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(en) Iceland, The joke is on the system - Media: eykjavik taken over by anarchist punk rocker comedian

Date Sun, 27 Jun 2010 13:00:05 +0300

Icelander’s Campaign Is a Joke, Until He’s Elected — A polar bear display for the zoo. Free towels at public swimming pools. A “drug-free Parliament by 2020.” Iceland’s Best Party, founded in December by a comedian, Jon Gnarr, to satirize his country’s political system, ran a campaign that was one big joke. Or was it? ---- Last month, in the depressed aftermath of the country’s financial collapse, the Best Party emerged as the biggest winner in Reykjavik’s elections, with 34.7 percent of the vote, and Mr. Gnarr — who also promised a classroom of kindergartners he would build a Disneyland at the airport — is now the fourth mayor in four years of a city that is home to more than a third of the island’s 320,000 people. ---- In his acceptance speech he tried to calm the fears of the other 65.3 percent. “No one has to be afraid of the Best Party,” he said, “because it is the best party. If it wasn’t, it would be called the Worst Party or the Bad Party. We would never work with a party like that.”

With his party having won 6 of the City Council’s 15 seats, Mr. Gnarr
needed a coalition partner, but ruled out any party whose members had
not seen all five seasons of “The Wire.”

A sandy-haired 43-year-old, Mr. Gnarr is best known here for playing a
television and film character named Georg Bjarnfredarson, a nasty, bald,
middle-aged, Swedish-educated Marxist whose childhood was ruined by a
militant feminist mother.

While his career may have given him visibility, few here doubt what
actually propelled him into office. “It’s a protest vote,” said Gunnar
Helgi Kristinsson, a political science professor at the University of

In one of the first signs of Europe’s financial troubles, Iceland’s
banks crashed in 2008, plunging the country into crisis. In April,
voters were further upset by a report that detailed extreme negligence,
cronyism and incompetence at the highest levels of government. They were
ready for someone, anyone, other than the usual suspects, Professor
Kristinsson said.

“People know Jon Gnarr is a good comedian, but they don’t know anything
about his politics,” he said. “And even as a comedian, you never know if
he’s serious or if he’s joking.”

But as Mr. Gnarr settles into the mayor’s office, he does not seem to be
kidding at all.

The Best Party, whose members include a who’s who of Iceland’s punk rock
scene, formed a coalition with the center-left Social Democrats (despite
Mr. Gnarr’s suspicion that party leaders had assigned an underling to
watch “The Wire” and take notes). With that, Mr. Gnarr took office last
week, hoping to serve out a full, four-year term, and the new government
granted free admission to swimming pools for everyone under 18. Its
plans include turning Reykjavik, with its plentiful supply of geothermal
energy, into a hub for electric cars.

“Just because something is funny doesn’t mean it isn’t serious,” said
Mr. Gnarr, whose foreign relations experience includes a radio show in
which he regularly crank-called the White House, the C.I.A., the F.B.I.
and police stations in the Bronx to see if they had found his lost wallet.

THE polar bear idea, for example, was not totally facetious. As a result
of global warming, a handful of polar bears have swum to Iceland in
recent years and been shot. Better, Mr. Gnarr said, to capture them and
put them in the zoo.

The free towels? That evolved from an idea to attract more tourists by
attaining spa status for the city’s public pools, which have seawater
and sulfur baths. For accreditation under certain European Union rules,
however, a spa has to offer free towels, so that became a campaign slogan.

Mr. Gnarr, born in Reykjavik as Jon Gunnar Kristinsson to a policeman
and a kitchen worker, was not a model child. At 11, he decided school
was useless to his future as a circus clown or pirate and refused to
learn any more. At 13, he stopped going to class and joined Reykjavik’s
punk scene. At 14, he was sent to a boarding school for troubled
teenagers and stayed until he was 16, when he left school for good.
(((Given his glittering career prospects, I can’t say I blame him.)))

Back in Reykjavik, he worked odd jobs, rented rooms, joined activist
groups like Greenpeace and considered himself an anarchist (he still
does). He also wrote poetry and traveled with the Sugarcubes, Bjork’s
first band. He said he hated music but was a good singer, and began his
career with humorous songs punctuated by monologues.

“I didn’t have many job options,” he said. “It was a way of making a
living and still having fun.” His wife, Johanna Johannsdottir, a massage
therapist, is Bjork’s best friend. (((This sure sounds a lot like
Czechoslovakia right after the Velvet Revolution. Sometimes a
stricken nation’s bohemian underground is its last political hope.)))

Mr. Gnarr said his idea for the Best Party was born of the profound
distress and moral confusion after the banking collapse, when Icelanders
fiercely debated their obligation to repay ruined British and Dutch

Practically speaking, Mr. Gnarr said he had no qualms. “Why should I
repay money I never spent?” he asked, a common sentiment here. But on a
deeper level, he had misgivings.

“I consider myself a very moral person,” he said. “Suddenly, I felt like
a character in a Beckett play, where you have moral obligations towards
something you have no possibility of understanding. It was like ‘Waiting
for Godot’ — I was in limbo.”

LAST winter, he opened a Best Party Web site and started writing surreal
“political” articles. “I got such good reactions to it,” Mr. Gnarr said,
“and I started sensing the need for this — a breath of fresh air, a new

The campaign released a popular video set to Tina Turner’s “The Best,”
in which Mr. Gnarr posed with a stuffed polar bear and petted a rock,
while joining his supporters in singing about the Best Party.

“A lot of us are singers,” said Ottarr Proppe, the third-ranking member
of the Best Party, who was with the cult rock band HAM and the punk band
Rass. Mr. Proppe now sits on the city’s executive board, where he will
be deciding matters like how much money to allocate for roads. “Making a
video was very easy,” he said.

At a recent budget meeting, Mr. Proppe, who has a wild red beard, ran
his hand through his bleached-blond hair as he studied the fiscal report
from behind tinted, gold-rimmed glasses. His old band mate S. Bjorn
Blondal quizzed the city’s comptroller. Heida Helgadottir, who ran the
campaign and is now assistant to the mayor, wore a diaphanous minidress
and typed notes. (((I wonder how many people are buying tickets
to Iceland right now from this description alone.)))

Mr. Gnarr, who comes across as thoughtful and reserved, did not speak
often. When he did he had the whole room, including the strait-laced
Social Democrat, in stitches. Still, he is not just playing a cutup;
friends describe his move to politics as a spiritual awakening. He agreed.

“Of all the projects I’ve been involved with, this one has given me the
most satisfaction, the greatest sense of contentment.”
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