Meet the Anarchist Mayor Who Governed Reykjavík

By:Kevin McNamara

Date:July 21, 2014

Category:Innovator Profile

Meet Jón Gnarr. He is a 47-year-old native Icelander and a self-proclaimed anarcho-surrealist. He is married with five children. He is an avid supporter of gay rights, a peace activist and an avid fan of the HBO series The Wire. He learned to speak English from watching television. He is friends with Björk, and was once a taxi driver. On his right forearm the logo for the old school punk band Crass is tattoed, and his left arm bears the Reykjavík coat of arms below a Chinese character.

Who is this Jón Gnarr? In 2009 he would have been famous throughout Iceland as a successful actor, writer and comedian. In 2014 he may be better known as the former Mayor of Reykjavík and founding member of the Best Party, a satirical political party that got one-third of the vote in the 2010 municipal elections, defeating the incumbent Independent Party and taking the reins of the city in the mists of a banking crisis. Although Gnarr may have hung up his bass years ago when he stopped playing with Nefrennsli (translates to “Runny Nose”), he is probably the most punk rock politician to ever get elected.

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Gnarr’s rise to power may seem fictional and far-fetched (although let’s not forget that Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Governor of California from 2003 to 2011), but for the past four years this has been the reality for Reykjavík, Iceland’s capitol and biggest city. I recently had the pleasure of hearing Gnarr speak at Red Emma’s bookstore in Baltimore where he was promoting his most recent book, Gnarr! How I Became Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World. He discussed his upbringing and detailed his foray into politics.

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At an early age Gnarr was misdiagnosed with severe intellectual disabilities due to dyslexia, attention hyper activity disorder and other learning disabilities. Between the ages of 5 and 7 he was treated at the children’s psychology ward at the State Hospital at Dalbraut, Reykjavík. After spending much of his youth as a misfit (labeled as “maladjusted”), he became fascinated by punk music after hearing the raw sounds of the Sex Pistols play live on TV. He took the anarchic and rebellious nature of this newly discovered music and applied it to his own life. Gnarr played bass for the punk band Nefrennsli (“Runny Nose”) as a teenager and chose to embrace the punk spirit in his everyday life. In the 1980s Gnarr became acquainted with the Reykjavik-based alternative rock band The Sugarcubes, which included Björk Guðmundsdóttir and Einar Örn Benediktsson. Benediktsson would end up being his right hand man in the Best Party. Gnarr went on to work an array of jobs before making a name for himself in Iceland as comedian and actor.

In 2009, Gnarr formed the Best Party with a motley crew of artists, comedians and punks, all with no background in politics. Their goal was simple: to satirize and poke fun at Icelandic politics (and politics at large) and make life for citizens more enjoyable. Best Party became more than a joke when, in 2010, Gnarr was elected mayor and the Best Party won 6 of the 15 seats on the Reykjavik City Council, shocking the political system in Iceland. Gnarr’s victory is considered to be a backlash against establishment politicians in the wake of Iceland’s 2008-2011 financial crisis (had it not been for loans from Iceland’s Scandinavian neighbors and the IMF, the country that had once enjoyed one of the highest standards or living would have gone bankrupt).

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Even stranger than the fact that Gnarr and the Best Party actually succeeded in getting elected is the platform that they ran on. From the get-go Best Party assured that they would uphold the political tradition of breaking campaign promises. And, since most political parties are secretly corrupt, in favor of transparency the Best Party would be openly corrupt. Other promises made by the Best Party include a polar bear for the zoo, a Disneyland by the airport, a drug-free national parliament by 2020, in addition to free admittance to and free towels provided by all city pools (the election promise that they were “most proud of”). Gnarr and the Best Party also recorded an Icelandic take on the Tina Turner song “Simply the Best” with lyrics such as “We want a city that’s cuddly and clean and cool,” and “Tell the squatters in-charge that it’s time to leave.” Miraculously, this surreal and unprecedented campaign strategy held up to the democratic system.

Once the party was elected into power it fulfilled its obligation to the city, becoming more serious. But, of course, they did so while maintaining their antics that got them that far. Soon after getting elected Gnarr announced he would not enter a coalition government with anyone who has not seen his favorite show, The Wire. He also posted a video holiday greeting wearing a Darth Vader mask and a Santa Clause hat. He dressed in drag to march in the 2010 Gay Pride parade. Gnarr vehemently protested for the freedom of Russian punk band Pussy Riot (“Homophobia is not a phobia,” Gnarr said, “they are not scared, they are just assholes.”) He opposed the Chinese Government’s treatment of human rights activist Liu Xiaobo before Liu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He also stated that the importance of the European Union is overrated. While in office Gnarr kept an online Mayoral Log on Facebook where he documented his day-to-day activities as mayor for the public to see.

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One promise that Gnarr did fulfill was that he would keep his position for only one term. On June 16 Gnarr handed over the city key to Dagur B. Eggertsson and took a step back from the political world. Gnarr is only the third person to serve the full 4 years as Mayor of Reykjavík since 1980. The fact that an anarchist comedian became one of the most reliable and effective mayors in recent history says a lot about the political climate in Reykjavík.

Although he has regressed back to “Jón Gnarr, comedian,” Gnarr has forever made his impact on politics. He turned the municipal government in Reykjavík upside-down and shook up the political sphere, which is a distinctly punk thing to do – although very few punk rockers will ever have such an effect. Maybe the election of a person like Gnarr is only possible in Iceland, but it is about time that someone changes things up, and perhaps after seeing the success of Gnarr and the Best Party, other governments may realize they need to make a change as well. Gnarr’s anti-political approach to politics just might be the solution that no one knew they needed; “It’s like what whoever made the first automobile said,” Gnarr tells the Reykjavík Grapevine, “’Had I asked people what they wanted, no one would have said they wanted a car. They would have asked for a speedier horse carriage.’ And so it goes.”

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