Irish Examiner

The Best Party – as published in The Irish Examiner 29th September 2010 (with some extras here)

As the Dail resumes Jonathan deBurca Butler discovers that disillusioned Icelanders have voted in a comedian

Free towels for every spa, a polar bear for the city zoo and a drug free parliament by 2020. These are just some of the campaign promises that Iceland’s Besti Flokkurinn will now have to deliver on after their success in this summer’s city council elections in Reykjavik.

Besti Flokkurinn, which translates as The Best Party, is the brainchild of writer, comedian and now mayor of Reykjavik, Jon Gnarr who started the party back in January of this year as a protest against the political classes in Iceland.

“It started as a joke in a way,” says Best Party campaign manager and adviser to the mayor Heida Helgadottir. “I mean it was a protest, a way to point out what was going on here.”

Helgadottir, who is a 27-year-old Political Science major, explains that since democracy arrived in Iceland in 1944 the country of about 320,000, has been run by just two parties; The Independent Party, who have been in power for most of that time and a smaller party called The Progressive Party, who though small are very influential.

In 2008 Iceland’s economy crashed due to poor banking practices. The resultant protests and riots were screened around the world and the government of the day was eventually forced to resign.

“We realised after this economic collapse that as a nation we had been giving power over to people who didn’t have our best interest at heart,” explains the 27-year-old former political science student. “They have their own special interests and their friends interests as a beaconing light. It was quite shocking that institutions here were not given enough money and not given enough staff to monitor the banks. Because everybody believed that the banks were doing a wonderful job.”

Sound familiar?

Gnarr came up with the idea of forming a party after a holiday in Puerto Rico and decided to get other comedians, actors and former punk rockers involved in a campaign to run in Reykjavik’s city council elections; people that, as Helgadottir says: “we knew were good honest people, people we could trust.”

Like every good campaign the party needed a campaign song to drive them along and so the candidates were brought to a studio to record a cover of Tina Turner’s Simply The Best which has become something of a hit on You Tube.

The campaign quickly, and somewhat surprisingly, took on a life of its own. And although pledges, such as promising a class of playschoolers a new Disneyland, were seen as somewhat populist, Icelanders appreciated Gnarr’s send up of politicians’ vanity and sense of self-importance.

“Very early on we realised that there was something going on,” says Helgadottir.

“Jon had a very good personal following here because of his work as an actor but more than that we had something that people were getting. They were getting what we were trying to do.”

Judging by the results they certainly were. In the elections, held in May, The Best Party won the biggest share of the vote, just under 35%, and ended up winning 6 of the 15 city council seats. That meant that they held the balance of power but would only agree to go into coalition with another party if that party had watched all five series of American television drama The Wire.

“No one has to be afraid of the Best Party,” Gnarr said in his victory speech. “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.”

The joke had become a reality and in June The Best Party formed a coalition with a centre-left party, The Social Democrats, celebrating with a fashion show in front of the city hall.

“I don’t think Jon ever expected to be mayor,” says Helgadottir. “I mean he knew nothing about politics before he came into it. He didn’t even know who was mayor. But now that he’s there, he is determined to see it through for the full four years.”

Already Gnarr has had his ups and downs. Bringing in free access to swimming pools for people under 18 and raising tariffs on the Reykjavik Energy Company-something that nobody had the courage to do previously according to Helgadottir- are some of the party’s early successes. A recent attempt by the opposition to slur Gnarr on foot of an interview with a French magazine in which he jokingly said that he used the internet to watch porn was unsuccessful but showed him that politics was dirty (and evidently not the kind of dirty he likes).

Some of his meetings could be said to be slightly unorthodox too and on the day I call his campaign manager, I am told to try the next day because she is on her way to karate classes with the mayor.

“It was the first lesson,” explains Helgadottir the next day. “He invited all the members of the city council, all the heads of the departments and this is something that’s going to happen twice a week. Not everybody went but there were two people from the opposition party, people from our coalition and there was one government official.”

The methodology may be strange but it would appear that Gnarr is trying to build political consensus and is not afraid of listening to ideas from other parties involved in the well-being of the country. Perhaps Iceland’s top comedian has something to teach our own 166 jokers who saunter back to work today after their insultingly long summer holiday.

 Due to his commitments as mayor, Gnarr has no intention of running in the upcoming general elections.The Best Party will however be putting candidates forward in 2012.

“We just want to make Reykjavik a more pleasant place to live,” says Helgadottir. “A greener city, a more child and family friendly city. There’s been so many things going on here that are completely useless to anyone and it’s been going on because somebody promised somebody something who is a friend of somebody else.”

Sound familiar?

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