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Panama Papers Scandal Could Launch Iceland’s Pirate Party to Power

In the wake of a post-leak power vacuum, the anti-establishment party is poised for a revolution.

Image by fdecomite via Wikimedia Commons

The Panama Papers, a massive leak of 11.5 million documents released over the weekend, exposed the secret offshore financial holdings of the global elite, including a number of world leaders, celebrities, and business people. The 2.6 terabyte data cache also revealed information about several sitting and former heads of state, including Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson. Gunnlaugsson resigned on Tuesday in the wake of public scrutiny over his wife’s offshore accounts—the first politician implicated in the scandal to fall.


Gunnlaugsson—incidentally, a third-place winner in a 2004 “sexiest man in Iceland” competition—came into power under promises of financial reform, making his shady holdings especially egregious. Though Gunnlaugsson was forced to walk the plank, it appears that Iceland is preparing to sail onward under the proudly billowing black flag of Iceland’s anti-establishment Pirate Party, part of an international movement championing democratic values and digital-age freedom of expression.

Birgitta Jónsdóttir. Image by Pirátská strana via Flickr

Birgitta Jónsdóttir, parliamentary chair of the organization, published an opinion piece in Newsweek Tuesday, calling for a new constitution for the Nordic country. Despite its offbeat name, it seems her cries for reform have legs: the Pirate Party surprised everyone last year when polls revealed it to be Iceland’s political frontrunner.

In her Newsweek piece, Jónsdóttir—also a poet, Wikileaks alumna, and current member of Iceland’s parliament—ripped into Gunnlaugsson, suggesting that her party was ready to take the reigns of power in the wake of the Panama Papers:

“The news report in Iceland on Sunday evening that detailed the scandal rocked Icelandic society in a similar way to how it was shaken in the wake of the financial crisis in 2008. At the time, Gunnlaugsson called the creditors of the failed banks ‘vultures,’ but as it turns out he could also have been talking about himself and his wife.”

Burn! Take that, Gunnlaugsson. Jónsdóttir went on to say:

“You can sense the anger among Icelanders. Thousands of people took part in protests outside the nation’s parliament last night … I joined these protests and I have announced that I will be standing for elections for the Pirate Party for a short term, where we will implement a new constitution and legalize it.”

As Jónsdóttir describes, as many as 10,000 of Iceland’s roughly 323,000 residents indeed took to the streets earlier this week, pelting Parliament with yogurt and eggs and demanding Gunnlaugsson’s resignation. (Apparently, the use of local dairy products in protest is a proud Icelandic tradition.)

Though the Prime Minister’s family’s offshore holdings weren’t in and of themselves illegal, the shell company that held those assets—called Wintris—held stakes in Icelandic banks that have been hurting since the 2008 financial crisis, which hit Iceland particularly hard. This means that actions Gunnlaugsson took in an official capacity regarding the nation’s banks posed a clear conflict of interest, although it’s not yet clear if he or his wife actually benefitted financially from decisions he made while in power.

This kind of financial chicanery in the country’s highest office is why Jónsdóttir and her party are calling for constitutional reforms. She writes:

The constitution [the Pirate Party] would implement was written by and for the people of Iceland in 2011 in response to the financial meltdown. It would include the separation of powers to prevent another economic collapse, while also reforming the way MPs are elected and judges are appointed. It is completely unacceptable that despite a referendum in 2012 that saw 67 percent of the electorate voting to put this new crowd-sourced constitution into law, it still hasn’t been.

The post-Panama Papers confusion—and ensuing power vacuum—may mean the Pirate Party is poised to take over. In January, The Independent reported that the party was polling as high as 37.8 percent—the highest of any political party in the nation. While it’s not totally clear whether those numbers will translate into parliamentary victories, the Pirate Party’s platform of direct democracy, transparency, humane drug policy, and equality might be exactly what the people of Iceland need in the face of scandal and Gunnlaugsson’s now-public impropriety. As for Jónsdóttir herself, it seems she could very well turn out to be the world’s first Pirate Prime Minister.

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