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Pirates Face Rough Seas as Incumbents Lead in Iceland Vote

The Pirate Party, founded four years ago by an assortment of hackers, political activists and Internet freedom advocates, drew international attention as its support surged among Icelanders fed up with established parties

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    Pirates Face Rough Seas as Incumbents Lead in Iceland Vote
    Frank Augstein, AP
    Birgitta Jonsdottir of the Pirate party (Pirater), right, looks at a TV screen in Reykjavik, Iceland, on Oct. 29, 2016. Parliamentary elections were held in Iceland that day, with more than 250,000 voters entitled to elect 63 members of the Althing parliament.

    There was no Pirate takeover, but the upstart party managed to make waves in Iceland.

    The country's party leaders were beginning meetings Sunday with Iceland's president to hammer out who will form the next government, after an election that produced big gains for the radical Pirates but gave the largest bloc of seats to the center-right Independence Party.

    Some form of coalition government is certain since no party gained a parliamentary majority in an election overshadowed by public discontent at the establishment after years of financial crisis and political turmoil.

    The conservative Independence Party took 29 percent of the vote and 21 of 63 parliament seats. Leader Bjarni Benediktsson said the party should be given a mandate by President Gudni Th. Johannesson to form a new coalition government.

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    Outgoing Prime Minister Sigurdur Ingi Johannsson of the Progressive Party said he would hand the president his resignation so that a new government can be formed.

    The Pirates — anti-authoritarian advocates of direct democracy and digital freedom — almost tripled their vote share from 5 percent in 2013 to 14.5 percent, and will get 10 seats in Iceland's parliament, the Althingi.

    The Left-Green movement, with 15.9 percent, will also get 10 seats in a parliament that is shaping up to be evenly split between parties of the left and the right.

    The result was better than expected for the Independents, who have governed in coalition since 2013.

    The Pirates' result fell short of what some polls had suggested — and what the party's fleet of energetic volunteers and supporters had hoped. Like Spain's Podemos or the movement behind Bernie Sanders in the U.S. presidential race, it drew in throngs of young supporters who ran the Pirates' largely volunteer-driven campaign.

    "It would have been nice to get more MPs, to get a higher percentage," said Smari McCarthy, a newly-elected Pirate lawmaker. "But considering everything this is still a magnificent victory for us."

    The election result looks set to trigger a period of intense political negotiations lasting days or weeks, and McCarthy suggested the Pirates have not given up on becoming part of a government.

    "I don't think any party is looking at this outcome and saying this is going to be really easy," McCarthy said. "I think in particular the Independence Party is going to have a very hard time trying to build a stable government."

    A wind-lashed volcanic island near the Arctic Circle with a population of 320,000, Iceland suffered years of economic upheaval after the country's debt-swollen banks collapsed during the 2008 global financial crisis.

    Saturday's election was called after then-Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned in April during public protests over his offshore holdings, revealed in the Panama Papers leak.

    Gunnlaugsson's Progressive Party was the election's biggest casualty, losing more than half its seats in the Althingi as voters punished it for its links to the financial crash and corruption claims.

    "The (Progressive) party that to my knowledge was most responsible for the ongoing crisis, and the scandals and scams, is mostly out, and that is progress, and that is great," said Reykjavik voter Evard Ingolfsson, 23.

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    New parties made gains among weary voters. A kingmaker in government negotiations could be Vidreisn, or Renewal, a liberal party formed this year that advocates Iceland joining the European Union. It won 10.5 percent of the vote and seven parliament seats. Its leader Benedict Johannesson told broadcaster RUV that, as the party that had made the biggest gains, it should get to lead talks on forming a new government.

    The election was dominated by Iceland's economy — now recovering on the back of a tourism boom, with low unemployment and high growth — and voters' desire for political reform.

    Iceland's Pirate Party, founded four years ago by an assortment of hackers, political activists and internet freedom advocates, campaigned on promises to introduce direct democracy, subject the workings of government to more scrutiny and place the country's natural resources under public ownership.

    The party also backs tough rules to protect individuals from online intrusion. Birgitta Jonsdottir, the Pirates' most senior lawmaker is a former ally of WikiLeaks who has called on Iceland to offer citizenship to U.S. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden.

    Opponents argued that the inexperienced Pirates could scare off investors and destabilize the economy — a message that resonated with some voters.

    Eva Heida Onnudottir, a political scientist at the University of Iceland, said that while the election didn't bring a Pirate revolution, it did see the emergence of new parties, a decline in support for traditional ones, and a record number of seats for women — 30 out of 63.

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    "The changes are not maybe as much as some people would like, but politics in Iceland has definitely changed," she said.

    Pirate lawmaker Jonsdottir said the party was buoyed by the election result, and would continue its drive to curb corruption and bring people-powered politics to Iceland.

    "We're very happy that we actually managed to get this far by being so totally different," she said. "We are an innovative party that is trying new methods, and we took a lot of risks in order to stay true to ourselves.

    "So the people that actually voted for us are really Pirates in their hearts."