Mon, Jun 20, 2011 - Page 9 News List

Reykjavik’s new leaders melting Iceland’s political frostbite

By Ian Birrell  /  The Observer, REYKJAVIK

Gray clouds hang heavy in the skies as the scout troop marches into the cemetery, followed by a noisy brass band made up of scruffy teenagers in trainers and elderly men in suits. Behind them tramp hundreds of Reykjavik residents, many carrying Iceland’s flag.

The music stops, then the crowd gathers round as a woman in traditional dress places a large wreath on a grave. It is Independence Day, and people are here to honor the 200th anniversary of the man whose birth this day marks: Jon Sigurdsson, hero of the nation’s struggle for freedom from Danish control.

Overseeing it all is a burly man with a sharp haircut. People come up to greet him. Some take their photograph with him. He smiles, then chats to environmental campaigners carrying banners against political corruption, one of which features a picture of Jon Sigurdsson with a wordplay on his most famous slogan, changing “We all protest” to “We all puke.”

This is Jon Gnarr, the unlikely mayor of Iceland’s capital, who delivered a huge shock to the political system in the wake of the country’s financial meltdown. One year ago, the comedian led a gang of ex-punks, poets and pop stars to control of city hall. They call themselves anarcho-surrealists and their aim is to transform politics.

A stylish blonde in a bright green coat bounds up to say hello. Eva Einarsdottir, a human rights activist nicknamed “Palestine Eva,” is chairwoman of the national day committee and has arrived fresh from a ceremony with the president and prime minister. How was it?

“Fine,” she says. “I managed not to laugh, although it was hard at times.”

Such irreverence has made the Best Party loved and loathed in equal measure. It burst on to the scene before last year’s municipal election, satirizing politics and throwing traditional parties into disarray.

Its first pledge was to break all its promises, making the party almost impossible to attack, then it promised a polar bear to the zoo and a drug-free parliament within 10 years.

The party’s only advertisement was in a newspaper personal column, saying: “The Best Party wishes to meet good people aged between 18 and 90.” Its 10-point plan had 13 points. And the party’s campaign video featured candidates singing Tina Turner’s Simply the Best, with the chorus: “We are the best, the bestest of parties, best for Reykjavik, best city of every week.” It works in Icelandic.

Iceland was ripe for change, having effectively gone bust thanks to the cronyism of a cluster of politicians and bankers who thought that they could turn an island of fishermen with a population of 318,000 into a financial superpower.

In less than four years, the most rapid expansion of a banking system in history saw three privatized banks develop assets 10 times the size of the country’s GDP.

It was the Icarus economy. Property prices tripled, the stock market multiplied nine times and people borrowed heavily — often in foreign currencies — to cash in on the boom. The crash was fast, hard and painful, worsened by the collapse of the krona as the state, unable to bail out the banks, refused to pay foreign creditors.

The strategy looks smart now, compared with events in Greece and Ireland, but the country was angry and frightened. Voters wanted change, and the Best Party caught the mood, capturing Reykjavik with 34.7 percent of the vote.

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