Earth & Conservation

Here's How Iceland's Pirate Party Became a Frontrunner

On Saturday, Iceland's Pirate Party could be transformed from protest group to ruling party.

On Saturday, voters head to the polls for one of the most highly anticipated elections of the 2016 - not the U.S. presidential race - the parliamentary elections in Iceland, where the anticipated success of the Pirate Party has capture global attention with its anti-establishment sentiment.

Originally slated for April 2017, the parliamentary elections were moved up in the wake of the Panama Papers disclosure, a massive data leak documenting how wealthy and politically connected individuals and organization hide their assets, that forced former prime minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson to step down following a wave of protests over accusations of financial conflicts of interest.

Formed by anarchists, hackers and other outsiders, the party's social-liberal platform includes decriminalization of drugs, protection of online privacy, the adoption of the bitcoin digital currency and an offer of citizenship to Edward Snowden. The party is currently leading in most major polls.

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The Panama Papers may have triggered the early elections, but as with any electorate, voters are focused on more immediate concerns. "Even if the election is an early election because of the Panama Papers, the scandal has not been much of a campaign issue," Eva Hei冒a 脰nnud贸ttir, a political scientist at the University of Iceland, told Seeker. "The campaign has been more ... about the usual issues - how to manage the economy, the health care system, the fisheries quotas, etc."

In fact, as 脰nnud贸ttir explains, the current government ruling parties, the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, are polling more or less the same as they were before and after the Panama Papers disclosure.

So if this campaign is typical in terms of what issues are on voters' minds, how did the Pirate Party - founded just four years ago - become a frontrunner, considering the group's arguably radical political philosophy?

What separates a Pirate Party voter from those supporting other parties is dissatisfaction with how democracy works, according to data from the Icelandic National Election Study in 2013. They are also more likely to view corruption as high in Iceland, which doesn't bode well for establishment parties. Taken together, "Pirate Party voters are those who are both dissatisfied with how the system works and have lost faith in the system," 脰nnud贸ttir explains.

The Pirate Party is capitalizing on a larger anti-establishment, center-left mood sweeping Europe. "The Icelandic Pirate Party is in many ways, both the party and their voters, comparable to Podemos in Spain, Syriza in Greece and even the Five Star Movement in Italy," 脰nnud贸ttir says. "The discourse of those parties, including the Icelandic Pirate Party, is framed as that they stand for the common people against the corrupt financial and political system."

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In a nation of some 320,000 people, the Pirate Party captures the support of its youngest voters. That presents both an opportunity and a challenge. While that youthful energy may explain its status either leading or coming in second in polls ahead of the Saturday's vote, come the day of the election, younger voters are less likely to actually show up to cast a ballot.

The Pirate Party may be reaping the benefits of its outsider status in this election. But, as 脰nnud贸ttir notes, "what happens with [the Pirate Party] if and once it becomes part of the system is another story."

To learn more about the Pirate Party's platform, watch the video below.

Photo: The leader of the Pirate Party in Iceland, Birgitta Jonsdottir, appears at party headquarters in this file photo. Credit: REUTERS/Gwladys Fouche/File Photo