Will Guðni Jóhannesson Preside over a Pirate Revolt in Iceland?

The country’s new president, a former history professor, enters a political scene rocked by the Panama Papers and a surging Pirate Party.


Independant presidential candidate Gudni Johannesson looks on at an election party in Reykjavik, on June 25, 2016. Political newcomer Gudni Johannesson claimed victory in Iceland’s presidential election after riding a wave of anti-establishment sentiment, though the vote was eclipsed by the country’s eagerly-anticipated and historic Euro football match. / AFP / HALLDOR KOLBEINS (Photo credit should read HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP/Getty Images)


Iceland — land of overperforming soccer goal scorers, five-gait horses and troubled sovereign debt — has a new president and some new fiscal policies. Could it soon be run by Pirates?

In late June the Nordic nation of 330,000 elected independent candidate Guðni Thorlacius Jóhannesson as president. An associate professor of history at the University of Iceland and a political neophyte, Jóhannesson, 48, took office on August 1. He replaced Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who announced in May that he wouldn’t run for reelection.

Grímsson had served as president for two decades, including through the 2008–’09 financial crisis and its aftermath. Earlier this year, though, he faced pressure not to run for a sixth term after his wife’s name surfaced in connection with the Panama Papers, the trove of documents leaked from a boutique Panamanian law firm showing offshore banking activity.

With political change far from over, Jóhannesson, who has no party affiliation, stands above the fray. On October 29 the country will hold its parliamentary election, which was called early after ex–prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson was forced to resign when he was named in the Panama Papers. (The interim PM is Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, formerly minister of Fisheries and Agriculture.) The antiestablishment Pirate Party could win a controlling majority in parliament.

A global political movement founded in 2006 with the original aim of reforming digital copyright law, the party has become popular with Internet and political activists. The Icelandic Pirate Party, which formed in 2012, elected three members to the country’s 63-person parliament in 2013. This time around, it stands to do much better: The latest polls put the Icelandic Pirates in a statistical dead heat with the center-right Independence Party, with both at roughly 26 percent support.

All of this upheaval comes at a delicate time for Iceland, which is seeking to reintegrate into world financial markets. After decades of speculation, its dizzying 2008 financial collapse made it one of the first countries to fall victim to the global banking and credit crises. Since then Iceland has taken steps to right its economy; this month it received a stable A3 credit rating from Moody’s Investors Service.

Jóhannesson, who owes much of his popularity to his levelheaded criticism of government actions as a TV commentator during the country’s recent Panama Papers–induced constitutional crisis, has pledged to be less political than his predecessor.

The historian and author, whose books include biographies of two previous Icelandic prime ministers and an account of Iceland’s infamous Cod Wars — a series of fishing rights disputes with the U.K. — sees his role as bringing order and unity. Jóhannesson believes the president should stay outside debates and eschew ties with any particular political party, while helping to resolve difficult issues. He was elected with 39.1 percent of the vote in a contest that saw 75.7 percent of eligible Icelanders cast a ballot.

Married to Canadian writer Eliza Reid, Jóhannesson, like the Pirate Party, appeals to an electorate that has grown weary of career politicians. Voters flocked to the soccer-loving, marathon-running everyman, who also happens to be the Icelandic translator of four books by American horror author Stephen King. The establishment candidate he beat was Davíð Oddsson, who, as prime minister from 1991 to 2004 and later governor of the Central Bank of Iceland, was identified with many of the policies that proved so disastrous for the country.

In Iceland the role of president is largely ceremonial. For American voters, currently living through their own dystopian political nightmare, there’s no hope that the U.S. will follow suit anytime before January 20, 2017. Whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins the White House, Iceland’s new president could be drawn into some sensitive political negotiations. The Pirate Party has vowed to offer citizenship to U.S. computer expert and official-secrets leaker Edward Snowden.