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Rebuilding democracy in Iceland: an interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir

In the first of a series of interviews by Phil England examining the situation in Iceland and the possible relevance of developments there to the UK, Phil talks to Pirate Party MP Birgitta Jonsdottir.

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Birgitta Jonsdottir. Flickr/Steve Rhodes. Some rights reserved.

Editor's note: This article was originally published on 26 June 2015.

Birgitta Jonsdottir is a co-founder of the Icelandic Pirate Party and one of three Pirate Party MPs in the Icelandic government. Since March the Pirates have been polling as the most popular party in Iceland. Their core policies focus on direct democracy, civil rights and access to information. A former Wikileaks volunteer, Jonsdottir describes herself as an anarchist and a poetician. She is also founder and Chair of the International Modern Media Inititative (IMMI) which aims to strengthen democracy through transparency of information.

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Could the right to information clauses in the draft constitution along with the IMMI (International Modern Media Initiative) proposals to protect journalists, their sources and whistleblowers help prevent a second crash from happening?

Absolutely. It’s not enough to have a big [Wikileaks-style] data dump. You have to have people interested in it that can analyse it and simplify it for the general public to understand. So if we had this type of legislation before the banking crisis it might not have prevented it completely but it would have been a lot less severe.

We have legislation that is not very clear in Iceland about when public workers, the bureaucrats in the system, have a duty to report or a duty to be silent. It’s not clear right now because there are so many different regulations about it. Many people have been waiting for a clarification in law. So now the trend is for whistleblowers to stay silent.

I don’t think transparency can completely stop corruption as the temptation to bend the rules is always great, but when there is more transparency around the laws and who writes them, more eyes can have a look at it and try to fill in the legal holes.

People sometimes say there is a banking secrecy law in Iceland. Is that still in effect?

It’s not really a banking secrecy law. It’s more like legislation that the banks themselves have put into place. It is not a particular law. It’s one of the things we’ve tried to raise awareness about. Whenever the banks claim this is a law, a regulation, I keep saying to everybody that’s interested in changing the growing distrust in parliamentary institutions and politicians is that all laws have been made by people and thus all laws can be undone by all people. What they always do with something like this, when they claim there is a banking secrecy law, they say that it’s because of competition and because of international regulations that we’re part of.

So maybe we need a really strong international body of people that want to transform these international trade deals to provide a new grid or new network that might help roll it back. But it’s actually a lot harder when it comes to these international corporations that are bound by these international hiding places.

Even though Iceland prosecuted some of its top bankers after the revolution, is there a sense that things may be returning to business as usual now the right-wing parties are back in power?

I think in general we don’t have a big banking bubble now, we have a different kind of bubble because we did not deal with the problems at the root of it. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a new banking insanity in Iceland because what happened here was unheard of because the banking sector expanded so quickly and dramatically compared to the size of our GDP. But the new bubble is in housing because of increasing tourism. So the new bubble in Iceland is actually tourism and all the corruption around that. That’s going to hit the general public the hardest, there’s going to be a massive mortgage bubble so the price of housing is expanding really quickly and they’re just building all these luxury flats when it’s incredibly difficult to be on the rental market. Because Iceland has never had a proper rental market. So you’d usually only be able to find a place to rent for about a year and then you’d have to be moving all the time which eventually pushes you into taking a mortgage which is usually more than you can deal with. So you go in the grey zone in order to get a mortgage. Now it’s even worse. It’s never been this bad. Now we have the Italian situation starting in Iceland where people can’t move away from home. And Icelanders have traditionally been very proud of leaving home relatively early, standing on their own feet.

So I think we’re back to business as usual in a sense because nothing’s really changed because we never got our new constitution. That was the new hardware, the new firm ground to stand on and build “New Iceland” on.

Has there been much reform of the banking sector post-crash?

Well there’s been some new laws to put some reins on the banks but I think our biggest problem is that the banks started to offer non-indexed mortgage loans. Indexed mortages are the most traditional loans in Iceland. You have to refinance with the bank these un-indexed loans every three or five years. And let’s say there’s an unprecedented situation, lots of inflation, etc. they can actually raise the interest. And there is no regulation that says there is a limit to how much they can raise the interest by. So we’re in a very dangerous limbo situation. I warned the last government about it. I think it’s impossible to warn the current government because they don’t give a shit, but I asked them why don’t they put a ceiling on how much these un-indexed loans can go up in interest.

The thing that I criticise most about the resurrection of banks if you’re looking for the long-term is the failure to separate the high street banking from the “casino” banking. These should have been separated because they have nothing in common really. The casino banking sector uses the traditional banking sector as their piggy bank with their fractional reserve systems to make money out of thin air. That’s not been fixed at all. Actually in Europe or the world it’s not been fixed at all. Nobody learned anything from the last banking crisis.

It’s interesting that rather than a big push for banking reform in terms of a grassroots campaign, you guys have gone for ‘let’s fix democracy first’. That’s an interesting priority ranking. Most people aren’t thinking in that structural way.

Well, there is this bible story that says a wise man does not build his house on sand. And one of the big demands after the crisis was that we would get a new social agreement to build a new democracy. Our constitution is just a temporary constitution that we’ve had for 70 years and we’ve done patchwork on it but there’s never been a holistic approach to create a new constitution in Iceland. We could have had a chance like South Africa when they created a new constitution at the end of Apartheid. We tried and it was a beautiful experiment that I thought was very important but those in power managed to sabotage its reputation by just constantly hammering that a new constitution should never be ratified in dispute which was complete bollocks (for more on the dispute manufactured by the Independence Party see the “An Unexpected Hiccup” section of From the people to the people, a new constitution) because those in power will always fight against anything that brings more liberation and more rights to the public and thwarts their unconditional power. So they will do everything in their power to stop this democratic process and to make it look unprofessional, not thought through enough. In their opinion there were not enough people from the countryside, etc. etc. Of course there were mistakes made in this process. We were doing this for the first time and of course it was not perfect. But the spirit of it was perfect. And the spirit was basically that Icelanders wanted to come out on the other side with a more honest society, with more equality and transparency.

I’ve been using the fact our party has been scoring as the highest, again and again and again, by far in the polls as leverage to try to get the other parties to come on a journey before next elections where we agree that the only thing the next government would do would be to ratify the new constitution and put forward a national referendum on the bid to see whether people want to carry on with the European Union bid or not then dissolve the parliament within six months. Six months should be enough to get the national referendum on the EU bid and fix all the technical problems with the constitution because there aren’t many and they’re all known. It’s not like we have to begin from scratch. Then we can have a new parliament based on this new constitution within nine months.

They’ve shown interest. Interestingly enough the Social Democrats are the ones that are dragging their feet. They’re claiming it’s impossible. We’ll see how it goes but it’s been very interesting to see their reaction to it.

Were they not the main part of the coalition government that set the constitutional process into action?

Yeah. But they’ve not been forthcoming. I was speaking to a person who is very influential in the party. There are differences of opinion about it within the party. This process can only be done if people are willing to do this and nothing else so that people who are voting know that this is the only thing they are voting for actually. So that people are unified that they need a new hardware to put the new systems in. They are always trying to do patchwork and there is no vision in this patchwork. Reactionary politics is killing democracies all over the world and making people distrust this process which is the only process that is viable if you don’t want to have complete dictatorship.

That will be amazing if you can pull that off. Presumably we’ll be hearing noises on the street too. There was a demonstration outside parliament on Tuesday and the mood is obviously getting interesting again. The fact that the constitution has been frozen can’t be doing politics much good there. What would you say the mood of the nation is currently?

People currently are very disappointed, I think in themselves, because many of them got fooled into voting for the liars. I think people feel betrayed, pissed off. None of the promises of prosperity have come through except for the richest.

I went to the protest because I am a protest junkie. I really like protests because it’s such a good way to feel what people are feeling. If you are driven to come out and protest it’s not only the people there: each person is representing many others. And I really sense the same dynamics prior to the protests in 2009. I’ve never seen as many cops. The people in power are really scared. I think I’ve been to nearly 85% of all protests after the collapse and it will be interesting to see what happens. I would be surprised if we could get rid of this current government but you never know. The interesting thing about all revolutions and uprisings is nobody knows if they are successful or not. Nobody knows when enough people are sick of it. You never know what the tipping point is. I can only hope that we can get rid of this government before it does more damage. But even if they do damage it is important for people to know that laws are always made by humans and can be undone by humans. But when they destroy the environment it can be very difficult to take that back.

How strong is the demand for the new constitution among the people on the streets? Are people seeing that as having a central importance?

It’s sort of happening. Like we have this new fish that has been coming over to Iceland for a while which is mackrell. Those that have been in power in Iceland for a long time have been gradually been giving their friends and allies […drops out…] So they put forward a bill for this new fishing quota that is really badly written. It was obvious that their plan was to give that as well.

And there is a petition now demanding that the president won’t sign that law because we haven’t got into the constitution an article that is strong enough, or an article at all that the nation’s resources should belong to the nation without a doubt [note: such a clause features in the draft constitution]. Because of this people started to understand, ‘oh, if we had got the new constitution then we would not be in this position of having to plead to the king or the president to not sign this law.’ If we had the new constitution, actually the nation could stop a dangerous bill like this [article 65 gives the right for 10% of the population to hold a binding national referendum on a law passed by the parliament].

You’ve been an MP since 2009 representing firstly the Civic Movement then the Pirate Party. This is a three-part question! What was the relationship between the protests and the Civic Movement? How did the Civic Movement end and the Icelandic Pirate Party start? Then, finally, how have you guys approached working in parliament and what successes can you point to?

When we created the Civic Movement it was actually a group of people who were part of a think tank on what to do after the crisis. I had been a lone protester against the Chinese government’s human rights abuses against the Tibetans for nine months every week and did a lot of events around that as well. So I was the person that people called when the protests were starting asking, ‘Do we need permission to protest?’ etc. There was a group of people trying to get all the grassroots groups to work together to make a really big demonstration on 1st December 2008 – the day when we got our constitution. A couple of big individuals who were supposed to be organising it pulled out last minute so I was asked like a day before the big protest to get all the practical stuff together. So that’s how I became involved in all these different grassroots initiatives.

I was part of this Academia group where we would meet every week to discuss what do we need to create in Iceland in order to prevent another crisis like this from happening. We held a meeting I think sometime in December where we invited all these different grassroots groups to come and explain what they thought the top three priorities that needed to be done in order to make “New Iceland”. All of them said that there was a need to create a political party or movement to push for a new constitution written for and by the people of Iceland. We thought that was really interesting because every single one of them said they thought that was a priority. So we started to create bylaws for a group that was called “Solidarity - a coalition of the grassroots movements.” I was sort of a prime mover in this, I don’t know why. There were other groups doing similar stuff. All of a sudden I was invited to this meeting eight weeks prior to the elections. And there they created the Civic Movement and I was asked to be the vice chair. I agreed but then on my way back home I thought, ‘What the hell, they’ve created a political group with a pyramid structure and I like horizontalism and I’m an anarchist! Eventually, maybe two or three weeks later I introduced horizontalism and asked that we would not have leaders or vice leaders and I got it through.

The aim of this political movement was to do a hit and run, go inside really quickly, open the windows and explain to people how things work inside the parliament, fight against Icesave being socialised and get the new constitution going and the injustice that people felt by losing their houses and mortgages would be rectified. So we had a very simple checklist of political goals

We did not want any politicians to run with us. It was sort of like Podemos. It was just a coalition of all these different groups. We didn’t really know each other much as you can imagine. I was for example not going to run in a front seat, as number one in my constituency but we could only find one woman out of six constituencies to take leadership and I felt it was really bad to create a political movement with no women in the front. So I last minute offered to lead my constituency if I would get support for it or if I was asked to do it. Eight weeks later we got 7.2%, we were in parliament and we didn’t know anything about it. It was very interesting because you could use your ignorance to change things. So we were sort of activists inside there. We were an offspring of the protests.

There were of course lots of arguments and drama when some people got in and some people didn’t. So you get all the stuff that we had to push behind us when we were campaigning. It was ugly and boring and horrible. So it ended up with the Citizens Movement splitting in half. Half of the group went into a new political movement just called The Movement. We took all the agenda of the Civic Movement and the parliamentarians but left the money behind. We worked on the agenda that we were elected on because we felt if we were to carry on with all this internal drama we would never be able to do our job as parliamentarians. That was very hard because we   lost almost all our following and it took a long time just to win back trust.

And while all this was happening I happened to be invited to speak as the only geek in the parliament exactly a year after we did the big protest in 2008, on 1 December 2009 at a conference hosted by the Digital Freedom Society. A couple of guys from a very unknown organisation called Wikileaks were speaking there. They were talking about this really brilliant idea that Iceland could resurrect involving becoming a safe haven for freedom of information, expression and speech with a focus on privacy. And I approached them after it and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we do this? I’m a parliamentarian and I think this would be a really great way to come up with a vision for where Iceland could be heading after this really embarrassing attempt to become the greatest banking nation.’ So we started to work on this and it later became known as IMMI the International Modern Media Initiative.

What was very unique about this and what has been an incredible guideline as a politician is that I learned that the quickest path to change is to look at the best laws from other countries that work. Not try to write everything from scratch or come up with the most original idea. But to actually look at who’s doing the correct things to improve whatever you want to improve. And I had access to some of the greatest minds in this field in order to create this vision.

And even though I was in the smallest opposition party I somehow managed to rally the entire parliament with me on this. I got people from all parties to support this resolution, very powerful people and eventually I got it through. And the reason why that worked – and it was a relatively radical idea – was because I did it very quickly. I was aware of the Shock Doctrine. You have crisis, the window of opportunity is very, very short. You have to move fast. And the constitution was a victim of slowness. I completely blame it on the governmental parties for a lack of wisdom on how to implement change in times of crisis.

So, in all this IMMI process I felt that people in the Movement didn’t really understand the urgency and importance of it. Because it’s a constant thing: even if you get a resolution done and a government starts to work on it, you have to make sure that they do it as instructed, which they didn’t, they were slow with it. So it’s a constant lobby to have it done.

So I created IMMI to work on both the IMMI resolution and to carry on this international quest for the best practice in this field and share them. I was so frustrated with the lack of enthusiasm and interest in it by other political allies. So at an IMMI board meeting I said why don’t we just create a Pirate Party because Pirate Parties around the world had been using IMMI as a guideline and I felt people understood the importance of this at a deep level. That was how the Icelandic Pirate Party started.

And the reason why The Movement didn’t carry on was it was written in our code that we had to dissolve the Party – because it was just a hit and run remember – if we did or did not get our agenda done within two terms. And we felt that when the constitution was stung with the thorn of the Big Sleep that we had no reason to carry on.

What progress has there been so far with IMMI? Has it translated into practical things that have strengthened the environment for investigative journalism and truth-telling in Iceland? 

Yes but not enough. When the source protection laws were being done they used the IMMI laws which were based on what they have in Belgium. But the information laws are really not good enough. They are much better than they intended to have thave but they are not as good as IMMI requires.

Lots of companies are selling to their clients that are hosting with them that these laws about intermediary [i.e. internet server] protection and so forth are already made. Which is not true. This is a huge research project that the Institute has been doing with people around the world to find out how we can protect intermediaries because it is so important but we have not had any laws passed yet. I couldn’t event get the bloody parliament to agree on removal of data retention after all these rulings that have been happening in the EU.

So we’ve prepared the laws and now finally there is a really awesome, productive, very focused steering group in the ministry that is writing up the IMMI laws which means that, even if they’re not all ratified now, in the next couple of years if we have a proper government that understands the importance of it, or a bigger Pirate Party these can be processed very quickly because it’s had a long brewing time both in Iceland and elsewhere. And if the government puts forward laws, the Parliament usually processes it very quickly.

So that’s why I put forward a law explaining why we need to remove data retention, so now they have that prepared for them. So it’s happening, slowly, very slowly.


See The Independent for an accompanying overview.

 

[III] http://www.ipu.org/PDF/publications/democracy_en.pdf

This article is published in association with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.

 

About the author

Phil England is a freelance journalist who writes for the Independent, the Wire and New Internationalist. His Climate Radio programmes are archived at www.climateradio.org. Follow Phil on Twitter @climateradio

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