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“I am simply not a politician, I am a comedian” – Rekyjavik’s revolutionary mayor stepping down

Pandeia’s Icelandic correspondent Svanlaug Arnadottir investigates the decision by Rekyjavik’s current mayor to not run for re-election – despite, unusually, having more support now than at the creation of his revolutionary party. 

In 2009 the The Best Party was formed in Iceland, led by Icelandic comedian Jón Gnarr. The party launched its campaign with a song with unusual hopes for the future of Reykjavík. Their political promises were to get a polar beer in the zoo, free towels for everyone in swimming pools and a drug-free parliament by 2020.

The original purpose of the campaign was only to mock Icelandic politics, which the public seemed to have lost all faith in after the financial crisis hit Iceland badly in 2007.  It was a time of frustration where the public wanted a political change: a clean slate.

Politicians made fun of the Best Party, saying they had nothing to worry about regarding competition. It came as quite a shock when the party – led by “Jónsi Punk” as he was called in his teenage years when he played bass in a punk band called “Runny Nose” – defeated the centre-right Independence Party-led municipal government. The party gained six out of 15 seats on the Reykjavík City Council with 34.7 percent of the vote and eventually formed a coalition with the social-democratic party called Samfylkingin. The party’s victory was considered a ‘slap-in-the-face’ for Icelandic politics.

From an idea to reality

According to Gnarr in an interview in his radio show ‘Tvíhöfði’ (Two-headed) late in October this year, he says the idea for the party came about in an earlier radio show in 2009 when he and his co-host Sigurjón Kjartanson discussed why they never got a TV show on the national TV-station RÚV despite being funny and creative

They resolved that it was because RÚV was a political institution and they didn’t belong to any party, as they were anarchists (Gnarr from the age of 13):  “We care just as little for all political parties, we’re anarchists”.

It was there that the idea of starting a political party was born. The plan, however, was a little different from how it turned out. The plan consisted of Gnarr running for election, winning and then becoming the minister of education. This would then provide Kjartansson the position of radio station manager at RÚV and Kjartansson than generously providing them both the best TV-show on a Saturday night. Although they knew that they would be accused of corruption, they planned for Gnarr to do something never before seen in Icelandic history and actually admit to a crime and resign, in doing so keeping the prime time slot.

Politics: a game of secrets 

The plan didn’t turn out quite like that: now Gnarr has served for 3 ½ years as Mayor –  without being accused of corruption – and today his party is the biggest one in Reykjavík garnering 37 % of the support. However, at the end of October this year, Jón Gnarr told the same radio show where the idea was born that he will not run again.

Explaining his decision Gnarr says “I’m a comedian, I am… I don’t have a choice, that’s just the way it is”. He adds:

“I’ve always felt this relation between comedian and gay people, we are just born this way, it’s your nature.”

Gnarr goes on: “Politics is a game of secrets, we all know that from watching The Wire, and I’m not good with secrets. For example, you can’t tell me if there is a surprise party coming up.”

Gnarr says he’s happy with his time in politics; he entered to get a message out, to prove a point and contribute to society but he considers that his time in the political sphere has passed. “If I had to repeat this I’d have to become a politician, which I am not.. I am simply not a politician, I am a comedian.”

Gnarr describes political culture as bad communications, saying that the political sphere involves little constructive conversation. He describes politics as “being in a book group where only the spelling is discussed and nothing about the story itself”.

In an interview with RÚV Gnarr explains the purpose in the beginning being that he has always felt much joy from making other people happy, doing something unusual and unexpected at the same time as making people think. He says he thought it was his obligation to contribute to protecting people from the negative effects of the financial collapse. By taking a step into this world, doing something fun and giving people the chance to talk about something other than negative things. “I felt it was my job, my obligation” he says, explaining that after experiencing first hand, the negativity in the discussions couple with the public’s uncertainty, fear and anger he realised it was something he could change.

Gnarr says he’s satisfied with his contribution “I’ve reached my goals, I think I’ve managed to awaken joy, surprise and lift (civic) optimism to another level it might not have reached if I hadn’t stepped in”. He hopes his work has inspired others to take action but is himself ready now to take on other projects.

“I want to do something else where there is more creativity, adventures and happiness”.

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