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The Incredible, Rapid Rise of Iceland’s Pirate Party

The party can thank the Panama Papers leak for recent triumphs.

Iceland’s former Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson, whose name surfaced in the Panama Papers. (Photo: Stortinget/CC BY-ND 2.0)

The Pirate Party began 10 years ago in Sweden, with a platform focused on Internet freedom. Its rise and spread across Europe has been swift, surprising political observers, but nowhere has it taken hold quite like in Iceland.

There, three members of parliament identify with the Pirate Party, and polls this year have consistently shown the party leading the pack ahead of upcoming elections. 

But the party got an unexpected jolt Monday, after the massive leak of the so-called Panama Papers, which revealed that Iceland’s prime minister had set up a secret company in the British Virgin Islands, a tax haven, with the help of a Panamanian law firm. The ensuing uproar in Iceland, led Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson to announce that he would step aside from his post as prime minister. 

All of which was good news for the Pirates, since even before the leak, the party was crushing it in polls, leading all parties with 36 percent in a poll conducted days before the leaks became public.

A poll taken in the days after the leaks shows that number cresting even further, to 43 percent. The Independence Party, their next closest competitor languished at 21 percent. (Gunnlaugsson’s center-right Progressive Party came in at 7.9 percent.)

For the Pirates, their new tally means they will likely be a part of the next governing coalition, which could be formed as soon as this fall, after the government called for parliamentary elections in the fall on Thursday. 

The party’s platform, written partly in response to the country’s financial collapse, calls for direct democracy, constitutional reform, and a new separation of powers in the government, which they say lacks accountability. 

Mass protests in the streets in recent days have also boosted the Pirate Party. Protesters asserted that Gunnlaugsson’s overseas dealings in a tax haven were a conflict of interest for a head of state, especially one involved with settlement deals with Icelandic banks after the financial crisis. 

“If this was a comedy it would be funny but this is actually our head of state,” Birgitta Jónsdóttir, the Icelandic Pirate Party’s founder wrote in Newsweek on Tuesday. “This is not what Icelanders are like and this is not what Iceland is.”