Will Iceland get a Pirate prime minister?

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
Birgitta Jonsdottir leads a diverse alliance of activists in the Pirate Party

Iceland's anti-establishment Pirate Party is on course to shake up one of the world's oldest democracies in a parliamentary election on Saturday.

For the first time, it could form part of a ruling coalition, as many voters remain bitter about the 2008 financial crisis and the perceived arrogance of an elite class. Icelandic journalist Hjortur Gudmundsson explains what is at stake.

Who are the Icelandic Pirates?

Launched in 2012, they were inspired by the Swedish Pirate Party, which wants more freedom from copyright restrictions on the internet, more political transparency and more protection of citizens' data.

The Pirates have been the main channel for distrust in mainstream politics in Iceland, which has just over 330,000 people.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
A Pirate Party meeting in Reykjavik - challenging traditional politics

The Pirates' election manifesto says the party aims to "ensure that the wealth generated by Iceland's natural resources is justly distributed".

They also want free healthcare for all Icelanders and "active public participation and supervision of those in power".

It is a rather loose alliance of people who are mainly united in their opposition to traditional politics and the system. Their rise in the polls has also attracted people who eye a possibility to advance their own careers by joining them.

They may become the first Pirate Party in the world to enter government. A similar backlash against establishment politicians has taken various forms elsewhere.

The US has Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, who revolutionised presidential election politics. Greece elected left-wing Syriza and Spain has left-wing Podemos.

So how strong are they now?

They have three MPs in the 63-seat Althing (parliament).

Support for the Pirates has slipped in recent opinion polls but they are preparing for coalition government. They have already suggested a candidate for prime minister, and invited other opposition parties to coalition talks - before voters have had their say.

The early election was triggered by the shock resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson in April. He was a casualty of the leaked Panama Papers, which revealed offshore assets held by him and dozens of other high-profile figures.

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
The Panama Papers scandal forced PM Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson to quit

Most polls put the Pirates as either Iceland's second-largest party or the largest, along with the conservative Independence Party. The Pirates are on about 20%, which is very good compared to the 2013 elections, when they got only 5.1%.

Still, several months back the Pirates enjoyed almost twice their current level of support in the polls.

There have been repeated internal disputes in the party. They have no formal leader but many consider MP Birgitta Jonsdottir, the party's founder, as its "de facto" leader. She has been accused by some party members of using the leadership vacuum to grab power.

The disputes even saw Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, another of the Pirates' three MPs, compare relations within the party to a violent relationship where no one dared to speak their mind, for fear of the consequences.

In response, the Pirates hired a workplace psychologist to help the three MPs to better understand each other, which has reportedly helped very much.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Iceland's parliament: Despite an economic recovery there is much distrust of politicians

Are the Pirates a coherent political force?

The Pirates initially attracted people from all over the political spectrum but have apparently shifted towards the left recently. Libertarians were accused by Ms Jonsdottir of plotting a takeover to turn the Pirates into a libertarian party, which would prioritise individual rights.

Similar disputes have torn other Pirate parties apart. Whether that happens with the Icelandic version remains to be seen.

Currently a centre-left coalition involving the Pirates and three, or perhaps four, other parties seems the most likely outcome of the election. It is unclear how such a government would fare.

Historically no Icelandic coalition government formed by more than two parties has survived a full four-year term.

Doubts have been raised as to whether the Pirates can function in government. Some also fear the elections might result in a full-blown cabinet crisis. Whatever happens, this election looks set to make history.

Hjortur Gudmundsson writes for Iceland Monitor, specialising in politics and international affairs