“We have still a lot of room for more before direct democracy starts getting inefficient”

Out for coffee with a Young Pirate
Iceland was wowing the German press, as well as dozens of commentators on the big newspapers’ websites, with their seemingly very basic democracy. They are working on a constitution for and by the people, holding referendums on bailing the banks out and even have the Pirates in parliament. But when I came here I got quite disenchanted. The first thing most Icelanders answered when I asked them about what they dislike about Iceland was “politics”. But why? In order to find that out I decided to get in touch with Icelandic politicians, who may be able to tell me a bit more about what they do and for what reason.

She’s a nerd. A socially competent one. An exemplar of the new generation.

The first one I met was Elísabet Guðrúnar Og Jónsdóttír, founding member of Ungir Piratar, the „Young Pirates“, in Iceland. Elísabet is 20 years old, in her second year of her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and computer science at Reykjavík University and was one of the smart kids to skip a grade in school. She suggested meeting at Eymundsson in downtown Reykjavík, her favorite locale, “because it’s a book store as well as a coffee place”. To make it short, she’s a nerd. A socially competent one. An exemplar of the new generation. Maybe it makes sense to hear her out because she might be a good source for future-facing political ideas.

How does one get involved into politics? By accident, Elísabet says

The Young Pirates were founded this year on August 18th in the student cellar at University of Iceland.Elísabet, how did it happen that you became a founding member of the Young Pirates?

E Since the Pirate Party got founded in Iceland I was always observing them from a distance, over the Internet, and it never seemed to me like I could participate. I felt like politics was just something that happens to other people. But I was really interested. And then my friend told me about this camp for founding the “Young Pirates of Europe” in Sweden. They wanted to send some Icelandic people and then I was just like “Well, I might as well apply, could be fun.” And I actually got in. So then people wanted to found the “Young Pirates of Iceland” and I thought “Well, why not join?”. I also didn’t plan to become a member of the board but then they were looking for some more people to vote for so I again thought, “I can do that”. And then I just got elected. So I guess I’m the vice president of the youth group now. *laughs*

So it’s like you said in the beginning, politics is something that just happens to people.

E Yeah, exactly, and that’s how it came that politics was something that happened to me, accidentally.

The Pirates stand for a more direct democracy

Ok, but why the Pirates? How did they attract you?

E Well, you will find so much going wrong in every single party you find here in Iceland, that you could never even think about voting for them. And then the Pirate party came into existence and I thought “That actually fits with how I want things to be.” It fits my political ideas. Particularly important for me are topics like protection of the freedom of expression, communication and speech and the fact that the Pirates stand for a more direct democracy. Because when you elect a party then they get into the government and then they have four years to do essentially whatever they want, they have something like a free pass to do anything. And the Pirates want to make sure that people have something to say about it. They want to introduce more referendums. And I think this is really important.

Do you see the Pirates actually governing or do you see them in the opposition?

E They’re doing pretty well in the opposition right now. I don’t think I like pure direct democracy, but I’m not sure. I think it would be quite inefficient. But I wanna see more of it, we have still a lot of room for more before it starts getting inefficient. For now they are great in the opposition and I definitely want to see more of them there! I really hope the Pirates manage to stay idealists. I saw it happening to a lot of people who went into the Parliament as idealist but then they had to abandon their ideals in order to stay in there, which is really sad…

Such a young party needs time to develop a broad agenda

At least from the Pirates in Germany, I know that they have some weaknesses in terms of a concrete program for retirement program, the healthcare system etc. because they are such a young party. How is that in Iceland?

E It’s pretty much the same. They just got founded last year so they haven’t decided about a lot of issues. That’s why a lot of people were scared to vote for them.

I met a number of Icelanders who are very frustrated here and want to leave the country. What about you, do you see your future here?

E I really have no idea. I know I want to study abroad. I want to finish my bachelor’s here and then do a master’s in artificial intelligence or robotics somewhere else. But I guess I’m pretty afraid of changes. I’ve been here all my life, I know the people here and I know how the system works – even though I often don’t like it. I’ll definitely try going abroad and see how I like it. I’ll just do something and see where it leads me. But I’m quite anxious about making big decisions.

The process of the constitution-making in Iceland was eagerly observed by people all over the world

I was wondering… there was this whole idea of a new constitution in Iceland (find out more about this remarkable project) I heard of back in Germany. That was also a Pirate thing, wasn’t it? What happened about it? As far as I know, it’s on freeze right now.

E Well, the Pirates are pushing towards having this issue back in the parliament again. What happened was the following… we needed to get a new constitution because, well, the old one is kinda outdated (it’s from the 1940ies, when Iceland got its independence from Denmark). So we got this committee to get ideas about what the new constitution should contain, people could contribute, it was things like “Do you want a national church to be part of the constitution?” or “Should energy plants be property of the people of the country?”. It’s nice.

And then the idea was to have a referendum on that. But after people voted on it, I guess some people didn’t like the results, so they found something wrong with the voting procedure and invalidated the whole thing. And since that nothing really happened… that’s so frustrating. It was such a great idea.

and the status quo frustrates people who were involved in it

Yeah it is a real shame… so what is the parliament doing right now?

E I’m not sure, some shit *laughs* no, the government recently just decided to abolish the tax for big fishing companies and the so-called “wealth tax”, which was a huge source of income for the government. So they will lose a lot of money and will have to cut down benefits for students, hospitals, schools and so on. It was really money we needed. But the government decided “No…we don’t want that money, ‘cause the fishing people are our friends”, or something like that. You know, small country problems.

There was another ridiculous story… At that time we had this huge petition against abandoning the laws, or at least let the people vote about it. The president decided to pass the law anyways even though 35.000 – that’s almost 11% of the whole population of Iceland! – people signed the petition because he’s an asshole.

The system is broken, we agree. But how can we fix it?

Well that sounds like a lot of fun you’re having here… then how would you evaluate the democracy in Iceland?

E I think it looks a lot better than it is. It’s highly flawed. The system is broken, we have the same parties in the parliament for many, many, many years and nothing ever changes. Shit, I don’t know. I barely know how to fix this. I don’t know, that’s a hard question.

What problems do you think Iceland has?

E Except for the obvious economical problem we’ve had for many years? One thing that matters a lot to me is that our education system is really inefficient and people get very late into the Universities. Children should have more choices. I had a lot of problems at school because of this. I don’t know… I do think our education system is crap just as well as the healthcare system. We need doctors, a lot of them leave the country and then we need money to pay them with what goes all the way back to the economy… And then I see one problem for Iceland being so few. I think it would work better if we were more people.

Do you really think this is a question of scale?

E I’m not sure. But I think because we are on an island, it’s so expensive to get things into the country. And I guess if we were more it might get cheaper.

WANTED: Progressive and Independent Party supporters

Yeah maybe that makes sense… we haven’t spoken about energy politics and the idea the government is pushing again for a new aluminum plant

E Oh yeah, THAT… It is so frustrating. I have no idea, who even are those people who elected this government, why do they vote for them? I actually think that some vote for them and then don’t dare to tell people. I don’t know anyone who voted for them. I think though I surround myself with people who make sense to me… but I guess I need to hear other people’s opinions, too. I think that’s a healthy thing to get new conclusions…

Before you started flirting with the ideas of the Pirates, what party would you have voted for?

E I was determined to hand in a blank vote, because there was nothing, absolutely nothing I wanted to vote for. I didn’t want to partake in that. Generally I would have rather voted for the green and left parties… some things I like about them, like some feminist ideas or environmental approaches. But there were also things I didn’t like.

Who is to decide what’s good for you? You yourself – or the government?

What don’t you like about the green and left parties?

E For instance they tend to ban things. They think the solution to problems is just banning them. I think the solution to forced prostitution for example is not to ban prostitution. That’s like banning sex in order to end rape. It makes no sense.

That’s a good point. I was quite surprised to hear that prostitution is banned in Iceland.

E That’s one of the things I like so much about the Pirate party: their drug policy. They try to decriminalize drugs. Because why would you want a person who has a drug problem be a criminal? You should rather offer those help than giving them a fine or putting them to prison. We have too many people in prison anyway… You do not solve the drug problem by banning drugs. And the Pirates are the only party in Iceland who has a different approach.

Most parties in Iceland tend to be very paternalistic saying “We do this for your own good”. I think people should have much more power to decide things for themselves and I’m in favor of the philosophy of “Do whatever you want as long as it does not harm others”. That’s why I do think a ban on smoking in public places makes sense, although I smoke myself. But it harms the health of others.

Facebook is evil. And you know it.

Could you then pinpoint your most important topic from the Pirates?

E That’s really difficult… I guess it would come down to freedom of expression, communication and speech and privacy.

I don’t really get this… you are all talking about privacy but at the same time all you guys use Facebook, and as we all know it’s not a company that is an upholder of privacy…

E It’s really hard not to be on Facebook! I wish we could just collectively leave and move to another platform. But so many things run over Facebook nowadays.

At university most communication is on Facebook, even with the teachers. That really sucks. I don’t know it’s a very hard but interesting topic. And I think it’s important that people talk about it because so many people just don’t think about it. It’s like everyone knows you shouldn’t be there but you are…

There are Pirate parties all over Europe. But only in Iceland did they make into the national parliament

Exactly… ok back to topic. What do you think is the reason for the Pirates’ success here in Iceland?

E They came at a great time I think. They started at a time where everyone was really, really, extremely – I mean even more than usual – frustrated with the government. But that doesn’t explain why the Pirates did better than all the other small parties that popped up at that time. And I’m not exactly sure why. I’m glad, but I don’t know why. I heard a theory on why the other day but I forgot it… I wish I could still remember it.

As far as I know Iceland is quite a young society… and the average Pirate voter is also rather young.

E Yes that’s right we have on the average the youngest voters of all the parties. So that might be a reason…

and they take their work serious

How are the Pirates organized?

E We have this website were you just sign up and vote on issues. Or you can also start a new issue that people can vote on. So it’s a very basic approach to democracy.

What if someone abuses it? For instance suggests a poll that everyone should get a free cat from the state or something and then you have people actually vote for it.

E That’s actually a possibility. That could happen. I don’t know, I just think that wouldn’t happen. People are being quite serious there. Otherwise I don’t see any problems yet. I haven’t been involved for that long.

Ok Elísabet, thank you for the interview.

E No worries, thank you, too.

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