Iceland's Political Outsider: From Punk Rocker to Mayor of Reykjavik

By Jochen Brenner

As a former punk rock hell-raiser and renowned comedian, Jon Gnarr may not have been the most obvious choice as mayor of Reykjavik in the aftermath of a financial crisis. But he has proved popular with the electorate, and his success has raised a question: Do outsiders make better crisis managers?

Photo Gallery: A Punk Mayor to Battle Reykjavik's Woes Photos
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There are five minutes to go before the broadcast begins, as Jon Gnarr sits in a television studio, searching for the right formulation. "You could say that comedy is tragedy plus time," he says. "The longer ago the nightmare is, the more I have to laugh about it." He puts down his teacup, which smells of peppermint and a little vodka. "It's as if someone had thrown up on your carpeting after a long party. You smell it and you ask your friends who it was. Then Bill says it was Jon, and Jon says it was Frank. That's Iceland, Iceland after the financial crisis."

Jon Gnarr is a tall blonde guy who wears jeans and unironed shirts. He doesn't show off the power he actually holds -- over the 8,100 people who report to him, or over his annual budget of two billion Icelandic kroner (€12 million). He is the 44-year-old mayor of Reykjavík, the most important man in the city. In return, Reykjavík pays him €7,000 ($10,150) a month and provides him with a large official car.

The mayor is a punk rocker. He used to look the part, but now he keeps his hair neatly combed and parted on one side. In his younger days Gnarr, a.k.a. Johnny Punk, used to storm into a Reykjavík bookstore and tear the pictures of Sid Vicious and The Clash from the pages of German magazine Bravo to demonstrate the aesthetics of protest to the other members of his band, the "Dripping Noses." He used his music to confront society with its own ugliness. He dropped out of school, drove a taxi, worked in a mental institution, composed poetry and wrote a fictitious autobiography so violent that Icelandic publishers initially turned it down.

The book was called "The Indians," because he hated cowboys as a child.

Infiltrating the System to Bring it Down

When life as a punk rocker became too demanding, Gnarr fathered five children and became a comedian. That was until 2010, when the citizens of Reykjavík elected him as their mayor.

Today he's at the top of a system he once fought, first with hate and then with humor, and he wants to explain why. "I want to break it up, the system, but first I have to infiltrate it before I can get rid of it."

Even during the campaign, he made people laugh. He promised to put a polar bear in the zoo (a joke at these latitudes), open a Disney theme park near Reykjavík, and turn the parliament into a drug-free body within 10 years. At the end of the campaign he made another promise: to break all his previous promises after the election. It was a caricature of a bid for the city's highest office, in which Johnny Punk showed the establishment both that he had seen through it and how he felt about it.

His first official act was to introduce "Hello Day." On Sept. 1 Reykjavík's residents were expected to greet each other as cheerfully as possible. Soon afterwards Gnarr raised electricity prices in the city, and laid off 60 people at the municipal energy company. In late February the mayor cancelled subsidies for children attending music schools, and raised taxes to cover his budget. These are the achievements of a man who sought his office so he could do everything differently. They are tantamount to political suicide.

But Gnarr's career is not based on traditional rules. In March, an Icelandic polling firm asked Reykjavík citizens about their confidence in politics. They named Gnarr the "most honorable politician" in the country, and felt that he had the "most charm" and was more down-to-earth than any other politician. In the poll, the mayor was almost 10 percentage points ahead of the prime minister.

A Changing Political Climate

Some sociologists do not see Gnarr's election as a protest, but as a signal. At a time when Icelanders elected a comic as mayor of their capital instead of opting for a more familiar politician, 35 percent of British voters did not vote for either of the two biggest parties in the country's parliamentary election -- a result not seen since 1918.

For the first time since 1945, a coalition government is now in charge in London. In the United States, the Tea Party, which emerged as a protest movement against the bank bailouts, achieved its first significant successes in the fall of 2010. In June, the party of Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders captured 24 seats in parliament, making it the country's third-strongest political force. And in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, more than 40 percent of eligible voters stayed home in May 2010.

After his punk phase and a few years working on the assembly line at Volvo in Sweden, Gnarr brought humor to Iceland. He made a name for himself as a stand-up comedian, first with a morning radio show and then with a TV show in which he poked fun at Nordic sternness. Today his films are sold in stores next to those of the Coen brothers, and the national airline Icelandair shows his satires on its in-flight program. And on May 29, 2010, 34.7 percent of Reykjavík voters checked the box next to Gnarr's name.

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BTraven 04/29/2011
Not so long ago Reykajvik was praised as the hottest town in the travel guides of the editions of the weekend newspapers. Perhaps the town will be back in the headlines with him. I can’t imagine that a person with such a CV would have a chance to become mayor of a big town in Germany. It should be considered that Fischer who has a similar vita belongs to a different generation. But in a certain way both benefited from developments which made their career just possible – the green movement and the financial crisis.
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