Unmet expectations and Panama Papers – Yet Another ‘Perfect Storm’ on European Democracy

Perhaps representation in politics is only a fiction, a myth forming part of the folklore of our society[1]


Populism finds its place in the political debate when politicians’ promises are not kept and people’s expectations about democracy remain unmet. This happens in particular during scandals of corruption or – more in general – when there is a diffused perception of a failure of the representative system.

Iceland and France are two perfect examples, while Brazil and Chile – so far – constitute negative cases.

In France something is moving, and from the end of March it took the name of Nuit Debout, a left-wing protest movement against labor reforms. They are similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement and to the first version of the Indignados in Madrid. Will they find a political expression like Podemos and Bernie Sanders, or dissolve after a few weeks of intense mobilization? In other words, are they the future in a nutshell of French left-wing politics or just a bunch of unemployed Parisian hipsters?

The movement has neither leader nor spokesperson, and expresses the ras-le-bol (fed-upness) of French people as far as political representation is concerned. On April 16, former Greek Minister Yanis Varoufakis visited them and reminded to the young protesters that they look like the young Greeks who – in 2009 – gathered every day in Syntagma square, for 99 nights in a row. He also warned the French that instead of making careers they must change things. French politicians should also listen to Varoufakis’ warning, and understand the movement instead of hijacking it to their benefit.

The impression, in this Europe besieged by ghosts and specialized in anti-migrants carpentry, is that people feel more and more distant from their left-wing political representatives, and alternative forms of mobilization pops up spontaneously but unorganized. On the other hand, right-wing-oriented voters can decide whether to become definitely disillusioned with politics or turn to more extreme movements such as Pegida, Golden Dawn, Jobbik, and many others.

The post-crisis scenario does not allow any optimism: the growing uberization of economy, recurrent scandals of corruption, and the inconsistent European answer to the refugee situation, are a lethal mix for the survival mainstream politics.

The coup de grace might come from yet another scandal revealed by organisations such as Wikileaks: in this case the secret files embarrassing politicians all over the world came under the name of Panama Papers. In Iceland, people felt all over again the impression of having been betrayed by the same representatives who led the country into the economic crisis in 2008.

Icelandic Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson resigned after it was revealed that he possesses a secret offshore account worth millions of dollars. Actually, he sold the shell company to his wife, Anna Sigurlaug Pálsdóttir, just one day before he would have been obliged to disclose its existence to the Icelandic authorities, but this is almost irrelevant. Funny part is that Gunnlaugsson, through this shell company Wintiris, was one of the creditors he promised to crack down on. In other words, when Iceland’s financial sector collapsed in 2008, Gunnlaugsson became a creditor to the same banks which created the collapse of the financial system. Quite incredibly, in 2013 Gunnlaugsson became Prime Minister mainly because of his promise to get tougher with Iceland’s remaining foreign creditors.

Gunnlaugsonn resigned after days of protests all over the country, but is still MP and leader of the party. Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, member of the Progressive Party, is the current (ad interim) Prime Minister. However this symbolic and bizarre resignation did not convince the population and protesters started gathering outside the Althing in Reykjavik’s Austurvöllur square every day. This situation might be a great chance for the Pirate Party, a leader-less cyber-optimist movement which proposes direct democracy and universal basic income.

The most iconic face of the movement is Birgitta Jónsdóttir, a former Wikileaks spokesperson and a self-described “poetician”. She entered politics in 2009 as an MP of the Citizens’ Movement, and later she was one of the initiators of the Icelandic branch of the Pirate political merchandise started in Sweden, which featured also an intense but inconclusive German spin-off.

The Icelandic Pirate Party has several points in common with the Best Party, founded in 2009 and re-branded Bright Future when it became a parliamentary party. Former comedian Jón Gnarr became the mayor of Reykjavík in 2010 under the banner of Bright Future.

Some commentators found that “With their mockery of mainstream politics and focus on cyberspace and technocratic state reforms, both Bright Future/The Best Party and the Pirate Party share some characteristics with the Italian Five Star Movement”. But the Pirate Party might score even better than any other similar movement in Europe, since it is now leading the polls with around 43% of support.

Both Nuit Debout in France and the Icelandic Pirate Party are understandable expressions of widespread frustration and disenchantment which refuse to become cynicism and apathy. The real question is: why something similar is not happening in Brazil and Chile, two countries in which the credibility of the political system is approaching its ground zero? Something will happen in these two countries, and either it will take the form of left-wing populism, or it will look like its nationalist and extreme right-wing alternative.


[1] Pitkin (1972, 221).

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