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Pirate Party make gains as center-right hangs on in Iceland

October 30, 2016

REYKJAVIK, Iceland (AP) — The radical Pirate Party made gains but not a breakthrough in Iceland's election, as returns Sunday showed that voters favored the incumbent center-right Independence Party over the upstart advocates of direct democracy and digital freedom.

No party emerged with a majority of parliament seats from an election dominated by public discontent at the establishment after years of financial crisis and political turmoil. With almost all votes from the balloting Saturday counted, the Independence Party had 29 percent support and the Pirate Party 14.5 percent, putting them in third place behind the Left-Green movement at 15.9 percent.

The result should give the Independence Party about 21 seats in Iceland's 63-seat Parliament, the Althingi, with the Left-Greens and Pirates winning 10 each. It's a better performance 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. Founded four years ago by an assortment of hackers, political activists and internet freedom advocates, the Pirate Party drew international attention as its support surged.

Like Spain's Podemos or the movement behind Bernie Sanders in the U.S. presidential race, it drew in throngs of mostly young supporters fed up with the status quo. Pirate lawmaker Birgitta Jonsdottir said the results were in line with the party's own prediction of between 12 and 15 percent — up from the 5 percent it secured in 2013.

"We're just amazed that we'll possibly maybe triple our following from last time, and it's only three years," Jonsdottir said. The election result looks set to trigger a period of intense political negotiations. It was not immediately clear whether the Independents had the support to assemble a coalition government with other parties of the center and right.

As early results came in overnight, Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson said he was pleased. "These are very positive indicators for us, we are leading in all constituencies, we are gaining new seats in Parliament, so we are very happy," he said.

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. The tax-avoidance scandal outraged many Icelanders, who suffered years of economic upheaval after the country's debt-swollen banks collapsed during the 2008 global financial crisis.

The chief victim of voters' wrath was Gunnlaugsson's Progressive Party, which lost more than half its seats in the Althingi. 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 will take about seven parliament seats.

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. The Pirates 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. Jonsdottir, the Pirates' most prominent voice, 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 wind-lashed volcanic island near the Arctic Circle with a population of 320,000, Iceland has become known in recent years for large street protests that ousted one government after the 2008 financial crash and dispatched another in April. It also has strong Scandinavian policies in support of social equality and women's rights.

But Icelanders — infused with a spirit of Viking self-sufficiency — also have a strong conservative streak that led many to mistrust the Pirates and stick with the status quo. As scores of Pirate supporters from Iceland and around the world watched the election results come in at a Reykjavik brewpub, the boisterous mood was tinged with disappointment.

"I'm really sad and I'm really disappointed in our young generation," said 22-year-old student Bylgja Gudjonsdottir. "This is our next generation that is taking the country to the next level. But they keep voting for the criminals we have here," she said.

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