The European: During the municipal election of 2010, you promised to break all election promises. What is your progress on that?
Gnarr: It has been going very well‚ and that is just the way it goes in politics. Nothing out of the ordinary.
The European: Was there a particular thing you did not want to do as mayor?
Gnarr: It has been an overall experiment to see if I could do this and still be myself. There is a myth claiming that once you go into politics, it will change you; you will become some other person. I have fought to continue to be true to myself.
The European: It sounds familiar – what have two years in office done to you?
Gnarr: I have not discovered any personality changes, so far. It takes some work to be true to yourself in this culture and position. It is very easy to be distracted and to try becoming something that you are not.
The European: But people elected a comedian – doesn’t that mean you were facing very different expectations?
Gnarr: That was the idea: what you see is what you get. I believe that people have been pleasantly surprised.
The European: The municipal elections you ran in took place at a time when Iceland was facing enormous difficulties: the financial crisis had engulfed the country’s big banks and even caused the coalition government to dissolve. The former prime minister, Geir Haarde, was prosecuted for his role in the financial crisis. Consequently, your victory is often called to a protest against the established parties, do you agree?
Gnarr: Not necessarily. I think most people voted for me because they thought our party were the best option they had. Some might have voted for the “Best Party” because they didn’t want to vote for any of the others‚ yet that is a legitimate form of democratic protest. Others surely saw it as a rare opportunity to make something unique happen and the fact is that Reykjavik had a huge degree of political instability back then. What has happened after the election is that we have instituted political stability: I have been mayor longer than five mayors before me. Also, if the Best Party really was a populist protest phenomenon, it should have dissolved after the elections. However, none of the elected representatives has quit.
The European: How did you cope as a newcomer to politics? I would imagine that it might look easier from the outside than from the inside.
Gnarr: So and so. At times we feel that. But what we are trying to show is that politics is just a job. It depends a lot on how you view it and your attitude towards it: if you think that your job is the most difficult job in the world, just about any position can appear that way. It is your attitude that decides the outcome, whether you are a kindergarten teacher or a politician. So even though it may appear difficult, I think it is vitally important for democracy‚ not just in Iceland but anywhere ‚ that people from different aspects of society participate in politics.
The European: Most members of parliament in Germany are either lawyers or teachers by profession.
Gnarr: Exactly. This is a global problem. We have created this idea about the politician: an alpha personality, a fast-thinker, a fast-speaker. But by doing this we are eliminating a lot of people. We need fresh blood‚ and people not generally associated with the profession. That includes the slow thinkers, scientists, artists, and shy people as well as overweight people. According to the myth we have created, politics is such extraordinary work that only the chosen ones can work there. But that idea is actually very dangerous for democracy.
The European: But politics have become entirely televised: looking good on the screen and saying the most eloquent things often gives your the highest approval ratings. How would the shy people prevail?
Gnarr: They wouldn’t. That is why we need to break through the vicious cycle by departing from our image of politicians. As it is now, the political forces work with the media, have very strong ties to them or sometimes even own the media in some countries. I think this influence is used to scare people: look, politics are very scary, very complicated and only intelligent people will understand them. If we could change this, the shy and overweight people would have a much easier time. As it is now, it takes too much courage‚ and too many failed attempts.
The European: The “Best Party” seems to be circumventing this mechanism by taking politics less seriously. How serious are you being taken by the voters?
Gnarr: People are realizing that even though we claim not to have an agenda, we work according to common sense. I have taken this up several times in city council: say we are discussing taxation, politicians on the right are against taxation while those on the left are in favor of it. In contrast, our party really has no idea. That means we cannot cling to the comfort of an ideology. We are trying to work by using common sense, although that is very tiring. It is much easier to have an ideology to refer to. People may think: “This may not be my personal conviction, but it is right according to the book I am working from.” So they vote in favor of the matter in question. In the blogs and on the newspapers, people are writing that although we don’t have an agenda, at least we aren’t doing things like the ordinary politicians.
The European: Germany has a population of 82 million, is in the middle of an ongoing crisis and many people complain that politics have become too hard to understand. Should we adopt some of your optimism?
Gnarr: It is really a battle against negativity and pessimism. What we are so often looking for is somebody to blame, which explains the harsh judgment against one another in parliament and the media. If you go into a debate blaming someone, they will go on the defensive‚ and then often nothing happens. Voters have long realized this. I never thought that all politicians are useless‚ well maybe I did in the beginning‚ but I sure don’t think that way now: many people go into politics because they want to do something good for their community or society, which is plenty of reason for optimism.
The European: Is it enough, though?
Gnarr: No, that is why I think it it so important to rethink how we want democracy to work. People who are really trying to come up with something new, wanting to introduce new values or methods are often led astray and start working on things they really know nothing about. It is too easy get bought by the machine. The Greens are a very obvious example for that in Germany. We also need to get young people involved.
The European: How about people who stir things up?
Gnarr: That is the lesson I have learned. I have done many interviews where the tone has been extremely critical, very hostile from the outset. It often helps if I try to keep a happy face and show the people who are at home that politicians aren’t so terrible. The next time a really aggressive journalist wants to know exactly what I am doing about this or that problem, I am going to say that I will use my Jedi powers.
The European: Excuse me?
Gnarr: I am a Jedi.
The European: Does that mean you are going to take on even bigger tasks? Iceland is electing a new parliament next year.
Gnarr: No, it doesn’t. I am going to continue my work in the city. I have 627 days left in office that I am very conscious about. I want to finish what I am doing here before I go any further.