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Icelandic constitution on the way

After Iceland’s financial collapse in 2008, Icelandic citizens wanted a plan to clean up the island’s political system. A new draft constitution, written by a council of ordinary people, was handed over to the parliament. And on 20 October, all Icelanders will be asked for their opinion in a consultative referendum.

Giulia Dessi
8 October 2012

On a sunny afternoon of May in Reykjavík, while locals enjoy the warmth and sip coffee outdoors, well-equipped tourists return from their hiking trips. Inside Althingi, the parliament of Iceland, a vitally important debate has been scheduled. But you wouldn't think so to judge by the atmosphere. The parliament chamber is nearly empty. Only a few members are present and take turns at the rostrum. After a few minutes of excited talk, they ease back into their seats.

Right-wing opposition parties were adopting the strategy off stonewalling. It went on for weeks, until 24 May, when the parliament came to an agreement. What was at stake was an advisory referendum for a new constitution – which has finally been set for October 20. Since August 2011, when a draft for a new constitution was handed to the parliament, the conservatives have racked their brains trying to stop what they call ‘nonsense’. They knew that they would have to give up sooner or later. But in the meantime they did what they could to delay the outcome. 

The conservative minority in parliament, made up of the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, are not entirely clear about the reasons they don’t like the draft of the new constitution. But one thing is sure: they don’t accept it being written by common people instead of parliamentarians.

In the fall of 2010, a national vote elected 25 ordinary citizens – the constitutional council – to formulate a new document. The general public actively participated in the process. They put forward suggestions and commented on the council’s decisions on a website and a facebook page. The result is a basic law that would turn Iceland into a more direct democracy. The executive – that is the government – would transfer some powers to parliament and the people.

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Demotix/Hákon Ágústsson. Protest outside Althingi - Iceland's parliament in 2010. All rights reserved.

As some issues are particularly controversial, the government wanted Icelanders to express their opinion both on the draft and on some specific articles. Still, this referendum is just consultative, which means that parliament will not be obliged to follow the voting results. But if the outcome is positive, then Althingi would feel an extra pressure. And the results have been positive so far. According to Ástrós Signýjardóttir, who, at 25 years old, is the youngest member in the constitutional council, opinion polls show that about 73 per cent of the nation wants the draft to be used as a ground for the new constitution. 

Yet, it cannot be forgotten that the latest polls also show that the Independence Party is the biggest party in Iceland again. This might be an obstacle for the definitive approval of the constitution. Iceland’s constitution can be changed only in accordance with the current constitution. First, the constitution draft must be discussed and voted for by the parliament. Then, once this parliament has approved it, new national elections must be called. For the new constitution to come into force, the new parliament after the elections also has to ratify it. Sadly, it isn’t written anywhere that the parliament is obliged to follow the suggestions of the constitutional council.

The new parliament might not have enough MPs that are in favour of the new constitution, says Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson, political scientist at the University of Iceland. The conservatives are very likely to be in power starting April 2013. As a result, the chances that the next parliament will approve the new constitution might be low.

But for the time being, the current government is interested in the next step: the forthcoming referendum. There are six questions to be answered on October 20.

The first involves a judgment on the document. Citizens are asked whether they “wish the Constitution Council’s proposals to form the basis of a new draft constitution”.

The second question regards a controversial matter. It has aroused strong reactions from the Independence Party. Fishing vessels’ owners, usual voters of the conservative party, would be damaged by the clause in the draft constitution stating that Iceland’s natural resources are the “perpetual property of the nation.” According to Thórólfur Matthíasson, economist at the University of Iceland, most Icelanders will vote yes, because “they want more income from the natural resources coming into the state's coffers.”

The third question relates to the Church. Icelanders are asked whether they would like to see provisions in the new constitution on an established National Church, as it is in the current constitution. The new draft constitution, on the contrary, does not even mention the National Church. It just states that if the parliament “amends the status of the church of the state the matter shall be referred to [a national] referendum.”

Question four involves the election procedure. As it is now, voters “are permitted to cross candidates’ names out or change the order in which they are ranked on the list of their choice,” the introductory website for the referendum reports. On 20 October Icelanders will say their opinion on the opportunity to vote for specific candidates on party lists. “We would have legal constitutional rights to vote directly for politicians, instead of having the party select those who are in the top position,” says Birgitta Jónsdóttir, member of the parliament who defines herself as an activist operating both inside and outside the system.

The fifth question asks citizens whether they wish that votes coming from different parts of Iceland carry the same weight in general elections. At present, Icelandic territory is divided in constituencies with unequal weighting of votes. This means that in order to have a member of parliament elected, more votes will be needed in one constituency than in others.  

The use of the tool of referendum is the subject of question six. The draft constitution introduces a mechanism allowing people to demand a national referendum on new laws passed by Althingi.  Hitherto, a referendum resulted only when the president rejected a bill. But if the constitution draft is approved, a petition signed by 10 per cent or more of voters can force the holding of a referendum empowered to repeal a law. “It’s totally new,” says Gudmundur Hálfdanarson, historian at the University of Iceland. “It’s a rethinking of the democratic process. And it spurs citizens into action much more than before.”

Despite their inability to reach an understanding, right-wing and left-wing parties agree on one thing. The constitution needs to be changed. If it is true that the 2008 financial crash triggered a public demand for a new foundation for Icelandic society, it is also true that this idea didn’t spring up overnight.

The current Icelandic constitution dates back to 1874, when the country, then part of Denmark, inherited the Danish document. In 1944, after Iceland became a republic, the word king was simply replaced with the word president. The promise was to draft a new text once the Second World War was completely over for Icelanders. But the parliament has been trying without success since then. Political interests have prevented MPs from coming to an agreement. After the collapse, people thought that if some points had been rewritten with more transparency, the crisis might not have happened. Citizens then called for a new constitution as part of a clean-up plan for the island’s political system.

Even so, constitutional council member Ástrós Signýjardóttir, believes that the nation would have not demanded a new constitution if the prime minister, the Social Democrat Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, had not come up with the idea.

After 66 years of fruitless attempts by the parliamentary constitutional committee, PM Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir decided the discussion had to be taken beyond the walls of parliament. Althingi, with a left majority since 2009, appointed a constitutional committee of seven people not directly involved in politics to prepare the groundwork for a constitutional council that would have to be elected soon thereafter. The committee had the task of gathering together all the information – about the electoral system, human rights, local government – that would help to draft a new constitution. And the constitutional council, made up of ordinary people, would use that information to formulate the constitution draft.

They dismantled the old foundation document of Icelandic society and put together a new one. Put forward after a four-month discussion, this document aimed to improve government transparency, strengthen human rights, and clearly outline the powers of the president of the country. But the biggest change is the power given to the people.

All these issues regarding referenda, parliament, and the role of the president, have been debated in many meetings every week and each citizen was given the chance to participate by sending advice or pointing out faults.

Some meetings of the constitutional council used to be broadcast and, on a weekly basis, the council used to report on its latest decisions. Response would follow through the official website, the facebook page, or via email. Then the council would look at the comments and revise the proposed articles accordingly.

“We thought of ourselves as publicly elected, so we felt it was our duty to have contact with the public,” says council member Thorkell Helgason. “But the main problem was that we had far too little time.” Otherwise, the dialogue would have been more intensive. Still, he says, they received “thousands of emails, which is not little in a population of 320,000.”

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the proposed new constitution, written by the people for the people, would bring improvements to the democracy of the island. The political opposition within the parliament in not mirrored in the society. Citizens want a new constitution and like the council’s proposal. That’s what matters – and where it matters. 

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