An extraordinary political experiment took place in Iceland: anarchists governed the capital city of Reykjavik for four years – and the amateurs achieved some astonishing successes.
When the ballots had been counted, the Prime Minister of Iceland declared the result a «shock».
The same sense of shock was felt by almost everyone. The old guard, because it had lost. And the new party, because it had won.
There had never been such a result – not in Iceland or anywhere else. Reykjavik had long been a bastion of the conservatives. That was now history. With 34.7% of the vote, the city had voted a new party into power: the anarcho-surrealists.
The leading candidate, Jón Gnarr, a comedian by profession, entered the riotous hall full of drunken anarchists looking rather circumspect. Almost shyly, he raised his fist and said: «Welcome to the revolution!» And: «Hurray for all kinds of things!»
Gnarr was now the mayor of Reykjavik. After the Prime Minister, he held the second-most important office in the land. A third of all Icelanders live in the capital and another third commute to work there. The city is the country’s largest employer and its mayor the boss of some 8,000 civil servants.
No wonder the result was such a shock. Reykjavik was beset by crises: the crash of the banking system had also brought everything else to the verge of bankruptcy – the country, the city, companies and inhabitants. And the anarcho-surrealist party – the self-appointed Best Party – was composed largely of rock stars, mainly former punks. Not one of them had ever been part of any political body. Their slogan for overcoming the crisis was simple: «More punk, less hell!»
What were the conservative voters of Reykjavik thinking? On May 27, 2010, they did something that people usually only talk about: they took power out of the hands of politicians and gave it to amateurs.
And so began a unique political experiment. How would the anti-politicians govern? Like punks? Like anarchists? In the midst of a crisis?
«It was group sex»
A glance at the most important campaign promises of the Best Party is more than enough to highlight the audacity of Reykjavik’s voters. They were promised free towels at swimming pools, a polar bear for the zoo, the import of Jews, «so that someone who understands something about economics finally comes to Iceland», a drug-free parliament by 2020, inaction («we’ve worked hard all our lives and want to take a well-paid four-year break now»), Disneyland with free weekly passes for the unemployed («where they can have themselves photographed with Goofy»), greater understanding for the rural population («every Icelandic farmer should be able to take a sheep to a hotel for free»), free bus tickets. And all this with the caveat: «We can promise more than any other party because we will break every campaign promise.»
The Best Party emerged from an idea for a sketch show. In 2008, Gnarr created a slimy politician character who promised everything. The concept died when crowds demonstrated in front of parliament after the banking crash: the times were too serious for jokes.
But Gnarr liked his weasely politician character. Sure, he was a rogue, but a cheery one. So Gnarr uploaded a few clips to Youtube. The clips were popular, so he created a website with a parody of a party. He called it the Best Party and promoted it with the compelling slogan: «Why vote for second-best when you can have the best?»
Just how the idea was hatched to actually run for office remains obscure. Gnarr himself explained that only children believed «an idea could be born so easily. Normally, two other ideas have sex. In this case, it was group sex».
The main participants in the orgy were 1) the idea that it would be fun, 2) that fun was what the beleaguered residents of Reykjavik needed most, 3) the thought: «Until now, politicians have imposed themselves unbidden on our lives. Why shouldn’t we turn the tables?» and 4) the ambition to create a perfect work of art.
Gnarr persuaded his colleagues to put their names on the ballot: Einar Örn, Björk’s first on-stage collaborator and even less predictable than her, Ottmar Proppe, a huge, well-read punk and singer with the dark heavy-metal band Ham, and the band’s bassist, Björn Blöndal.
Women proved harder to convince. Gnarr recruited a recently graduated political scientist, Heiða Helgadóttir, as his campaign manager. And – a point of considerable pride – Elsa Yeoman, a Jew with a raw sense of humor, making the Best Party the only one «with a foreign-sounding name» at the top end of the list.
In its first polls, the Best Party garnered 0.7% – a success that Gnarr celebrated on TV as a «landslide». And it was indeed the beginning of one.
Nothing in Gnarr’s youth pointed to good fortune or success. He was the late progeny of a bitter couple: His father was a policeman and Stalinist: «Pravda» came in the mail and the current head of state and party of the Soviet Union hung on the wall, albeit the wall of the broom closet. Gnarr’s mother was a conservative.
As a communist, his father never received a promotion. His endless monologues at the dinner table awakened in his son a deep aversion to politics. Gnarr also had other problems. At school, he struggled from the start and doctors declared him mentally retarded. He was short, skinny and had ADHD and migraines. He learned to write only when he was 14 and he was 16 before he could recite the months correctly. By that age, he had already made two suicide attempts and a tour of homes for troubled youths behind him.
Everyone, including himself, thought he was stupid. So when he was 13, he made three decisions: he became a punk, he became the class clown («better a clown than a dummy») and he gave up on learning at school. From then on, he read privately. And read he did, extensively: on anarchism, Bruce Lee, Tao Te Ching, Monty Python and surrealism.
Gnarr became a psychiatric nurse, taxi driver, bassist in the punk band Runny Nose, a father at 20 and at some point realized that he hated music, but liked to talk to the crowd between the songs. The impromptu speeches got longer and longer. Eventually, the side gig became his profession. Gnarr started a career as a comedian – telephone gags on the radio, stand-up, columns, sketches, TV shows.
Being a comedian was not a normal profession in Iceland. In the early days, kids at school asked his sons if he was mentally disturbed. As people became accustomed, he became famous. («Although being famous in Iceland, with 300,000 inhabitants, means very little,» as he says. «You buy a bottle of milk and presto, you’re famous».) Later, during the campaign, his competitors reminded people of his gags: such as the parody in which Gnarr portrays Hitler imagining the schmaltzy CD ‹No Regrets›. Or his success as a bald-headed, egotistical, yet touchingly awkward Stalinist on a TV show. The characters, they implied, illuminate the man.
And Gnarr shone in the roles. Professionally, he manifested a certain preference for bold hairdos and ridiculous clothes, such as a one-piece bathing suit. His conversion to Catholicism was still fresh in people’s memory as well. For months he had tried the patience of Reykjavik’s newspaper readers with enthusiastic columns praising the Pope and the church hierarchy before ultimately deciding to remain an agnostic.
On the other hand, he was a father of five, the author of a book, a comedian and an established TV star; a calm man with a wild smile – still a bit chaotic, but with a smart wife. And he had a long road behind him.
On the campaign trail
«Our strategy for the campaign was to present an alternative world,» explains campaign manager Heiða Helgadóttir. «Politics is dominated by old men passing around poisoned chalices. We, on the other hand, emphasize life experience, decency, humor. And we had the perfect candidate. Jón is a stand-up comedian: he has great timing and is good at reading the room. He mastered what good politics is about: perceiving what’s going on around you.»
Indeed, the Best Party did everything differently compared with the other parties on the campaign trail: no donations, no money, no posters. On stage, Gnarr told anecdotes rather than arguing with the other politicians. The career politicians smiled.
But they stopped grinning when the Best Party rose to 10% in the polls. The tone changed abruptly. Gnarr was accused of not taking the situation or the populace seriously. The press, too, stopped finding the whole thing humorous. In a TV interview, Gnarr faced withering scrutiny. When asked for his opinion on the airport, he replied: «I have no idea.» He left the studio humiliated and feeling like an idiot. To his astonishment, the people congratulated him. «Finally, someone who admits it!» In the next poll, the Best Party had risen to 20%.
And then came the video, perhaps the cheeriest in the history of politics. A reworded version of Tina Turner’s ‹Simply the Best› sung by the candidates, the song included a brief, rousing speech by Gnarr that began with the words: «Fellow citizens, it is time to look into your hearts and decide. Do you want a bright future with the Best Party? Or a Reykjavik in ruins?»
The video was «not a major deal», as Proppe said later. «We’re pros when it comes to music videos.» And yet it’s the most delightful political video ever made: watching it will put you in a good mood for two hours. It excited people and attracted them. Two weeks before the election, the Best Party was polling at 38%.
That was the moment when Gnarr thought of quitting. He was exhausted and not himself. The politicians irritated him: before and after the debates, they made small talk, but in between they attacked him. He realized that although he had no idea about the issues, he had begun to act as if he did. It scared him.
After days of depression, he was lying in the bathtub when two ideas came to him. The first: «The Best Party was an idea. It had grown up, so I had to follow it. Even against my own interests. It was bigger than me. I had become a player in my own play. My freedom was gone. I was trapped. But also curious.» The second thought that persuaded him was a joke.
The final debate took place the next day. Gnarr went to the lectern and said: «We at the Best Party have always said that we would keep going as long as we were having fun. Everything has now become very serious. I hereby withdraw my candidacy for the office of mayor and the Best Party from the elections». A protracted hush fell over the room. The audience sat in silence, the other politicians looked at each other. And then Gnarr said: «Joooooke!»
The last joke by Gnarr, if the papers were to be believed. The Best Party, they said, had finally relinquished its last shred of credibility. Two weeks later, it won the election. Later Gnarr said, «It was an election campaign just like in the line by Mahatma Gandhi: ‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.»
Of course, the victory would never have been possible without the total breakdown that preceded it: Lehman Brothers went bankrupt on September 24, 2008 and a week later Iceland followed suit. No other country felt the impact so suddenly, or with graver consequences. The three largest banks collapsed overnight, leaving behind debts 10 times greater than the country’s GNP. The stock market lost 90% of its value. In a televised address, president Ólafur Grímsson pleaded: «God save Iceland!»
As the banks foundered, so did the people. First, because the banks had distributed loans so widely – and almost exclusively in foreign currencies, such as Swiss francs, because the interest rates were much less punishing than for loans in Icelandic króna. But after the crash, the króna went into freefall, which in turn sent debt skyrocketing. People who had taken out a loan for a car were now paying off a house.
It also came to light that the bankers had given themselves huge interest-free loans shortly before the crash.
Iceland, which had never known war or civil unrest on any scale, now experienced mass demonstrations, stones, fire, tear gas. The government resigned and with it an entire culture. In the years leading up to the crisis, the conservative parties had dismantled the regulatory framework. Iceland had grown into a banking giant in just a few years – the darling of economics professors, the OECD and, not least, president Grímsson, who just a year before had explained the country’s success with the words: «We’re Vikings!» The harsh Icelandic climate, he averred, had preserved the killer instinct of their forebears.
The suits, Range Rovers and luxury boutiques vanished from Reykjavik – along with jobs and retirement savings.
The Death Star
During the campaign, the Best Party had promised to lead a quiet life in office. It was not to be. During the crisis, tax revenues plummeted by 20%; expenditure, by contrast, was bound up in contractual agreements just like in any other city – nearly 95% of the budget was all but untouchable. And spending on social programs and unemployment benefits was now rising rapidly.
It was also discovered that the previous government had left behind a ticking time-bomb that threatened to devastate the city’s finances: the municipal energy company RE, Reykjavik Energy, which supplied electricity and water. It seemed a safe enough business: nowhere is energy as cheap as in Iceland, the land of volcanoes. Water for domestic use even has to be cooled down sometimes.
But in the late 1990s, RE had had a problem: it was too profitable. To solve the problem, the city installed a management system with performance bonuses. And, boy, did it work: a decade later, the firm had accumulated nearly $ 2 billion in debt. Essentially, the utilities company had converted itself into an investment bank. It invested increasing amounts of foreign currency credits in other energy companies, in the cultivation of giant shrimps, in giant turbines for an aluminum plant that was never built.
How on earth do you rehabilitate such a company? «It’s just a new job,» says Björk’s ex-band-partner Einar Örn. «We didn’t come to the job without any clothes on. We had our experiences. I had been a barkeeper. After the party, you have to empty the ashtrays. I know what a mess looks like. It wasn’t about left or right. We simply had to make the best of it.»
In Gnarr’s words: «There were meetings, meetings, meetings. But basically the situation was simple. The company had done what it shouldn’t do. Its purpose was to supply electricity and water. So we had to get rid of everything else».
As the first party, the Best Party waived the right to take seats on the supervisory board. Instead, it installed experts. It fired the CEO, followed by 200 employees, threw the company out of its massive, grim, extremely expensive administrative building (which resembled the Death Star) and raised energy prices.
«The problem is that it’s mainly the well-off elites that vote,» says Gnarr. «And that’s why politics is made for them. Money talks, bullshit walks. When we shrank the company and raised prices, we took a lot of flak. They told us that we’d be in trouble at the next election. But as people who never wanted to be in office in the first place, we had an advantage. I could just say: ‹What election?›»
The worst first year
«One year», says Gnarr’s right-hand man, Blöndal, a man dressed like a Wild West banker (boots, mustache, suit) and the government’s bearer of bad tidings, which earned him the moniker ‘the prince of darkness’. «You need a year to learn politics. When you’ve done your first budget, you’ve learned the job.»
The first year was rough. The opposition was firing on all cylinders, the merging of kindergartens brought endless protests and the newspapers were assailing the government on all fronts, with the headline «Mayor Missing in Action» when Gnarr went on vacation, and mocking him when the tattoo of the city coat of arms on his arm, which he’d had done as a sign of his dedication, became infected.
The budget was a real struggle, especially in light of the need to balance cuts in the most sensible way. «What surprised me was how political ideology works,» recalls Gnarr. «When we ran the budget numbers, it was clear that it wouldn’t work without tax increases. So people automatically called us left-wingers. But we were only doing what had to be done.»
A typical confrontation in parliament went something like this: X, conservative member of parliament: «We want a mayor who knows the facts! Who does not tell anecdotes! Who gives us clear answers to clear questions! Who is not an idiot!»
Mayor Gnarr: «I’m sorry that you are not satisfied with my answers. Your estimation of me touches me deeply. All the more because the feeling is not mutual. We regard you, X, as an intelligent, decent, competent person.»
One of the projects of the Best Party was to change the political culture. What was lacking was common decency. Gnarr says: «In the beginning I thought that the people who yelled at me in parliament were actually angry, but they’re not. As soon as the cameras are off, they want to have a beer with you». Proppe: «There are two languages: one for the public and one for behind the scenes. You can’t do that in any other workplace.» Örn: «Let me put it this way, I didn’t find any friends among the politicians. With friends, I talk about hobbies. But the politicians’ hobby is politics».
«It’s a bit disingenuous,» comments journalist Karl Blöndal, second-in-command at the conservative paper Morgunblaðið. «They see politics as theater, but then they are shocked by the theater in politics.»
In the political battles, the Best Party employed a concept from the Tao Te Ching – ‹wu wei›: never fight back, but let the attack miss its mark. And express your respect for your opponent.
«Doesn’t that sound like the early Christians in ancient Rome?» I ask Björn Blöndal. «You leave your counterpart only two options: either they choose the path of gentleness or they have a strong desire to send you into the arena to face the lions.» Blöndal laughs: «I think they would really have liked to send in the lions».
The good grandmother
The city’s coffers were empty, so the mayor took to symbolic actions – such as the tattoo of the city coat of arms, or his demand to a Chinese trade delegation to free dissidents (they departed in a huff), his appearance in women’s clothing at the Gay Parade, the competition to find the fattest cat in Reykjavik to be the official Christmas cat, attending the ballot box dressed as a Jedi, the ‘Good Day’ day, announced in a cheesy video in which residents were asked to greet each other politely (it worked). And after the death of his mother, Gnarr wrote that he appeared to work in her dresses as a sign of mourning…
«Stop! Not everything that Jón writes corresponds precisely to reality,» says Reykjavik’s press officer Bjarni Brynjolfsson: «Sometimes he also likes to ruffle people’s feathers a bit. In any case, he found an elegant solution to the problem that a politician without money can’t offer people anything. None of his actions cost anything.»
Ottar Proppe put it this way: «Jón is like a good grandmother: he does a lot with very little. We showed that you can have a lot of fun even without money. That goes for the revolution as well: Jón and the rest of us talked with basically everyone. You can also tear down the class system without money».
On election night, the Best Party set its condition for a coalition partner: it must have seen all five seasons of ‹The Wire›.
The Social Democrats acquiesced. The press described them as risking political suicide, but in reality the choice was between risk and death. The head of the Social Democrats, Dagur Eggertsson, described by friend and foe alike as «someone who speaks brilliantly, but listens rather less brilliantly», had just lost his second election in succession. He needed to be in power.
Fellow party member Hjálmar Sveinsson describes the collaboration as follows: «In the beginning, we thought it would last a year, tops. But everything went amazingly smoothly. They had nice ideas: human rights, politics as a work of art and so on. But you also have to know the political craft. Where are the weaknesses, what are the ways and means, what problems are there? Reykjavik is an extremely dispersed city. Far from ideal for bus transportation. So we needed a zoning plan that prevents new neighborhoods. The strategy came from Dagur, as it almost always did. We essentially made all the important decisions. They were a weak partner: the anarchists were very quickly very well-behaved. They didn’t fight at all! We were the ones that went against the opposition each time. I stand for this and that – that’s what makes a good politician… I think they had only three interests: 1. surviving the experience, 2. assuming responsibility, 3. having fun. It was a really fun time. We laughed a lot.»
An assessment of four years of anarchist rule yields a rather surprising conclusion: the punks put the city’s financial house in order. They can also look back on some very successful speeches, a few dozen kilometers of bike paths, a zoning plan, a new school organization (that no one complains about any more) and a relaxed, booming city – tourism is growing by 20% a year (and some say that is the new bubble). In speeches, president Grímsson no longer praises Icelanders’ killer instinct, but their creativity. Real estate prices are again on the rise and the Range Rovers are back too. In polls last October, the Best Party hit its high-water mark of 38%. Shortly thereafter, Gnarr announced he would retire and dissolve the Best Party. His reason: «I’m a comedian, not a politician.» He added: «I was a cab driver for four years, a really good one even, and I quit doing that as well.»
«My question was always: ‹How do we fuck the system?›» says Örn. «And the answer was, we show that non-politicians can do the job as well. But quitting with a certain election victory within reach, that’s truly fucking the system!»
Others will keep going: they have founded the Bright Future party. Proppe has since become a member of the national parliament and Björn Blöndal, the prince of darkness, now moves in political circles like a fish in water. «It’s a lot of fun when you’ve learned how you can make a difference and you slowly get good at it. Politics is a craft.» Blöndal led the ticket for the Bright Future party in the Reykjavik elections. He and Dagur Eggertson vied to succeed Gnarr. For long stretches the polls were inconclusive, but in the end the Social Democrats won handily. Without Gnarr at the helm, Bright Future halved its result to take 15%. Eggertson now heads a four-party coalition that also includes the Pirates and the Left-Greens.
The big election surprise, however, was the smaller of the two conservative parties, which stumped against a planned mosque in the final week of the campaign and ultimately took 10% of the vote. It was the first time that Icelandic voters rewarded xenophobic rhetoric at the ballot box.
Nevertheless, something has changed in the system. In the cities and towns around Reykjavik, the conservatives won. But in the capital itself, where they had supplied the mayor for decades, they had no chance.