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Meet Birgitta Jónsdóttir: The Ex-WikiLeaks Volunteer Who Has Helped the Pirate Party Reshape Iceland

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In Iceland, the anarchist Pirate Party made big gains in Sunday’s national elections, raising the prospect it will form a coalition government with other left-wing parties. The Pirates won 10 seats in Iceland’s 63-member Parliament, up from three in the last election. The Pirate Party hopes to pass the world’s first crowdsourced constitution. Its core platform calls for direct democracy, freedom of expression, civil rights, net neutrality and transparency. The Pirates saw their popularity surge in April, after Iceland’s prime minister resigned following revelations he and his wife used an offshore company to conceal millions of dollars’ worth of investments. Women also won big in this weekend’s elections, taking 30 seats in Iceland’s Parliament—more than any single party. With female candidates winning nearly half of the seats, Iceland now reportedly has the "most equal Parliament in the world." For more, we speak with Birgitta Jónsdóttir, member of the Icelandic Parliament and co-founder of the country’s Pirate Party. She is also a poet, activist, web developer and a former WikiLeaks activist. And she is the chairperson of the International Modern Media Institution.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In Iceland, the anarchist Pirate Party made big gains in Sunday’s national elections, raising the prospect it will form a coalition government with other left-wing parties. The Pirates won 10 seats in Iceland’s 63-member Parliament, up from three in the last election. Pirate Party leader Birgitta Jónsdóttir hailed the result.

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Our internal talk about what to expect has been, you know, we could maybe get somewhere between 12 to 15 [percent], and if we can get 15, we would have tripled our last elections. So we are just thrilled. It’s incredible.

AMY GOODMAN: The Pirate Party hopes to pass the world’s first crowdsourced constitution. Its core platform calls for direct democracy, freedom of expression, civil rights, net neutrality and transparency. The Pirates saw their popularity surge in April, after Iceland’s prime minister resigned following revelations he and his wife used an offshore company to conceal millions of dollars’ worth of investments. Women also won big in this weekend’s elections, taking 30 seats in Iceland’s Parliament—more than any other party. With female candidates winning nearly half of the seats, Iceland now reportedly has the "most equal Parliament in the world" without a quota system. On Sunday, Iceland’s current prime minister, Sigurdur Ingi Jóhannsson of the Progressive Party, officially resigned—a formality, as the government did not get a majority. He announced his departure on national television after his center-right party lost more than half of its seats in Parliament.

Well, for more, we’re going directly to Reykjavík, Iceland, where we’re joined by Birgitta Jónsdóttir, member of the Icelandic Parliament, co-founder of the country’s Pirate Party, poet, activist, web developer, former WikiLeaks activist, chairperson of the International Modern Media Institution.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, welcome to Democracy Now! Talk about what happened in Iceland’s elections.

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Thank you very much for having me on again, Amy.

So, in Iceland, we have had some very serious crises. We had the fifth-largest financial crisis in the history of humankind in 2008, and it was a rude awakening for most Icelanders that everything they had sort of put their trust in had failed them. And so, ever since then, I have been part of trying to get different types of people to work together on a collective goal. One of the goals that the people were calling for in all the big protests in the wake of the crisis was that we would get to make our own constitution collectively. We have currently a constitution that is a 72-year-old draft, that was given to us by the Danish king when we gained our independence in 1944. So, on this platform, the Pirate Party was built, on the platform of transparency, accountability, digital rights in cyberspace, on being sort of like Robin Hood when it comes to taking the power from the powerful and giving it to the people. So, in many ways, many people find it strange that we call ourselves the Pirate Party, but, you know, if you look at Robin Hood, he might have just been a pirate, as well, if you look at those definitions.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what’s happened now. I mean, some polls had you winning. You would have been the next prime minister. Explain what happened. You still made big gains.

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yeah, so we were formed in 2012. We got 5.1 percent in 2013. We tripled our following in three years. We, those of us that are the old-school Pirates, knew that we could never get much more than around 15 percent. Would have been great if we could have gotten 20, but we feel extremely thankful that 15 percent of Icelanders feel confident about being Pirates, being agents of change in society.

So, what sort of happened in the election campaign was that we got the machine against us. We had very little money. We had to be very creative. And we ran our campaign on—just on our issues, instead of attacking our opponents like you see very much in the presidential campaign in your country. We did not want to go on to that level. We criticized their issues, but not the people. And we just got the machine. And the machine of the established parties is very powerful, and they have people everywhere. So, the fact that we still managed to get so much support, despite all the attacks and undermining, was great.

We also decided to do a huge risk two weeks before elections. We held a press conference where we announced that we wanted to invite four parties to have discussions with us before the elections, so that we could—the voters could have a clear choice. In Iceland, you have always coalition parties running governance after the elections. And usually the parties go into the elections without announcing who they’re going to work with after the elections. And so, everybody that voted for us or the Left-Greens or the Social Democrats could be absolutely sure, after these negotiations, that they were not voting for the "Panama" government that we had—the Conservative Party and the Progressives. But that was risky. It’s never been done before in such a clear way.

We also wanted to tell our voters if we had to compromise about anything. And so, there was this one thing that the other parties did not agree on: our suggestion we would have a short term in order to implement the constitution as quickly as possible. And so, we just told our voters that "Here is our compromise. You know, take us or leave us." And yet, we got nearly 15 percent, despite taking chances for healthier democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what exactly happens now? How do you form the government?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: These are very interesting times, because we have an opportunity to be sort of a kingmaker in these negotiations. We suggested—like, we had our first parliamentary group meeting two days ago, where we decided that we would, in order to facilitate a possibility of a much broader scope of governance, because there is seven parties now that were elected—that’s never happened before—and we really feel it’s important that we offer something else than the corrupt parties that were forced to have elections earlier, and it’s obvious that we cannot tackle corruption, which was one of our main agendas before this election, with these parties, and so we offered to support a minority government of three parties, that there would be two parties that would support a minority government.

Also, another thing that I feel very happy about is that before the elections, when it looked like I could be a prime minister, I could actually say—and I’m not it—but if I would ever be in that position of power, that I could take that office, I wanted to take that idea of power and bring it into the Parliament and seek to be the speaker of the House instead of the prime minister, because the parliaments in this world are so weak. They are governed and ruled by the executive branch. And that is a big problem with how we run our societies.

AMY GOODMAN: Last week, thousands of female employees across Iceland walked out of workplaces at exactly 2:38 p.m. to protest against earning less than men. One headline read, "Women in Iceland protest country’s 14 percent pay gap by leaving work 14 percent early."

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Yes, so this was—so, Icelanders have been doing also quite innovative things in order to get women’s equality in action. In 1974, there was a massive women’s strike in Iceland, and that completely changed the way things progressed after that. So, women actually worked—walked out of work. It was a massive strike, exactly at the same time as they were no longer paid equally to the men.

Then there was founded—this very interesting experiment—a cross-party, women’s-only party. And in many ways, the Pirate Party are inspired by what they did in order to facilitate change. So they created this party. They got elected, and they gained ground in the second elections. And thanks to them, we had much—well, you know, much more equality in the Parliament, much more women than before. And now, without any force or any quotas, we have almost 50/50 men and women in the Parliament. And like in my own party, we don’t have quota on, you know, or these sort of braided lists that run for seats, but still we manage to have totally 50/50, because there is this awareness that, of course, you should always select both men and women when you’re choosing who to run for the party.

AMY GOODMAN: You—the Pirate Party has offered Edward Snowden political asylum in Iceland or wants Iceland to offer that?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Not asylum. We have—I actually wrote a letter, an open letter, when he sought asylum in Iceland, and urged him not to do it. I would—I have urged him to apply for citizenship, because you have much more—you have much stronger protections against extradition if you’re a citizen rather than asylum seeker. And the Pirate Party—actually, this was the very first bill the Pirates put in, in 2013, to offer him citizenship. And if he asks for citizenship, we will definitely put that bill forward, because it’s actually a Pirate Party policy.

I just want to stress one thing, as well, and that is, there are now a couple of weeks for your current president, Barack Obama, to do one thing right, and that is to pardon Chelsea Manning, the courageous whistleblower, who has been serving in prison for many years and still has around 30 years to go, for bringing truth about war crimes conducted not only in the name of the United States, but with partner states that were participating through NATO. Very important for Iceland to know what is being done in our name, and should be important for everybody else in the world, including and specifically in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Birgitta, your view, having just gone through your elections, of our elections in the United States of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Oh, my god. We have now a new saying called being "Trumpified," when it comes to bizarre things in the election campaign. But, of course, you know, you have somehow managed to create a system that it’s impossible for ordinary people to run. Thankfully, like, for example, the Pirate Party in Iceland only have normal people that just wants to be part of co-creating their society. I occasionally look at my Twitter stream and hashtag Trump or Clinton, and I just lose my faith in humanity because of the level of this campaign. It’s terrible that there is no possibility for a multitude of choices to, you know, be the most powerful person in the world. And, you know, certainly, if—you know, everybody that I know feel that they can’t vote for either, and, you know, the choices are really bad. And so, maybe, you know, the American people could do something historical, and, collectively, everybody that’s not happy with Trump or Clinton to vote for a third choice.

AMY GOODMAN: I see the turnout in Iceland was nearly 80 percent: 79.2 percent. As we wrap up, what words of advice do you have to the U.S. population, where we barely get over half the population in this country voting?

BIRGITTA JÓNSDÓTTIR: Well, first of all, simplify this process. It’s so complicated to run. And restore the rights of prisoners, for example, to vote. We actually went to the big prison in Iceland to talk to the prisoners to encourage them to vote. They have the right to vote in Iceland. If you conduct some sort of criminal behavior, which often is like smoking pot or something, then it’s outrageous that a modern democracy strips away the fundamental right to vote. But simplify the system. I think that is the demand that the U.S. people should have before the next election cycle.

And please, have the cycle shorter. This is like killing everybody, this long campaign, not only in the United States, but elsewhere, because this is—you know, just to get news, endless news, about some personality flaws of people, instead of actually getting to know the policies that these candidates are running with, is just so strange to us. It’s like sort of a reality show.

But I just want to say just another last thing. And that is, we’re not really an anarchist party, because anarchism, in the minds of many people, is about black blocs or whatever. We are more about citizens’ engagement, to facilitate ways for the general public to take responsibility in society and to help facilitate change and to draw from the wisdom of the masses what is needed to do in order to prioritize how we run our society.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Birgitta Jónsdóttir, we want to thank you for being with us. And on that issue of smoking pot, we’re going to be looking at ballot initiatives this week, but on the ballot next week. At this point, something like 5 percent of Americans can smoke pot without facing criminal charges. If ballots have their way in a number of states, it will go up to 25 percent of the U.S. population will be able to use pot without facing criminal charges. Birgitta Jónsdóttir, thank you so much for being with us, member of the Icelandic Parliament, co-founder of the country’s Pirate Party, also poet, activist, web developer, former WikiLeaks activist. Birgitta Jónsdóttir is the chairperson of the International Modern Media Institution.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, thousands of Moroccans took to the streets this weekend. We’ll find out why. Stay with us.

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