Who Else Were You Going to Vote for?

by Aaron Gertler:

On May 29, 2010, the voters of Reykjavík, Iceland rejected politics as usual, dumping the Independent and Social Democratic parties in favor of a new candidate’s covenant: increased transparency, family values, free towels in public pools, and a new polar bear for the Reykjavík Zoo.

When three of Iceland’s largest banks collapsed during the global financial crisis of 2008, the nation nearly went bankrupt, and its four major political parties were helpless to prevent the meltdown. Suddenly, a nation of 300,000 owed six times its GDP to foreign lenders. Whatever promises the parties made seemed less than credible; any policies meant to resurrect the economy would depend mostly on assistance from Europe, independent of the Icelandic government. Besides, politicians had their own problems—Wikileaks documents and government probes revealed party members’ questionable collaborations with the “finance Vikings” who had brought Iceland to its knees.

The Best Party with Jon Gnarr on box and Heida Helgadottir to the right. (Courtesy Spessi)

Enter Besti Flokkurinn—Best Party, in English. Headed by Jon Gnarr (the star of the popular local comedy “Bjarnfredarson”), the party formed a mere six months before the municipal election, but quickly made a splash on the Icelandic political scene. Gnarr attracted talent from various sources, including television star Augusta Erlandsdóttir, Bjork backing-band member Einar Benediktsson, and Heida Helgadóttir, a recent graduate from the University of Iceland. Helgadóttir’s B.A. in political science made her the Party’s most politically experienced member. In fact, she is its CEO—and one of the most successful political consultants in her country.

Besti Flokkurinn’s success still amazes Helgadóttir, who can’t quite believe what’s happened to her in the last two years. She described the party’s formation as “a beautiful way to protest” against the career politicians who ruled Iceland for generations. However, she didn’t expect that they’d win any seats, let alone six of a possible 15, with 35 percent of the popular vote in a five-way race. A later alliance with the Social Democrats gave Besti Flokkurinn a solid voting majority, and cemented Gnarr’s mayoral position. Reykjavik’s new leader was a man who first entered the political world when he prank-called the White House and the CIA on live television.

It’s easy to see how Gnarr’s outsized personality captivated the capital. When he announced his entry into the mayoral race, he was Iceland’s most famous actor and the centerpiece of the nation’s popular culture. “Bjarnfredarson,” his latest movie, sold more tickets in Iceland than “Avatar.” Gnarr played a maniacal gas-station owner—a twisted, Marxist Michael Scott with a scruffy orange beard. On stage, screen, and radio, he made Iceland laugh for 15 years. When he launched his latest stunt, all of Reykjavík turned to watch. But how did Gnarr turn their attention into votes?

At first, confidence was low. “People had always taken Jon with a grain of salt,” Gaukur Úlfarsson said. A TV producer who followed the Party from its humble beginnings to the May election, Úlfarsson had worked with Gnarr for over a year before the announcement. He wasn’t sure what to make of his colleague’s new project: “[Gnarr] kept talking about running for mayor, which I thought was a terrible idea… the chaos and confusion in Iceland was enough without him adding to it.” Still, Úlfarsson joined the movement and directed the Party’s campaign video: four minutes of satirical slogans and vocal harmonies, set to a Tina Turner melody, and featuring Iceland’s biggest celebrities, many of them official Besti Flokkurinn members.

In the video, Gnarr shouts promises from atop a 15-story building. “Sustainable transparency! All kinds for the unfortunates! A drug-free Parliament by 2020!” Besti Flokkurinn’s official platform included a promise to stop corruption by “participating in it openly,” a cancellation of Icelandic debt, and free bus rides for students and the disabled. “We can offer more free things than any other party because we aren’t going to follow through with it,” the platform reads. “We could say whatever we want.” And of course, there were the towels and the polar bear.

What may have seemed like pure comedy, however, masked serious political strategy. Free towels would give Iceland’s saltwater saunas official European Union spa certification, attracting tourists. A zoo-bound polar bear would help to erase the bloody legacy of those wild Ursus martimi who swam to Iceland in recent years, only to be killed by police before they could threaten humans. As for the debt cancellation? It was no less practical, perhaps, than any solution the Social Democrats or Independents could propose.

At first, Besti Flokkurinn confused Gunmundur Steingrímsson, a member of the Althing, Iceland’s national parliament. However, he soon looked past the movement’s comedic façade and discovered its true appeal. “It was a joke,” he said, “but the joke had a point… politics had reached an incredible level of surrealism.”

Still, Besti Flokkurinn’s victory was a total shock. The party had entered the maximum possible number of candidates for Council seats, but besides Gnarr and Benediktsson, the choices were essentially random. On the morning of May 30, Helgadóttir began to realize the magnitude of the task ahead of her—running a city with a campaign staff of two people. “I sort of need to clone myself in order to make this happen,” Helgadóttir explained.

Úlfarsson concurs. “It all happened so fast,” he said. “Nobody knew about the state of the mess the city was in.”

Besti Flokkurinn’s primary concern was the state of the Hellisheidi power plant. Responsible for 22 percent of Reykjavík’s electricity, it had been on the verge of collapse even before the 2008 crisis, thanks to years of mismanagement and, according to Helgadóttir, use as a “cash cow” by the capital’s former leadership. “The whole thing was a very huge [disaster],” Ulfarsson said. “We had to lay off hundreds of people.”

With the plant’s takeover by a private corporation, many employees were rehired, but Besti Flokkurinn took steps to ensure that the malfeasance wouldn’t repeat, carefully selecting new management without political ties. Since then, Hellisheidi has doubled its energy production, and will soon be the world’s largest geothermal power station. When the party runs for reelection in 2014, the plant will symbolize their dedication to reshaping Reykjavík’s economy—but will it guarantee a repeat victory?

In Iceland, as in so many other European countries, layoffs and cutbacks are the order of the day. While the economy finally grew by 2.5 percent in 2011 after three years of contraction, those in power suffered the consequences of their forced austerity. Besti Flokkurinn’s support in Reykjavík fell from 35 percent on election day to under 20 percent this summer, and the right-wing Independents are poised to retake the council. While in office, Gnarr appeared in drag at Reykjavík’s Gay Pride Parade and tattooed the city crest on his forearm. To a populace that cares mainly about lost jobs and city services, these antics have an appeal that is far from universal.

“You can’t win everybody,” said Helgadóttir, in response to her party’s declining popularity. She complained about the refusal of other parties to tone down political formalities, as well as their occasional disdain for a party different from anything they knew before. “Sometimes they end up screaming at us during closed meetings,” she said. Besti Flokkurinn ran, in part, to make politics more accessible to the masses, but their time in the system has left their optimism slightly shaken. According to Steingrímsson, some members might not mind losing the next election. “[The party] sees itself almost as doing time in politics. They look forward to getting out.”

Even if Reykjavík abandons Besti Flokkurinn, however, Iceland as a whole might not return to its old voting habits. In September, Steingrímsson left the Progressive Party and joined Helgadóttir to start crafting a second party from scratch. So far, the project has no official membership and no name (the name will later be chosen through a nation-wide contest), but it’s already attracted many Icelanders who watched Reykjavík’s experiment with interest. The new faction intends to win national power and tackle Iceland’s most pressing problems, from its wish to join the European Union to its dealings with international gas conglomerates. Steingrímsson even wants to recruit other Althing members.

“None of them has joined so far,” he said, “but I know they’re interested. I can see it in their faces. Other people are as tired as we are.”

Whether or not Jon Gnarr remains mayor after the 2014 election, his party’s blend of pop and politics reignited many Icelanders’ hope for change in their country. “Sitting and discussing politics around the pool has become our national sport,” said Steingrímsson. “People do not like to be pushed around anymore.” Many years will pass before Iceland completely recovers from the crash of 2008. When that day dawns, if five parties share space in the Althing, Besti Flokkurinn will have left a permanent mark on a nation brave enough to give chaos and confusion a chance.

Aaron Gertler ’15 is in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at aaron.gertler@yale.edu.