about a topic, the more you’ll understand the need for a pragmatic and measured approach.

On the idea of teaching programming in school, a trending political topic in several European countries, Svansson – who is himself a programmer – adopts a stance more balanced than that of many European politicians who want to show off their modernising credentials: “That's one issue that many Pirates are interested in. I myself think it's not a high priority. Programming is a specialised topic, a specialised field. I think it's very healthy for kids to get a bit of a feel for it but I think teaching IT in general should be a higher priority because it is a big part of people's lives. Computer and Internet literacy is the new literacy, and being digitally literate is a key aspect of being an actively participating citizen today.”

Iceland has an Internet penetration rate that is among the highest in the world and smartphones are very popular. The Icelanders, as Svansson puts it, “are not exactly technophobes.” According to him, “smartphones are a huge revolution. They are definitely, I think, the next information technology that we'll be using. They offer a lot of new opportunities, for instance for people to participate in democratic discussions and debate. It's a pretty awesome thing but people also have to realise the consequences of carrying around something that always keeps them connected.” Digital literacy is thus crucial to make citizens active, but it should also make smartphone owners smart. “The more you're connected to others,” Svansson continues, “the more others are connected to you. So we have to be very well aware of the data we're putting out, who can access it and how it can and will be used.” But if surveillance is an issue for the Icelandic Pirates, Svensson thinks that the authorities have yet to take it seriously. The widespread use of smartphones creates a whole new set of issues that underline the inherent complexity of growingly connected societies. The political class - in Iceland and elsewhere - has proved unable to address let alone fully comprehend these issues.

I then ask Svansson about e-democracy and the use of IT in the political sphere and in decision-making. Svansson says: “I think e-democracy is both a mere tool and a shift in the way we make politics. Some tools are powerful enough to fundamentally change how we do things, and I think that Internet in general has done this but that doesn't mean it's the answer to everything and that we can fully move away from the methods we used before. They complement each other. Democracy does not function unless people are interested in taking part. And of course e-democracy can provide the tools for people to take part easily but I don't think that on its own e-democracy can get people interested. There has to be something more and I think the initiative in large part has to come from the establishment and the politicians themselves. They have to send out the message, ‘We want you to get involved, we are listening to you, we don't want to rule on our own.’ But as long as IT is seen as some sort of ‘cosmetic’ that is not actively integrated into the system that is already there, it will not become more relevant, just some add-on that doesn't really have any effect.” 

Reykjavik. Wikimedia Commons/Nic Lehoux. Creative Commons.

I ask the young politician what can be done to convince the establishment of the importance of e-democracy. According to Svansson, the options are twofold: “It's best to present it as an augmentation of what we have already, which is true. It's not like the people who currently have the power will lose it by opening up the decision-making process. E-democracy helps them to integrate more opinions into the decision-making process, and makes it easier for them to know how people are feeling about policy decisions.” But what if this argument doesn’t work? Here Svansson’s advice is to “be patient”. He is confident that old-fashioned, unconnected leaders (such as Jean-Claude Juncker, the President-elect of the European Commission, who barely knows how to send an e-mail) will be “a thing of the past fairly soon”. If their understanding and approach to technology can't be changed, then “we’ll just have to keep our momentum going”.

I still wonder whether this approach is timorous or politically realistic. What is clear though is that digital tools will play an important role in democratic practices in the future. Yet, and as for any highly complex topic, e-democracy won't be instituted overnight. We also shouldn’t see it as a miracle solution to all of our democratic challenges. In fact, and interestingly at a time when the role of civil society is at best overlooked by the ruling elite and at worst fought against, Svansson insists on the importance for people to be involved in organisations: “It doesn't have to be political but I think it's a very maturing process for a person to learn how to function as a member of some organisation in terms of goals and of rules. And I don't think that the Internet or IT are necessarily the best platform for that... It does bring people together to discuss things but I think traditional real life meetings are something that won't be obsolete for quite a while yet.”

Svansson is probably part of the first generation of elected representatives who understand both the promises and pitfalls of IT. Most probably this generation will spend most of its energy and time groping for democratic innovation and will have quite a problem aligning their views with those of other professional politicians. Indeed, when we talk about the use of digital tools, transparency, national or European politics, the young politician seems torn between his genuine will to believe that democratic reform is within reach, and his awareness that it is the current establishment - whose will to see such change happen is questioned by Svansson - that needs to make the first move. The Icelandic Pirates, and other young, connected political movements emerging around the globe, are now trying to trigger change from within dysfunctional systems. In other words, they stand for e-reform rather than e-revolution.

It will require some years before we can assess this strategy. At this stage there are more questions that clear-cut answers regarding the political situation in Iceland, and more generally regarding the tension between global changes and political inertia. Will a single Piratical novice manage to open decision-making to Reykjavik's citizens and instigate a culture of transparency? Can the Pirate Party actually be in charge or is it condemned to be in the opposition? Can “normalised politics” be progressive and bold? Are citizens-based movements on the verge of getting rid of professional politicians? The Icelandic Pirates hope to show that asking the right questions is the first step to finding the right answers. An appointment has already been booked in with Halldór Svansson at the end of his first term, in 2018, to see how well they've done.

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