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.