Will Iceland’s Absurdist Comic Mayor Run for a Staid Second Term?

A visit with Jon Gnarr, the 'best' politician in Reykjavik.


REYKJAVIK, Iceland — Jon Gnarr has to make a decision. The former punk rocker, former stand-up comedian, former joke protest candidate, and current mayor of Reykjavik is approaching the end of his first term in office. Recent polls put his party, the ironically named Best Party, at 37 percent, making him the likely winner. In August, he posted a question on his Facebook page, "Elections next spring. What do you think?" and linked to a video of The Clash classic "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

On Thursday, Oct. 31, he will announce whether he’ll stand again. "I have been thinking about how I would run again," he says. "Would I promise two polar bears? And Legoland? And free everything for everybody? Because that’s what we ran on, just promise: Tell us what you want and we’ll promise."

The first thing you notice upon stepping into Gnarr’s office, located in a modernist concrete building overlooking a pond in downtown Reykjavik, is a painting of Banksy’s "Flower Chucker" — a gift from the famous graffiti artist on the condition that it hangs above the mayor’s desk. On the day I visited, Gnarr was wearing a pale tan suit and combat boots. On one finger he wore a skull ring.

Gnarr first threw his hat into the political ring in November 2009, just over a year after the collapse of Iceland’s three biggest banks — the backbone, heart, and lungs of the island nation’s economy — had turned the country’s political scene upside down. He had been noodling on a proposal for a television comedy, about a "psycho naive politician, always confident, happy, smiling, stupid" and the next logical step seemed to be put his name on the ballot for the upcoming municipal elections.

For voters fed up with politics, Gnarr offered an attractive protest vote, a charismatic alternative to the parties they blamed for the crisis. He formed the Best Party as a joke and larded his campaign platform with proposals he literally promised he wouldn’t keep: a polar bear display for the city zoo, a drug-free parliament by 2020, free towels in the municipal swimming pools. The results of the elections, in May 2010, stunned the Icelandic political establishment. The Best Party took 34.7 percent of the vote, more than any other party, giving it six out of Reykjavik’s 15 council seats and, after a coalition with the Social Democrats, control of city hall. Gnarr had basically riffed his way into the mayor’s chair, putting him in charge of a city of 120,000 — roughly a third of the island nation’s population.

Gnarr has punctuated his term with moments of comedy, dressing up in drag to lead a gay pride parade and donning Jedi robes to cast his vote in Iceland’s 2013 elections. But he says the stunt lost its humor for him the day before the 2009 elections, when he saw the polls and knew he was going to win. "I realized the responsibility and the seriousness of it," he says. "The financial situation wasn’t good." In the early weeks of his administration, he became uncomfortably aware of how little he knew about how Reykjavik actually functioned. "I didn’t realize how many people work for the city," he says. "8,000 people work for it. I didn’t know. I thought it was, like, some hundred people. I didn’t know the first thing about it."

To listen to Gnarr talk, it’s a wonder he still wants the job. He and the councilmen from the Best Party talk about their terms as "doing time in politics" and Gnarr describes politics as "violent," a "hostile, manipulative atmosphere." Asked what he finds hardest about being mayor, he doesn’t hesitate: "Angry lobbyists," he says. "That’s what gives me headaches. At times you have to deal with a lot of anger, and demanding angry people…. I’ve been in meetings where people are shouting and screaming and banging their fists." 

Gnarr has approached his term partly as an administrator and partly as performance art, a constant critique of how politicians carry themselves. "People are still very surprised when I admit I don’t know things," he says. "Many people find that very amazing, not the fact that I don’t know, but that I have the guts to admit I don’t know."

One of the bigger urban planning issues facing Reykjavik is whether to relocate a domestic airport that lies just outside the city center.

"I was asked about this," says Gnarr, recounting a conversation between himself and an imaginary questioner.

"In your opinion, what should we do with the airport?"

"I don’t know."

"How come you don’t know?"

"’I’ve never moved an airport! I don’t know what it means to move an airport. But I’m willing to look into it."

He later decided it should be moved. "It’s valuable property to build on," he told me. "We can find a better place for the airport."

By most measures, Gnarr’s term has been a success: He has cut the budget — a necessity in cash-strapped Iceland — and saved the city’s energy company from bankruptcy. But what he lists as his biggest accomplishment as mayor is bringing stability to Reykjavik’s political scene. In the seven years before Gnarr took office, the city burned through seven mayors as coalitions rose and fell and battled for control. None of them survived their second year. The shortest term lasted just over three months. "I was overwhelmed how this political nonsense had done so much damage," says Gnarr. "We’ll never really know what it has cost us. Because if you have a political majority in a city, they start sponsoring projects and work. And when that majority falls, and a new majority enters, they cancel a lot of that work. You’re always starting from scratch."

I asked what he would like to accomplish if he decides to run again and voters gave him another four years. Not the purposefully empty promises he’d offered on the campaign trail, but what he actually would want to get done. He answered that he’d like to overhaul the city’s transportation system. Reykjavik, in its layout, has more the feel of an American city than a European one; its small center quickly yields to arterial roadways leading out to sprawling suburbs. "There’s too much emphasis on the private car," he says. "We have to increase alternatives in transportation…. If you look at old photos from Reykjavik, you can see that the roads are quite narrow. And the pathways are wide. But that has changed. The roads have taken more and more."

Elections are expected to be held in May, and even if Gnarr does decide to run, there’s of course no guarantee that he would win. In a national election last spring, voters returned to power the two parties that had governed before the 2008 crash. I asked him what he would do if next year he was no longer mayor, and he deflected the question with an attempt at humor. "Well, I have this business plan: a bingo bar," he said. "If you buy a large beer, you get a bingo card. And if you get bingo, you get a free beer. It’s a brilliant idea." For the first time in Gnarr’s life, it’s life outside of politics that seems like the bigger joke.

Stephan Faris is the author of Forecast: The Consequences of Climate Change, from the Amazon to the Artic, from Darfur to Napa Valley, from which reporting for this article is drawn.