Campaigns/Elections

How a "Wacky Candidate" Governed in Iceland

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When I was a sophomore in college at the University of Florida in 1988, for obnoxious-kid fun a roommate and I ran for the presidency of a couple of college councils with a campaign consisting entirely of flyers with absurdo-zen rants and grotesque images taken from a book that my roommate doted on, called as I recall Medico-Legal Investigations of Death.

That book, and our campaign flyers, boasted bourgeoisie epater-ing images of violent death the likes of which decadent punk intellectuals in that era of Nick Zedd and Amok Books doted on.  (I cannot now recall exactly the verbal content. It may have had some explicitly libertarian stuff against the idea of "student government" or government in general, but none of it was intended seriously, nor intended to actually win votes.)

To my great surprise—I didn't even pay attention the day of the election or vote myself, I was informed via phone call days later—I won. Also to my surprise, when I showed up to the next meeting (drinking wine from a bottle and on my 36th hour of being awake—college can be stressful) to take up the gavel, the old guard just insisted that, no, no matter what the results of the vote…no.

An obnoxious asshole like me with the sort of campaign I ran was not actually president of the Journalism College Council (JCC). They had a procedural excuse—claiming that because I had not previously been a member of the JCC nor attended any of its meetings, I was not eligible.

A mole I had in upper level Greek system with some sympathy for libertarianoid shenanigans assured me this was not technically a disqualification. I showed up to a second meeting, was greeted with the same stonewalling and refusal to admit I had legitimate claim to the office, and then I decided I had better things to do with my time and let them win.

Last week, the German-language Swiss newspaper Tages-Anzeiger told a story of an absurdist political campaign with a happier ending, out of Iceland. Details with commentary:

[In May 2010] 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….

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.

How did they do it? They started with some of the typical attributes of jokey campaigns: wild promises for free stuff, while adding "the caveat: «We can promise more than any other party because we will break every campaign promise.»

The idea arose from a sleazy politician character that Gnarr created for a show, then he whimsically decided to really run, based on:

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….

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….

«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%.

Gnarr and his party actually won.

And to the surprise of most, as governing goes, he seemed to govern OK. This is not a libertarian story—part of how he got the government's finances back in order involved tax hikes. The zany newcomers cleaned house at a municipal energy company that had gotten too deeply in debt by acting essentially as a bank, and raised energy rates. Gnarr said, "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 party also strove, so the story says, to restore more collegial decency to political culture, while keeping the "wacky" edge:

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…

The Tages Anzieger reporter concludes:

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). …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!»

I am not an expert in Icelandic politics by any means, and this is just one version of the story. And it's not a "libertarian" story per se, but it is an interesting case study in how not taking politics or the system seriously can make interesting end runs around political sclerosis. It should be an inspiration to other zany outsiders of any sort who think it would be fun to play with the institutions of politics, unless they are scared of the potential consequences of actually taking the joke too far, that is, winning office.

A profile from the Toronto Star gives a similar perspective on Gnarr's success, with some fresh details:

Gnarr has been lionized as "the world's coolest mayor" by his fans, who include Noam Chomsky and Lady Gaga ("I love the mayor of Iceland," she once tweeted)…..

For many Icelanders, the fact that Gnarr was still standing after four years was a significant change for Reykjavik — he is only the third mayor in 32 years to finish an entire term.

"Despite this being a party of comedians — or a comedian — they took their job pretty seriously," says Gunnar Kristinsson, a professor of political science at the University of Iceland. "They were successful in a number of ways that lent stability to the running of the municipality."……

Through a mutual friend, Gnarr was introduced to Heida Helgadottir, a Washington-born single mother of two with a big smile and friendly wink. He asked her to run his campaign.

"He wanted to infiltrate the system — he said the system was always infiltrating his life," Helgadottir, 31, recalls. "And he just wanted to bring some joy to it all."

Helgadottir's experience consisted of a political science degree and a marketing job at an artificial intelligence lab. Even still, she was far more politically savvy than Gnarr, who literally had no clue what he was running for.

"One of the things that I needed to explain to him upfront was that he was actually running for municipal office," Helgadottir chuckles. "He got the municipal and (parliamentary) elections mixed up . . . I needed to clear that up. He was just like, "OK, what does the mayor do then?"…..

But if anyone who voted for the Best Party expected four years of nothing but giggles, they would have been quickly disappointed. Once in power, Gnarr had to do what every mayor before him has done — try to balance the budget. Under his administration, taxes have been raised, schools have been controversially merged, and people have been laid off. Some of Reykjavik's artists, who assumed they now had strings to pull at city hall, were let down.

"A big problem in Icelandic politics has been nepotism," Gnarr says. "So when we got elected, many people within the creative industry assumed their time had come now for nepotism. Many were quite disappointed."

Lucy Steigerwald and Jesse Walker for Reason on joke candidates.

NEXT: Dance Music and MDMA: The Drug Panic That Will Not Die

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  1. Hurray for all kinds of things!

    I’m putting this on a bumpersticker and cashing out my fortunes. I’ll see you suckers in hell.

  2. Doherty it warms my twisted libertarian heart to hear of you treating democracy with the gravity and seriousness it deserves.

    1. Doherty it cools my twisted libertarian heart to hear of you walking away from the fight to take the office rightfully yours. Imagine how much power you could have returned to the toiling student masses

      1. At least he wasn’t drinking wine out of a box.

        1. At that stage of his life it was probably bong water out of a box. Whose box, I dare not speculate

  3. I saw some Monty Python subtitles rolling as I read this. I know you Team Red Peanuts hate me but when your biggest influences as a young teen are Python, Lampoon, and Vonnegut you can’t be all bad.

    1. Vonnegut is a terrible influence, you monster.

      (Who’s Team Red Peanuts?

      Is he behind me right now?)

      1. You’re full of shit.

        Slaughter House Five is the greatest anti-war, NAP novel ever.

        And Montana Wildhack is an angel to a 12 year old boy.

        Luckily, I grew into an adult and don’t believe asshole types like you.

        1. Pity he didn’t think the NAP applied to women

        2. Actually, Catch-22 is the greatest anti-war, NAP novel ever. But my biggest influence was and still is Heinlein.

          1. Ever hear of All Quiet on the Western Front?

        3. Palin’s Buttplug|6.26.14 @ 6:27PM|#
          …”Luckily, I grew into an adult”…

          Bullshit.
          If you’re over 15, you shouldn’t admit it.

  4. This is not a libertarian story?part of how he got the government’s financed back in order involved tax hikes. The zany newcomers cleaned house at a municipal energy company that had gotten too deeply in debt by acting essentially as a bank, and raised energy rates.

    It might not be a libertarian story, but at least it’s far more sound economics than “never raise prices to cover costs” or “endless deficits and debt”.

    Sound finances at least make it more possible to consider less government in the future, I think – it’s a lot easier to cut government when you’re actually paying for it rather than pretending you aren’t, with endless debt issuance.

    I suppose it took an outsider to actually be willing to bother to balance the budget. There’s a wonderful power in not caring if your non-party loses the next election.

  5. Lucy Steigerwald and Jesse Walker for Reason on joke candidates.

    Don’t talk about Lucy!

    1. Where the hell have you been?

    2. What really happened with her? I ‘ve seen some articles from her on Vice. She was good here.

  6. “A big problem in Icelandic politics has been nepotism,” Gnarr says. “So when we got elected, many people within the creative industry assumed their time had come now for nepotism. Many were quite disappointed.”

    its not the ism. its the humans. know thyself.

    1. “A big problem in Icelandic politics has been nepotism,”

      Aren’t they all basically related to each other?

      (kidding!)

      (I think)

      1. Based off of a brief stay in Reykjavik, Icelandic women are rather actively keeping the genetic pool fresh.

      2. “Aren’t they all basically related to each other?”

        That’s why the names only refer back one generation – the less you know, the more comfortable everyone is.

  7. “I showed up to a second meeting, was greeted with the same stonewalling and refusal to admit I had legitimate claim to the office”

    When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.

  8. An obnoxious asshole like me with the sort of campaign I ran was not actually president of the Journalism College Council (JCC). They had a procedural excuse?claiming that because I had not previously been a member of the JCC nor attended any of its meetings, I was not eligible.

    Good lesson on the real world you got there.

    You’re too radical, too much change, too fast. Ten and no.

  9. I had legitimate claim to the office, and then I decided I had better things to do with my time and let them win.

    A microcosm of libertarian philosophy. We exist to not join. Guess how much power can be wielded with that attitude, young man?

  10. Iceland historically was one of the places to boast of a fairly anarchist period of 400 years with laws and courts but no real rulers.

  11. This idea actually sounds kind of fun. Make outlandish promises that nobody expects you to keep, fuck with politicians at debates, call them whatever names you want in ads. I think I just found a damn entertaining way to kill time if nothing else.

  12. That reminds me, what’s the Rhino Party up to nowadays? (hilariously, the Rhino Party was one of the few to abstain from Canadian elections in the 90s due to unconstitutional election rules).

    1. The last I heard, they nominated Eric Cantor.

      1. Canadian Rhino Party, been around since the 60s, not the U.S. They run on a similar ‘we will not keep any of the promises we make’ platform. Also, they claim to be descended from a Brazilian rhino who was elected to Parliament or something, I can’t recall.

        1. My French-Canadian neighbour’s father was an eccentric, wealthy pharmacist was the only guy I ever knew who voted Rhino. Like my father, he loathed anything ‘establishment’ and government – ‘gang de pourri’ he called them (loosely translated as rotten gang. Loved the guy. His antics at Expos games were memorable.

          http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhinoceros_Party

  13. the competition to find the fattest cat in Reykjavik to be the official Christmas cat,

    Does Reykjav?k regularly nominate a cat to represent Christmas and the Gnarr administration wished to mock this by getting the fattest one?

  14. Official political parties in Florida:

    http://election.dos.state.fl.u…..ties.shtml

  15. From looking a glance at wikipedia, it looks as though “Best Party” has merged to become a social liberal/green liberal party that has entered into coalition with the Social Democrats, the Left-Green Alliance and the Pirate Party to elect a Social Democratic Mayor.

    There appears to have been a strong shift to the left among Reykjav?k voters post 2008.

  16. This guy getting elected gives me at least a little bit of hope.

    Stanhope ’16!

    1. Is that Doug Stanhope, the comedian? He’s a miserable, misanthropic shit.

      1. Couldn’t be much worse than the megalomaniacal narcissists we have running things now, right?

  17. VOTE VERMIN SUPREME

  18. With 34.7% of the vote, the city had voted a new party into power

    Fuck the two party system. This can never happen here.

  19. His daughter:

    http://www.cutandjacked.com/Cu…..gret-Gnarr

    1. I volunteer to be on the security detail for his family. Such firm, tan, young, er, I mean, brave selfless people deserve my utmost attention.

    2. Im confused by icelanders with last names. Must be carpetbaggers.

      1. Discussed in 1 here:

        http://www.guidetoiceland.is/a…..icelanders

    3. She says she had a rough childhood. I’d like to hear more about that, and how much her Dad the Mayor had to do with it. She is, I must admit, one of the most attractive lady fitness models I have ever seen. Count on Iceland to seem cool and calm on the outside and be lava-hot underneath!

  20. “Hurray for all kinds of things!”

    There’s hope.

    See New York, Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles? THAT’S how you do bad ass.

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