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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

The sluggish economy has been a problem for politicians around the world. After Iceland practically went bankrupt, voters threw yogurt at lawmakers, and a comedian with no political experience at all ran for mayor of Reykjavik. He did surprisingly well. David Kestenbaum with our Planet Money team has this story of weird politics in weird economic times.

DAVID KESTENBAUM: The comedian's name is Jon Gnarr. And like him, I don't know a lot about Icelandic politics. But we have someone here who does. Baldur, can you introduce yourself?

BALDUR HEDINSSON: I'm Baldur Hedinsson, and I was the intern with you all at Planet Money.

KESTENBAUM: Jon Gnarr, who ran for mayor, is known for his absurdist humor.

HEDINSSON: As a teenager, I listened to his radio show whenever I could. My parents did not like him. They thought he was too silly and sarcastic.

KESTENBAUM: But in November of 2009, the story appeared in the newspaper that Jon Gnarr wanted to be mayor. It was unclear if he was serious about running, I think even to him.

Mr. JON GNARR (Best Party, Iceland): I just invented a new political party. I was not drunk or anything.

HEDINSSON: Gnarr called his party the Best Party, because what could be better than the best party?

KESTENBAUM: Parodying his opponents, he created a 10-point campaign platform with 13 points. He put a big emphasis on honesty.

Mr. GNARR: And I had honesty, like, three times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KESTENBAUM: Four months before elections, his poll numbers were terrible. Only two percent of voters supported the Best Party. Gnarr got himself a nice suit and tie and actually started going around like a politician.

HEDINSSON: But saying very un-political things.

KESTENBAUM: Whenever anyone else made a political promise, he'd make a bigger one. Gnarr proposed an idea for attracting tourists by leveraging the fame of Iceland's most well-known citizen, the pop singer Bjork.

Mr. GNARR: We should have this, like, huge statue of Bjork at the harbor, like the Statue of Liberty. And instead of a torch, she would be having a microphone and she would shout out some information about Reykjavik...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GNARR: ...in three different languages. Her eyes would shoot lights on interesting tourist spots in Reykjavik.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HEDINSSON: When a candidate proposed building an entire amusement park, Gnarr went small.

Mr. GNARR: I promised to have a life-size Mickey Mouse. It would be the only Disney World that had the life-size Mickey Mouse. So it was just (bleep) and nonsense.

KESTENBAUM: When a political event got boring, he'd just walk out.

HEDINSSON: Gnarr's poll numbers steadily improved - from two percent to 10 percent, 20 percent, to amazingly 44 percent.

KESTENBAUM: Did you ever say anything real, or were you always just sort of mocking the whole process?

Mr. GNARR: A lot of it was real. Yeah, I was honest, also.

KESTENBAUM: Example.

Mr. GNARR: I said I was born in this place and brought up in this place. And all my friends live here, all my family lives here, and I love this city and I would really like to do something useful for it.

HEDINSSON: The election was on May 29th, and Gnarr's party won.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Mr. GNARR: Welcome to the revolution.

(Soundbite of cheering)

KESTENBAUM: Jon Gnarr became the 21st mayor of Reykjavik, the country's capital. He walked into his new office in City Hall and was at a loss.

Mr. GNARR: This thought popped in my mind: You can still quit. Run. Run. Don't do it. This thought came, you know, what have I gotten all these people into?

KESTENBAUM: As mayor, Gnarr still makes fun of the system he's now part of. Sometimes he wears a gorilla mask around the office, and he gave a speech once wearing lipstick.

HEDINSSON: But, of course, he also has to do the job of mayor.

KESTENBAUM: Reykjavik had a huge budget deficit. Gnarr raised taxes, restructured the education system, laid off employees from the electric utility.

HEDINSSON: People got really angry at him.

KESTENBAUM: Now that you're in office, do you have any sympathy for the politicians you used to see on TV and make fun of?

Mr. GNARR: Yeah. Definitely. I have realized that the politicians, or most of them, are not the evil, stupid people like I thought they were.

KESTENBAUM: Gnarr says he once broke down in public.

Mr. GNARR: It's been fun and it's been hard and it's been scary, very scary at times.

HEDINSSON: Gnarr has been on the job for a year now, and his poll numbers have taken a dive. Half of those who supported the party no longer do.

KESTENBAUM: On the other hand, Gnarr has done something politicians often struggle with: Reykjavik's budget is finally in balance.

HEDINSSON: I'm Baldur Hedinsson.

KESTENBAUM: And I'm David Kestenbaum, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: You're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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