June 25, 2010 3:02 am

Iceland protest party no laughing matter

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The way Jon Gnarr tells it, nonsense can get you a long way in politics.

The 43-year-old stand-up comedian and self-styled anti-politician was sworn in last week as mayor of Reykjavik after an election campaign in which his protest movement, called the Best party, promised to hand out free towels in public swimming pools and to bring Disneyland to Iceland’s capital.

“Our whole campaign was based on a lot of nonsense. Our slogans, such as ‘All kinds of everything’, were nonsense. But I was very happy to be elected,” said Mr Gnarr.

His victory inflicted a humiliating blow on Iceland’s established parties, which have fallen into discredit with voters since the nation’s financial collapse in 2008.

But Mr Gnarr’s rise to prominence is also resonating across the European Union, which plans to open membership talks with Iceland before the end of this year.

When told that his triumph had prompted a Dutch government minister to question if Iceland could still be considered a serious country, Mr Gnarr replied solemnly: “I don’t think he should speak so impolitely about people he doesn’t know.”

To be mayor of Reykjavik is a big deal in Iceland. The city and environs are home to 60 per cent of the island’s 320,000 population.

But Mr Gnarr said he had never taken an interest in politics until the 2008 crash and had once dreamt of becoming a circus clown.

“When I was growing up, we only had state TV here and they didn’t broadcast much comedy except on New Year’s eve. Then we got to see [a circus on TV]. I just loved [it] and when I got older I wanted to run away and be a clown. But I grew out of it,” he recalled.

According to Eirikur Bergmann, a political scientist, the Best party’s origins can be traced to a group of punk rock enthusiasts who hung around Reykjavik’s main bus station in the late 1970s and 1980s.

“Iceland was a conservative, closed-off society in those days. This was a rebellious movement, and out of it came some of Iceland’s most creative artists,” Mr Bergmann told the Financial Times.

In Mr Gnarr’s view, the financial collapse has changed Icelanders’ mentality. “What’s been escalating in recent times is anger, fear, insecurity and paranoia. Before, people were much more peaceful and tolerant.”

The crash, he added, had been caused by the delusion of Icelandic financiers “that we were going to be the financial empire of the north .I can’t say I foresaw that it would all collapse, but it felt phoney.”

A father of five, Mr Gnarr said he planned to continue his career as a comedian in spite of his new mayoral duties. His main policy initiative so far has been to order free admission for children this summer at Reykjavik’s swimming pools.

He does not rule out a career in national politics after his four-year term as mayor. “There are huge differences between national and city politics. National politics are much more heavy. But maybe in four years I’ll be ready for it.”

Experts say his inexperience and jokey behaviour should not obscure the fact that his party’s emergence is a serious phenomenon.

“It’s obviously a fairly loud warning shot to the other political parties,” said Gylfi Magnusson, Iceland’s economic affairs minister.

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