The Joke's on Iceland's Political Parties

05/31/2010 09:45 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A new political party -- the modestly named The Best Party (Besti Flokkurinn) -- led by comedian Jón Gnarr, has thrown a scare into Iceland's powers-that-be by receiving the most votes in Reykjavik's municipal elections yesterday. The party's platform of adding a polar bear display to the municipal zoo prevailed over the much more detailed agendas of the traditional political parties.

I had the privilege of spending some time this weekend with the one of world's most talented, smartest, and wittiest women, renowned writer and author Barbara Ehrenreich, who was in Iceland last week to deliver a key note address at the Networking V - Empowering Women conference at Bifröst University. As we drove from Þingvellir, the site of Iceland's ancient parliament Alþingi, the subject of the Best Party came up. "I saw him [Gnarr] on TV," Ehrenreich said, "and he looked like he just discovered that he's gotten himself into something way over his head."

Apparently Gnarr's deer-in-the-headlights look didn't bother or register with voters; the career politicians were unable to convince the electorate that the inexperienced, self-proclaimed anarchist was a joke, and that it would be sheer insanity to place the governance of half of Iceland's population in Gnarr's hands.

Perhaps, in the voters' minds, the real joke has been the act the "serious" politicians have been playing ever since Iceland's economy collapsed in October 2008, and its national government resigned amidst popular rebellion in early 2009. Recent opinion polls show that -- with the exception of Finance Minister Steingrímur Sigfússon -- the leaders of Iceland's political party are looked upon with distrust and contempt, in large part because little has been done to purge the political and financial system in Iceland of the crooks and the incompetents who led their country over the cliff.

It is true that we have seen encouraging signs lately. Bankers have been arrested and interrogated. Civil fraud suits have been brought against the businessmen who scammed our country. The reorganized banks have repudiated decisions by the old banks' boards of directors to forgive loans made the corporate insiders as part of stock manipulation schemes. The British and the Dutch have indicated their willingness to take up once more negotiations to resolve the Icesave dispute.

However, the IMF's austerity measures, along with the reorganized banks' reluctance to forgive residential and consumer loans, have meant that life for the majority of Icelanders is more difficult than ever. The unemployment rate has stabilized, but is much higher than it has been historically. The official rate of inflation has come down, but the damage has already been done. Iceland's currency is worth half of what it was before the collapse, but prices continue to increase. Eyjafjallajökull's eruption -- and the ensuing chaos -- has led to fears that Iceland's tourism industry may take a hit this summer.

I can think of just one instance comparable to Jón Gnarr's likely selection as Reykjavik's next mayor -- Jesse Ventura's election as Minnesota's governor in 1998. Like Gnarr, Jesse "The Body" was an entertainer (after his professional wrestling career ended, he tried his hand in acting and in shock radio). He did serve as a small town mayor, but had no extensive administrative experience. Like Gnarr, he saw clearly that the major political parties in Minnesota were playing an insiders' game and were both looking to implement policies that did not help the average Minnesotan, but looked good on their resumes. Although his new Independence Party had no platform per se, and no serious candidates for the state legislature, voters took notice of his quick rise in the polls right before election day, and pushed him over the top by a narrow plurality.

Although Ventura's term as governor was tumultuous (in large part because of his disdain for journalists and their desire to stick to a narrative in which he played an egocentric buffoon), the state did not go down the tubes, as was widely predicted by the pundits. The two houses of the Minnesota legislature were controlled by different parties. In order for any legislation to pass, they were forced to negotiate solutions that Venture saw as helping all Minnesotans. He didn't mince words, and he used his vetoes effectively (at least until his final year in office).

Jón Gnarr does appear a bit taken aback by his election. He's certainly not stupid, and he knows that he has no business trying to run the city single-handedly. There are conscientious and knowledgeable civil servants sincerely dedicated to bettering Reykjavik and the lives of its citizens, but there are also political appointees who will actively oppose measures that go against their ideologies.

Rather than forming a coalition government with one of the other parties, I hope he approaches each issue with an open mind, and selects the best solution proposed, regardless of its source. He may not be in a position to create new policies, but he can pick and choose the proposals that will give the greatest good to the greatest number.

I hope above all else, though, that he makes our government more transparent. For too long, all of the important decisions have been made behind closed doors with little explanation, and no public dissent. Explain why our money is being spent the way it is, why certain projects are going forward, and others are going nowhere. Tell us the risks and the alternatives. Talk to us like we're responsible adults, rather than children.

And Gnarr, don't let yourself be intimidated by the professional pols, and don't try to beat them at their game. Stick to your guns and let them explain themselves and their proposals to you in no nonsense terms and language. (Watch Jon Stewart for inspiration and guidance).

And keep smiling.