Reykjavik’s Best Party general manager Heiða Helgadottir, who will be in St. John’s giving a keynote address at the North Atlantic Forum, spoke with Sarah Smellie about why politics should stop being so damn boring already.
On October 6th, 2008, television screens across Iceland lit up with an anxious message from then Prime Minister Geir Haarde. This was the end of a booming Iceland. The country’s three major banks were collapsing and the government was doing everything it could to save people’s money, he told them. Haarde concluded that speech by asking God to bless Iceland.
After his speech, Iceland erupted in protests, culminating in riots. Haarde and his government resigned. In 2011, Haarde would go to court for criminal negligence over his government’s role in the crisis.
One of Iceland’s most famous absurdist comedians, Jon Gnarr, was watching the address. “I hadn’t followed politics before,” Gnarr tells the host of Inside City Hall, a New York City TV show about municipal affairs. But when the Prime Minister asked God to bless them, he knew something was rotten in the state of Iceland.
“So I started following the news to try and figure out what happened, and I started to wonder if someone like me could step into this world and change it for the better.”
Gnarr gathered a group of friends and they started planning for the municipal election. One of those friends was Heiða Helgadottir.
“We talked about forming this political party,” says Helgadottir. “We’d base it on a satire of this politician that was very over the top, and promised everything that everybody wanted to hear.”
That politician was “played” by Gnarr, and they called his party the Best Party. In May of 2010, the Best Party ran in the Reykjavik municipal elections, with Helgadottir running the campaign. They released a music video, set to Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best” featuring Gnarr yelling promises of polar bears for every zoo from the top of a building. They called for a drug-free parliament by 2020 and free towels at public pools. “This is something that everyone should fall for,” says their statement.
Their slogan? “We’ll have more fun.”
They also said they’d increase transparency and stop corruption.
The bit about polar bears turned out to be reasonable: polar bears had been arriving on Iceland’s shores, by way of ice floes, and were typically shot. Even in the video, while Gnarr sings that Rejkavik should be a “city that’s cuddly and clean and cool, with topnotch stuff, as a general rule,” there’s a sense that he’s more than a joke: he comes off like an honest, trustworthy guy who might be worth a vote or two.
And so the Best Party won, with 34.7 per cent of the vote. The guy in the Tina Turner video parody is now mayor of Reykjavik.
“We managed to get through to people that we were capable of winning, even though we used different methods, like humour,” says Helgadottir, now general manager of the party. “It was a delicate balance of being very real and very surreal. When Gnarr was giving speeches, he was funny, but he didn’t put on this front of being this assured politician. You could really see that he wanted to change something and do good.”
“And plus,” she says, “it’s not like we were going to do any worse than the people before us.”
Since coming to power, the Best Party has made admission to all public pools free for those under 18, but they’ve also had to make some very unpopular and decidedly unfun decisions, like cutting bus and social services in the city, and lifting Reykjavik Energy out of an impending bankruptcy with a $104 million loan. The loan’s many stipulations include an eight percent increase in heating rates for everyone, and layoffs for 11 per cent of its employees.
“Of course that was disillusioning,” says Helgadottir. “But it’s still very important that we did it. With Reykjavik Energy, it was almost bankrupt because nobody wanted to make tough decisions about it. It was what was needed—we can’t have the same sort of politics that promises everything and keeps the ball rolling until it explodes.”
Those decision cost the Best Party a bit of their popularity. IceNews reports September poll results showing that 47 per cent of respondents were dissatisfied with Gnarr’s work. Helgadottir says that she can sympathize with the temptation to make decisions that will keep your numbers up—sort of.
“I don’t think most people go into this to become mean and corrupt, but I can understand how it happens,” she says. “There are a lot of temptations. You have to stay very, very aware of it all the time.”
Regardless of the polls, Gnarr and the Best Party are still in power, which is impressive—Reykjavik has gone through four different mayors since 2006, each holding on for an average of eight months before being ousted.
“We’re still in this and we’re still doing it every day, even though people tried to bore us to death,” says Helgadottir. “They still haven’t managed to do it!”
The Best Party is even planning to run candidates in the 2012 national elections.
“I think this is a very positive story about regular people coming together and organizing themselves. Even though we organized ourselves quite badly at times, it still happened. There didn’t have to be a time frame and Excel spreadsheets.”
Nor does there have to be endless boredom, she says.
“I think [the idea that politics must be serious in order to be legitimate] is harmful,” she says. “That way, the powerful elite can go about their business unchallenged and can tell us how things are and what is best for us. [Politics] isn’t boring and it is important that people know that. We should be able to talk about serious issues and reach decisions with out it being mind-blowingly boring.”
And you can always find a way to do it differently, she adds. “Change really isn’t that far away from you, it’s mostly to do with yourself and how you approach things like this. Politics is like a game, and if you decide to play it by their rules, I think all normal and good people will eventually die inside.”
Heiða Helgadottir will be in St. John’s to give a keynote address during the North Atlantic Forum Conference, held by the MUN Harris Centre October 13-15.