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Iceland Mag

Politics

Exclusive interview with Pirate MP: Resigned from Parliament to mix asphalt

By Magnús Sveinn Helgason

  • Not your regular politician Half way through is first term as an MP Jón Þór decided to bow out from Iceland's parliament. He explains why below. Photo/Valli

It is not every day that a successful politician retires from politics at, what arguably seems like the moment of victory, with even greater influence and power within his grasp. But Jón Þór Ólafsson, a now former MP for the Icelandic Pirate Party is not your regular politician.

The Pirate Party is surging in the polls, polling as the largest party in Iceland with some 30% of those asked saying they would vote for the party. Currently the party only has three MPs out of 63, but it has been highly visible. The party recently scored a significant and highly symbolic victory when it got a law passed, making blasphemy legal in Iceland.

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Outspoken Jón Þór addressing Alþingi, Iceland's parliament. Photo/Stefán Karlsson

But Jón Þór gave his word shortly after the elections two years ago, that he would step aside for his supplementary MP, Ásta Helgadóttir, and he is sticking to that word. So, he is retiring from politics and returning to his previous day job, which is to load asphalt onto trucks at an asphalt mixing plant. Of course it is stuff like this which is leading many voters to the party. It seems to be something different from the more established parties.

Back in the asphalt, or in the grassroots
We met up with Jón Þór in his new “office”, which is a converted container. A bit less fancy than his previous digs in the parliament office building downtown Reykjavík. Jón tells us he doesn’t expect to run for office in two years, but looking further into the future he doesn’t rule anything out.  

“I work best if I have my options open, so I need to be able to choose different paths. I never make grand future plans, laying down different goals to achieve by this or that date. For me, life is less about some goals and more about values.”

He is happy about his new job. Back in the grassroots, he tells us.

Parliament surprised him, and not
Passing bills in parliament is different from mixing asphalt, but Jón tells us there wasn’t all that much which surprised him about the way Alþingi worked.

“I had studied how power seems to work, so it I kind of knew what to expect. I understood how that game was played. But there were surprises. For example: I found it really amusing that the leaders of the governing party, the ministers, seemed to become more friendly and chummy the more I got in the way of their agenda or asked more difficult questions. So, there I discovered an interesting way to figure out if I was doing the right thing!”

But other surprises were less humorous:

“What made me especially uncomfortable was the realization how far the governing coalition [made up of the Conservative and Progressive parties] were willing to go towards the brink when it comes to the healthcare system. All polls show that over 90% of Icelandic voters want to prioritize healthcare when it comes to the budget, and that the government should spend more to ensure top quality healthcare. But they were willing to go to the brink, again and again, risking the future of the system.

And this made me wonder: Why would they willing to risk all this political capital, if not because they have some other agenda? And we all know they have been talking about the privatization of the healthcare system. So, that seems like a likely explanation for all that brinkmanship."

A threat to Icelandic values?
The Pirates have been accused by many in the Conservative and Progressive parties of lacking a clear policy or of somehow being opposed to “Icelandic values”, but as Jón Þór points out, it is not the Pirates who wish to go against the will of the people when it comes to those issues that matter most to people. 

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 Back to the roots But Jón Þór does not rule out running again. Photo/Valli

In fact, it is the Pirates emphasis on democracy and listening to the people he believes is the key to their success.

“We see that people are calling for greater say in what kind of society they live, they are less willing to have these things dictated to them. This, I believe, is part of the social and cultural changes brought about by greater connectivity, for example through social media and the revolution of information technology.

In Iceland it is the Pirate party which has responded to the growing demand for direct democracy and greater say by the people in the day to day management of society. In Spain Podemos has done the same."

What could other parties learn from the success of the Icelandic Pirates?
This, he believes might help explain why the Icelandic Pirate party has been surging in the polls, while Pirate parties in Europe are struggling: It isn’t all about the internet.

“Of course I don’t know enough about all the details, and there are different factors in each country, but to my understanding some of the European Pirate parties have not prioritized democratic reforms, and direct democracy in the way that we have done. But some of it has to do with the fact that Iceland is a small society, and you can more easily achieve things in a small society you can’t in larger societies.”

Iceland is also a small country, he points out, and you can achieve things in a smaller country you might not be able to achieve in larger societies. But the future is bright for the pirate party, he assures us, even though he ultimately hopes the party becomes superfluous:

"At the end of the day it isn’t really about the Pirate party, per se, it is about democracy and changing values and attitudes, brought about by deep-seated economic and social change thanks to the IT revolution. Parties that represent and respond to these changing winds will benefit. Those who try to stand against them will not. And of course I want all political parties to embrace the idea of a more direct democracy and greater transparency! That way we would all live in a better society.”

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