Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment cached version 13/02/2019 23:28:04 en Rebuilding democracy in Iceland: an interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>In the first of a series of interviews by Phil England examining the&nbsp;situation in Iceland and the possible relevance of developments there&nbsp;to the UK, Phil talks to&nbsp;Pirate Party MP Birgitta Jonsdottir.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p class="p1"><a href=""><img src="//" alt="howDoParls-banner@2x.png" width="100%" /></a></p><p class="p1"><a href=""></a></p><p class="p1"><a href=""><span> </span></a></p><p><a href=""><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="307" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'><span class='image_title'>Birgitta Jonsdottir. Flickr/Steve Rhodes. Some rights reserved.</span></span></span></a></p><p><em>Editor's note: This article was originally published on 26 June 2015.</em></p><p><a href="">Birgitta Jonsdottir is a co-founder of the&nbsp;</a><a href="" target="_blank">Icelandic Pirate Party</a>&nbsp;and one of three Pirate Party MPs in the Icelandic government. Since March the Pirates have been polling as the&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">most popular party</a>&nbsp;in Iceland. Their&nbsp;core policies focus on direct democracy, civil rights and access to information.&nbsp;A former Wikileaks volunteer, Jonsdottir describes herself as an anarchist and a poetician. She is also founder and Chair of the&nbsp;<a href="" target="_blank">International Modern Media Inititative</a>&nbsp;(IMMI) which aims to strengthen democracy through transparency of information.</p><p>---</p><p><em><span><span>Could the right to information clauses in the draft constitution along with the IMMI (International Modern Media Initiative) proposals to protect journalists, their sources and whistleblowers help prevent a second crash from happening?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Absolutely. It’s not enough to have a big [Wikileaks-style] data dump. You have to have people interested in it that can analyse it and simplify it for the general public to understand. So if we had this type of legislation before the banking crisis it might not have prevented it completely but it would have been a lot less severe.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>We have legislation that is not very clear in Iceland about when public workers, the bureaucrats in the system, have a duty to report or a duty to be silent. It’s not clear right now because there are so many different regulations about it. Many people have been waiting for a clarification in law. So now the trend is for whistleblowers to stay silent.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I don’t think transparency can completely stop corruption as the temptation to bend the rules is always great, but when there is more transparency around the laws and who writes them, more eyes can have a look at it and try to fill in the legal holes.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>People sometimes say there is a banking secrecy law in Iceland. Is that still in effect?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>It’s not really a banking secrecy law. It’s more like legislation that the banks themselves have put into place. It is not a particular law. It’s one of the things we’ve tried to raise awareness about. Whenever the banks claim this is a law, a regulation, I keep saying to everybody that’s interested in changing the growing distrust in parliamentary institutions and politicians is that all laws have been made by people and thus all laws can be undone by all people. What they always do with something like this, when they claim there is a banking secrecy law, they say that it’s because of competition and because of international regulations that we’re part of. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So maybe we need a really strong international body of people that want to transform these international trade deals to provide a new grid or new network that might help roll it back. But it’s actually a lot harder when it comes to these international corporations that are bound by these international hiding places.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Even though Iceland prosecuted some of its top bankers after the revolution, is there a sense that things may be returning to business as usual now the right-wing parties are back in power?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I think in general we don’t have a big banking bubble now, we have a different kind of bubble because we did not deal with the problems at the root of it. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a new banking insanity in Iceland because what happened here was unheard of because the banking sector expanded so quickly and dramatically compared to the size of our GDP. But the new bubble is in housing because of increasing tourism. So the new bubble in Iceland is actually tourism and all the corruption around that. That’s going to hit the general public the hardest, there’s going to be a massive mortgage bubble so the price of housing is expanding really quickly and they’re just building all these luxury flats when it’s incredibly difficult to be on the rental market. Because Iceland has never had a proper rental market. So you’d usually only be able to find a place to rent for about a year and then you’d have to be moving all the time which eventually pushes you into taking a mortgage which is usually more than you can deal with. So you go in the grey zone in order to get a mortgage. Now it’s even worse. It’s never been this bad. Now we have the Italian situation starting in Iceland where people can’t move away from home. And Icelanders have traditionally been very proud of leaving home relatively early, standing on their own feet. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So I think we’re back to business as usual in a sense because nothing’s really changed because we never got our new constitution. That was the new hardware, the new firm ground to stand on and build “New Iceland” on.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Has there been much reform of the banking sector post-crash?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well there’s been some new laws to put some reins on the banks but I think our biggest problem is that the banks started to offer non-indexed mortgage loans. Indexed mortages are the most traditional loans in Iceland. You have to refinance with the bank these un-indexed loans every three or five years. And let’s say there’s an unprecedented situation, lots of inflation, etc. they can actually raise the interest. And there is no regulation that says there is a limit to how much they can raise the interest by. So we’re in a very dangerous limbo situation. I warned the last government about it. I think it’s impossible to warn the current government because they don’t give a shit, but I asked them why don’t they put a ceiling on how much these un-indexed loans can go up in interest.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>The thing that I criticise most about the resurrection of banks if you’re looking for the long-term is the failure to separate the high street banking from the “casino” banking. These should have been separated because they have nothing in common really. The casino banking sector uses the traditional banking sector as their piggy bank with their fractional reserve systems to make money out of thin air. That’s not been fixed at all. Actually in Europe or the world it’s not been fixed at all. Nobody learned anything from the last banking crisis. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>It’s interesting that rather than a big push for banking reform in terms of a grassroots campaign, you guys have gone for ‘let’s fix democracy first’. That’s an interesting priority ranking. Most people aren’t thinking in that structural way.</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well, there is this bible story that says a wise man does not build his house on sand. And one of the big demands after the crisis was that we would get a new social agreement to build a new democracy. Our constitution is just a temporary constitution that we’ve had for 70 years and we’ve done patchwork on it but there’s never been a holistic approach to create a new constitution in Iceland. We could have had a chance like South Africa when they created a new constitution at the end of Apartheid. We tried and it was a beautiful experiment that I thought was very important but those in power managed to sabotage its reputation by just constantly hammering that a new constitution should never be ratified in dispute which was complete bollocks (for more on the dispute manufactured by the Independence Party see the “An Unexpected Hiccup” section of </span><a href=""><span><span>From the people to the people, a new constitution</span></span></a><span>) because those in power will always fight against anything that brings more liberation and more rights to the public and thwarts their unconditional power. So they will do everything in their power to stop this democratic process and to make it look unprofessional, not thought through enough. In their opinion there were not enough people from the countryside, etc. etc. Of course there were mistakes made in this process. We were doing this for the first time and of course it was not perfect. But the spirit of it was perfect. And the spirit was basically that Icelanders wanted to come out on the other side with a more honest society, with more equality and transparency.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I’ve been using the fact our party has been </span><a href=""><span><span>scoring as the highest</span></span></a><span>, again and again and again, by far in the polls as leverage to try to get the other parties to come on a journey before next elections where we agree that the only thing the next government would do would be to ratify the new constitution and put forward a national referendum on the bid to see whether people want to carry on with the European Union bid or not then dissolve the parliament within six months. Six months should be enough to get the national referendum on the EU bid and fix all the technical problems with the constitution because there aren’t many and they’re all known. It’s not like we have to begin from scratch. Then we can have a new parliament based on this new constitution within nine months. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>They’ve shown interest. Interestingly enough the Social Democrats are the ones that are dragging their feet. They’re claiming it’s impossible. We’ll see how it goes but it’s been very interesting to see their reaction to it. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Were they not the main part of the coalition government that set the constitutional process into action?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yeah. But they’ve not been forthcoming. I was speaking to a person who is very influential in the party. There are differences of opinion about it within the party. This process can only be done if people are willing to do this and nothing else so that people who are voting know that this is the only thing they are voting for actually. So that people are unified that they need a new hardware to put the new systems in. They are always trying to do patchwork and there is no vision in this patchwork. Reactionary politics is killing democracies all over the world and making people distrust this process which is the only process that is viable if you don’t want to have complete dictatorship. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>That will be amazing if you can pull that off. Presumably we’ll be hearing noises on the street too. There was a demonstration outside parliament on Tuesday and the mood is obviously getting interesting again. The fact that the constitution has been frozen can’t be doing politics much good there. What would you say the mood of the nation is currently?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>People currently are very disappointed, I think in </span><em><span>themselves</span></em><span>, because many of them got fooled into voting for the liars. I think people feel betrayed, pissed off. None of the promises of prosperity have come through except for the richest. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I went to the protest because I am a protest junkie. I really like protests because it’s such a good way to feel what people are feeling. If you are driven to come out and protest it’s not only the people there: each person is representing many others. And I really sense the same dynamics prior to the protests in 2009. I’ve never seen as many cops. The people in power are really scared. I think I’ve been to nearly 85% of all protests after the collapse and it will be interesting to see what happens. I would be surprised if we could get rid of this current government but you never know. The interesting thing about all revolutions and uprisings is nobody knows if they are successful or not. Nobody knows when enough people are sick of it. You never know what the tipping point is. I can only hope that we can get rid of this government before it does more damage. But even if they do damage it is important for people to know that laws are always made by humans and can be undone by humans. But when they destroy the environment it can be very difficult to take that back.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>How strong is the demand for the new constitution among the people on the streets? Are people seeing that as having a central importance?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>It’s sort of happening. Like we have this new fish that has been coming over to Iceland for a while which is mackrell. Those that have been in power in Iceland for a long time have been gradually been giving their friends and allies […drops out…] So they put forward a bill for this new fishing quota that is really badly written. It was obvious that their plan was to give that as well. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>And there is a petition now demanding that the president won’t sign that law because we haven’t got into the constitution an article that is strong enough, or an article at all that the nation’s resources should belong to the nation without a doubt [note: such a clause features in the </span><a href=""><span><span>draft constitution</span></span></a><span>]. Because of this people started to understand, ‘oh, if we had got the new constitution then we would not be in this position of having to plead to the king or the president to not sign this law.’ If we had the new constitution, actually the nation could stop a dangerous bill like this [article 65 gives the right for 10% of the population to hold a binding national referendum on a law passed by the parliament].</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>You’ve been an MP since 2009 representing firstly the Civic Movement then the Pirate Party. This is a three-part question! What was the relationship between the protests and the Civic Movement? How did the Civic Movement end and the Icelandic Pirate Party start? Then, finally, how have you guys approached working in parliament and what successes can you point to?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>When we created the Civic Movement it was actually a group of people who were part of a think tank on what to do after the crisis. I had been a lone protester against the Chinese government’s human rights abuses against the Tibetans for nine months every week and did a lot of events around that as well. So I was the person that people called when the protests were starting asking, ‘Do we need permission to protest?’ etc. There was a group of people trying to get all the grassroots groups to work together to make a really big demonstration on 1</span><span>st</span><span> December 2008 – the day when we got our constitution. A couple of big individuals who were supposed to be organising it pulled out last minute so I was asked like a day before the big protest to get all the practical stuff together. So that’s how I became involved in all these different grassroots initiatives. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I was part of this Academia group where we would meet every week to discuss what do we need to create in Iceland in order to prevent another crisis like this from happening. We held a meeting I think sometime in December where we invited all these different grassroots groups to come and explain what they thought the top three priorities that needed to be done in order to make “New Iceland”. All of them said that there was a need to create a political party or movement to push for a new constitution written for and by the people of Iceland. We thought that was really interesting because every single one of them said they thought that was a priority. So we started to create bylaws for a group that was called “Solidarity - a coalition of the grassroots movements.” I was sort of a prime mover in this, I don’t know why. There were other groups doing similar stuff. All of a sudden I was invited to this meeting eight weeks prior to the elections. And there they created the Civic Movement and I was asked to be the vice chair. I agreed but then on my way back home I thought, ‘What the hell, they’ve created a political group with a pyramid structure and I like horizontalism and I’m an anarchist! Eventually, maybe two or three weeks later I introduced horizontalism and asked that we would not have leaders or vice leaders and I got it through.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>The aim of this political movement was to do a hit and run, go inside really quickly, open the windows and explain to people how things work inside the parliament, fight against Icesave being socialised and get the new constitution going and the injustice that people felt by losing their houses and mortgages would be rectified. So we had a very simple checklist of political goals </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>We did not want any politicians to run with us. It was sort of like Podemos. It was just a coalition of all these different groups. We didn’t really know each other much as you can imagine. I was for example not going to run in a front seat, as number one in my constituency but we could only find one woman out of six constituencies to take leadership and I felt it was really bad to create a political movement with no women in the front. So I last minute offered to lead my constituency if I would get support for it or if I was asked to do it. Eight weeks later we got 7.2%, we were in parliament and we didn’t know anything about it. It was very interesting because you could use your ignorance to change things. So we were sort of activists inside there. We were an offspring of the protests.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>There were of course lots of arguments and drama when some people got in and some people didn’t. So you get all the stuff that we had to push behind us when we were campaigning. It was ugly and boring and horrible. So it ended up with the Citizens Movement splitting in half. Half of the group went into a new political movement just called The Movement. We took all the agenda of the Civic Movement and the parliamentarians but left the money behind. We worked on the agenda that we were elected on because we felt if we were to carry on with all this internal drama we would never be able to do our job as parliamentarians. That was very hard because we</span><span><span>&nbsp;&nbsp; </span></span><span>lost almost all our following and it took a long time just to win back trust.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>And while all this was happening I happened to be invited to speak as the only geek in the parliament exactly a year after we did the big protest in 2008, on 1 December 2009 at a conference hosted by the Digital Freedom Society. A couple of guys from a very unknown organisation called Wikileaks were speaking there. They were talking about this really brilliant idea that Iceland could resurrect involving becoming a safe haven for freedom of information, expression and speech with a focus on privacy. And I approached them after it and said, ‘Hey, why don’t we do this? I’m a parliamentarian and I think this would be a really great way to come up with a vision for where Iceland could be heading after this really embarrassing attempt to become the greatest banking nation.’ So we started to work on this and it later became known as </span><a href=""><span><span>IMMI</span></span></a><span> the International Modern Media Initiative. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>What was very unique about this and what has been an incredible guideline as a politician is that I learned that the quickest path to change is to look at the best laws from other countries that work. Not try to write everything from scratch or come up with the most original idea. But to actually look at who’s doing the correct things to improve whatever you want to improve. And I had access to some of the greatest minds in this field in order to create this vision. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>And even though I was in the smallest opposition party I somehow managed to rally the entire parliament with me on this. I got people from all parties to support this resolution, very powerful people and eventually I got it through. And the reason why that worked – and it was a relatively radical idea – was because I did it very quickly. I was aware of the Shock Doctrine. You have crisis, the window of opportunity is very, very short. You have to move fast. And the constitution was a victim of slowness. I completely blame it on the governmental parties for a lack of wisdom on how to implement change in times of crisis. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So, in all this IMMI process I felt that people in the Movement didn’t really understand the urgency and importance of it. Because it’s a constant thing: even if you get a resolution done and a government starts to work on it, you have to make sure that they do it as instructed, which they didn’t, they were slow with it. So it’s a constant lobby to have it done. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So I created IMMI to work on both the IMMI resolution and to carry on this international quest for the best practice in this field and share them. I was so frustrated with the lack of enthusiasm and interest in it by other political allies. So at an IMMI board meeting I said why don’t we just create a Pirate Party because Pirate Parties around the world had been using IMMI as a guideline and I felt people understood the importance of this at a deep level. That was how the Icelandic Pirate Party started.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>And the reason why The Movement didn’t carry on was it was written in our code that we had to dissolve the Party – because it was just a hit and run remember – if we did or did not get our agenda done within two terms. And we felt that when the constitution was stung with the thorn of the Big Sleep that we had no reason to carry on. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>What progress has there been so far with IMMI? Has it translated into practical things that have strengthened the environment for investigative journalism and truth-telling in Iceland?</span><span><span>&nbsp; </span></span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yes but not enough. When the source protection laws were being done they used the IMMI laws which were based on what they have in Belgium. But the information laws are really not good enough. They are much better than they intended to have thave but they are not as good as IMMI requires. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Lots of companies are selling to their clients that are hosting with them that these laws about intermediary [i.e. internet server] protection and so forth are already made. Which is not true. This is a huge research project that the Institute has been doing with people around the world to find out how we can protect intermediaries because it is so important but we have not had any laws passed yet. I couldn’t event get the bloody parliament to agree on removal of data retention after all these rulings that have been happening in the EU. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So we’ve prepared the laws and now finally there is a really awesome, productive, very focused steering group in the ministry that is writing up the IMMI laws which means that, even if they’re not all ratified now, in the next couple of years if we have a proper government that understands the importance of it, or a bigger Pirate Party these can be processed very quickly because it’s had a long brewing time both in Iceland and elsewhere. And if the government puts forward laws, the Parliament usually processes it very quickly. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So that’s why I put forward a law explaining why we need to remove data retention, so now they have that prepared for them. So it’s happening, slowly, very slowly.</span></span></p><p><span><span><br /></span></span></p><p><span><span><em>See <a href="">The Independent</a> for an accompanying overview.</em></span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p>&nbsp;</p><p class="p1"><span>[III]&nbsp;<a href=""></a></span></p><div class="partnership-in-article-banner-infobox"> <div class="partnership-in-article-banner-infobox-inner"><span>This article is published in association with the <a href="">Westminster Foundation for Democracy</a>, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.</span></div></div> <p>&nbsp;</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-read-on"> <div class="field-label"> 'Read On' Sidebox:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p><a href=""><img src="// Charter Convention (1).jpg" alt="" width="140" /></a> </p><p><a href="">The Great Charter Convention</a> – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.</p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/can-europe-make-it/annecharlotte-oriol/iceland-portrait-of-pirate-as-young-politician">Iceland: portrait of the pirate as a young politician</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/ourkingdom/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-shows-that-uk-constitutional-convention-should-involve-politi">Iceland shows that a UK constitutional convention should involve politicians as little as possible</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> uk westminster A constitutional convention Rights and liberties today Building it: campaigns and movements Great Charter Convention Phil England Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Tue, 13 Sep 2016 06:05:45 +0000 Phil England 93811 at Changing the way politics works: an interview with Katrin Oddsdottir <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Phil England talks to Katrin Oddsdottir, a member of&nbsp;Iceland's&nbsp;2011 Constitutional Council, about the process of drafting a new constitution, the aims of the new constitution, and the chances of it finally coming into effect.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p class="p1"><a href=""><img src="//" alt="howDoParls-banner@2x.png" width="100%" /></a></p><p class="p1"><a href=""></a></p><p class="p1"><a href=""><span> </span></a></p><p><a href=""><p><span> </span><em><span><span><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="400" height="413" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_large" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'></span></span></span></span></em></p><p><em>(Image: OddurBen (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (</em><a href=""><em></em></a><em>) or GFDL (</em><a href=""><em></em></a><em>)], via Wikimedia Commons)</em></p><p><em><span><span>To what extent did the opportunity for the people to write a new constitution for Iceland have its roots in the financial crisis of 2008 and the protests that followed?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>The street protests of 2008 and 2009 that followed the crash were mostly directed towards the government of the time and the demand for new elections. At the same time there was this very wide dialogue within the society of Iceland where people were trying to diagnose how they could make a better and fairer society.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>In the streets the loudest demand was not for a new constitution but for changes in the political landscape at the time. However when those claims had been met, we still had to figure out how to change society to try and prevent the same thing from happening all over again. We were looking for big structural, big changes and then the constitution became part of the dialogue about how we can fix this so we don’t have the same disaster repeating itself after a few more years.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So it was a consequence of the protests you could say, yes, but it was not one of the loudest demands during the protests themselves, if I remember correctly.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>To what extent do you think the constitution you ended up drafting would help in preventing another financial crash?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I think if it would have been implemented, which clearly it has not been, it could have a preventive influence for such a crash to reoccur. The situation now in Iceland is rather bleak. It seems the same things are repeating themselves that led to the crash in the first place. But since we don’t have a new constitution and we don’t have an amended legal framework that we could count on to prevent this from happening again I have a strong sensation that it will actually be repeated.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I certainly believe that if the constitution had been implemented that was written by the constitutional council it would have been much more unlikely.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Why? There are some articles about access to information in there. Do you think that’s one of the key things?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>That’s one of the key things and also the reoccurring theme of transparency and the division of power so that leads to less corruption. And on an island of 330,000 people it’s very hard to avoid nepotism and the strong power holders, for example the owners of the natural resources have unnatural [i.e. undue] influence on the political system. And when we crashed in 2008 I think most Icelandic people thought this was a relatively uncorrupted society. Our perception was we were one of these great model Scandinavian countries where political corruption was very low and our finance system was brilliant and all regulations were being followed and so on. And this was a huge misconception. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>The reoccurring themes in the new constitution that we wrote really strive to prevent the same system from being established. So it puts in way more checks and balances thereby being able to prevent similar things, like our financial system becoming eleven times as big as our national GDP and so on. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>It was the parliament that legislated the framework for how the constitution was written. They decided that the Icelandic people should play a leading role in writing the new constitution. Was that just an act of benign generosity or were they forced into doing that?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well this was one of the promises of most of the political parties in the elections in 2009 that they would establish some sort of revision of the constitution with the partaking of the people of the country. So it was something they had promised and they had to deliver because this was a strong claim. And the way they went about it was very radical and quite unique. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I’m sure you’re familiar with the process where they had this national forum of one thousand randomly selected citizens brainstorming about what sort of constitution or society they wanted. Then five specialists made a 600-page report about the constitutional situation of Iceland and other nations – a sort of academic overview of most of the things that had been written on the work of the constitutional council. Then we had this national election of 25 ordinary citizens who wrote the constitution. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So it was in many ways very special. There was nothing that forced them to go this particular route. But I think it was an honest attempt to really try to have an open process and really try to make as big a change in these matters as possible. Because we have had this task of trying to write this constitution for Iceland since the beginning of our democracy when we got our independence from Denmark in ’44 and we just adopted the Danish constitution to try and speed up that process. And ever since there’s been a promise that the Icelandic nation would get its own constitution but the politicians have been unable to honour that promise because it’s very hard for them being power holders to really write a document that could possibly diminish their power, add more checks and balances and make things more difficult for them. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So I think it was an honest attempt to outsource it to somebody that would not be so biased as the early attempts proved not fruitful at all. And then you could ask the question if it was too much of a separation between the legal body and this constitutional council and whether they completely washed their hands of it as soon as they outsourced it because none of them was really willing to fight for it after it was written and make sure it actually took force.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Would you recommend this kind of process to people outside Iceland? There seems to have been quite a high level of trust in people that carried out the drafting?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Certainly I would recommend it but there’s always scope for improvement and things I would modify if we were doing it all over again. For example, the length of time was ridiculous. You can’t really expect people to write a whole constitution in four months. It’s a little bit crazy. Even though we managed to it certainly affected the quality of the supporting documents and so on. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Secondly, the beauty of it was the openness and the crowd-sourcing to a certain degree. That is something that could certainly be modelled in other places. I would try to be more inclusive so that more people were invited to the table. If you look at the group of people who participated in writing it through the Facebook channel and so on they were maybe a bit homogenous – mostly males of a certain age and so on – so if someone else was doing the same project I would strongly recommend more proactive interaction with certain parts of the nation to make sure that the voices of those that have more difficulties in being heard are heard.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>There are some articles in the constitution that extend direct democracy through allowing people to call referenda and so on…</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>That was one of the hugely debated things. We went really far towards direct democracy. I think we said ten per cent of the population could call for a national referendum and even block a legal act. And two per cent of the nation could put a new agenda to the parliament and so on. So it’s really progressive in regards to direct democracy.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Are there other key features you’d like to flag up as being particularly important or significant?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well there are loads of them. I was a member of the committee that was responsible for the human rights chapter and the natural resources and so on. There’s a really strong wording to ensure that the natural resources of Iceland belong to the people of Iceland and not some selected few [</span><a href=""><span><span>Article 34</span></span></a><span>]. And then there’s this protection of nature – not on the normal grounds that it suits people but that nature has a right of its own and that it’s sacred to a certain degree [</span><a href=""><span><span>Article 33</span></span></a><span>]. This is building on an Ecuadorian philosophy and we tried to find the strongest and most progressive ways to ensure these things.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>You have mentioned the information access [</span><a href=""><span><span>Article 15</span></span></a><span>] which is a complete change. It’s a little bit built on the Norwegian way which basically means everything should be open unless there is a specific reason for it to be closed. So you don’t need to be a person that requests information to access them. The information is there and if there is a reason to close them it you can do it. Instead of everything being closed and then if you ask for access maybe it will be open, everything will be open. And then if you have a well-reasoned case you can close it. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So I think that would greatly change how things are done because a lot of the things that go wrong are done because people know that it’s very unlikely that people will ever find out that they messed up, took a short cut or whatever. And we have seen in our past that the way the banks were privatised was severely faulted and I think if there had been more transparency and better access to the public of that decision-making it would never have happened.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So we are not trying to correct the big errors of our past but really trying to learn from them and in this document we try to prevent them to the degree that we can. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>There’s a right to internet [</span><a href=""><span><span>Article 14</span></span></a><span>] which is also new I think and animal rights [</span><a href=""><span><span>Article 36</span></span></a><span>].</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>So after the national referendum where 67% of the population said they wanted the draft constitution to form the basis for a new constitution for the country, what is the current status of the document?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>It’s really like a hostage situation. It’s crazy to have a referendum and ignore the results. I think it’s not happened in any modern democratic society for a long time, at least not to my knowledge. Of course this will not be tolerated in the long run. You can only hold the lid on that saucepan for so long before it really explodes. Because now the dialogue has gone really strange. It means if people are demanding referenda they are really sceptical if it has any affect. So it really undermines the possibility of direct democracy which was, in a way, our only hope when we see our political system and the systems of western democracies.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Western democracies don’t really provide security for the citizens. They are really ancient in their way. This whole system of political parties and their interests being taken before the interests of the people, it just has to change. We have such global problems at the moment that if we don’t fundamentally change the way we run nation states we will terminate ourselves.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>It’s crucial that this referendum that was held in Iceland will be honoured in some way. I think the current power holders, the conservatives, realise that. They are really trying now, I understand, to make some of the fundamental amendments to the constitution which are in the document of the constitutional council because they know if they don’t in the end they will pay for it. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So we can’t really say at this point in time that it has failed and will not be implemented. It is rather a matter, in my opinion, of how and when it will take force at least to a certain degree.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Since March the Pirate Party has been polling as the most popular party in Iceland. Is there a link there with the failure to implement the draft constitution? </span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>There is a huge link. They are the only political party in Iceland that has an honest, open and certain position that they want to fight for this document to become the constitution of Iceland. They had the courage to go to that extreme end of the scale. Not saying ‘OK, some of it.’ They are saying ‘this was a national referendum, we want this to be honoured, we want this to be the new constitution.’ And I think this a huge part of their success recently. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Also it’s the fatigue that people have toward the conventional political parties. They just don’t believe in this anymore. If you look at surveys in Iceland they are such a ridiculous low when it comes to </span><a href=""><span><span>the trust people have in parliament</span></span></a><span> that we’re talking about numbers like 10%. Where the police holds the trust of maybe 90% of the population and the universities and so on.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So you have the legislative body of a nation state that nobody trusts and that is just a crazy situation. You can’t make laws for people who don’t trust you to make the law for them. You need to reinvent yourself in some way to get the trust otherwise the law will just be broken. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>And that’s a fundamental crisis that this current parliament is facing. They can’t progress in any way because they are in such strong opposition to their own nation that almost anything they do changes into a sort of mine area where things tend to explode in all directions and this is because the way in which they work hasn’t been changed. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>That was one of the really big things we were trying to tackle in the constitution is to try to change the way in which the politicians work. Trying to take it away from this big battlefield where I fundamentally disagree with you because of who you are not because of what you say, to a more consensus orientated and quality of work. Not just going forward and doing what you can because you have a majority, but rather trying to research it well and find out is there a middle ground, is there way to find the third solution that is even greater than the two opposite sides. And that was a methodology that we used in the constitutional council, we strived for consensus rather than just override the minority on each and every occasion and I think that proved very successful. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>That was quite remarkable and something that you decided as a group to use?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yes.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>What would you say were the key reasons for the resistance to adopting the new constitution? Is it because it particularly challenges the vested interests of the fishing industry, a general perceived loss of power or something else?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I think that every opposing party has their reasons. Obviously there are huge opposing forces linked to the huge natural resources of our fisheries that have very strong influence in the conservative parties. And they control what they want in those parties in a way so that’s a huge part of the problem. Another part is some people feel this isn’t good enough, it’s too radical or it’s too big of a change for a little nation to go into. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So there’s different reasons for different opponents but again, you can never, ever write a constitution in four months and expect everybody to just say, ‘oh it’s perfect.’ Everybody will have a problem with it to some extent. They will say ‘OK, in my dream constitution this would have been different and this would have been different.’ But you can’t go forward like that because you will never find another solution that is better because if you provide a plan B that is a modified version of the same document, then you’ll get all the same problems again. What you have changed will cause disagreement and unhappiness in another person’s mind and so on. So it’s mathematically impossible to start fiddling with it because there’s an inner balance in this document. And that balance is found in the fact that 25 people all agreed on this after writing it for four months with the input of the people of the country and so on and that cannot be recreated. So this is a bit like the argument where somebody says, ‘give me a starting point to stand on and I will lift the Earth.’ This is a starting point to stand on because this is the only document that we have that was created with this methodology which is hopefully the methodology of the future. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So as soon as the politicians start meddling with it, then essentially it destroys the balance and that’s why I believe it’s an all or nothing document. You can of course implement some of the changes within it and that’s positive but you will never be able to write another constitution of Iceland and get an agreement as big as we got in the national referendum because the people won’t trust you. Whoever you are. The people trusted this particular process because of the way it was designed and I think that is the only way to go forward otherwise we will lose. We are a young democracy and maybe it’s OK that it takes us a few years to implement this but I believe it will take force in some shape at the end because I don’t see how it’s possible to have peace with anything else.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>How might this relate to what is happening in the UK? Before the recent general election here there was a lot of talk about the need for a new constitution and a constitutional convention. But the Conservative Party who won the election have no interest in pursuing this. I think there might be people who might be interested in pursuing the process independently here. Do you think that’s a possibility, or does it need the support of a progressive parliamentary presence?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Of course it helps a lot if you can get parliament involved because that means you get the financial support and there’s a lot of facilities that really speed up the process. It’s hard actually to ask people to give all their work for free. Although we would have. We had this crazy point in time where the Supreme Court of Iceland had actually invalidated the referendum [</span></span><span><span>for more on this see the “An Unexpected Hiccup” section of </span><a href=""><span><span><span>From the people to the people, a new constitution</span></span></span></a><span>]</span></span><span><span>. Most of the people who had been elected at that time would have been prepared to put everything else aside and just finish this task because it was so important. So I think it’s not essential to have the parliament with you on that one but I think it will speed the process up and make it much more likely to happen.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>But having said that I think there is this inbuilt resistance in all parliaments towards big democratic changes that will lead essentially to them being less powerful. That is not because they are bad people or in some way evil it’s just the nature of power is that it tries to preserve itself. And therefore I think that at some point people will have to face the fact that it is impossible and do it with different means. But that is a very rebellious way of thinking. In the end you’re saying you’re going to override the democratically-elected leaders and do this ourselves. It’s a very dangerous route to take so I think that any politicians in their right mind would try to solve those big issues and not just think ‘OK I have four years of some brilliance here, I’m going to do whatever I can to increase the leverage of those that support me,’ rather think in the long term. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>And that’s one of the big problems with the political systems that we have is that they are very short-term based and sometimes they tend to just change everything that the last guy did because they were not on the same side and it’s very destructive for the long run. That’s probably why we have so little being done towards sustainability and so on because this short-term mentality is inbuilt into the democratic systems is very destructive. And I think that’s why we need big and open constitutions like the draft that we did here in Iceland that looks to the future and tries to create a common way in which we go as a nation in the long run. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>And that’s why I think that British politicians won’t be able to block this forever. This reform is needed. They can stick their heads in the sand for so long but if they don’t try to participate they will be sidelined, I think.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Is there anything else you’d like to say that I have offered you the opportunity to say?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>The only thing I would like to add is that after participating in this experiment or project I became a huge believer in the wisdom of the crowds. You shouldn’t be so afraid of allowing people to take their own decisions through whatever means are possible and that direct democracy – of course you cannot be voting on human rights and so on – but on certain things is the way to go forward because we need to be responsible for decisions we make as a group and that we can only do by making them as a group.</span></span></p><p><span><span><span><span><em>See <a href=""><span><span>The Independent</span></span></a> for&nbsp;Phil England's&nbsp;accompanying overview of the current situation in Iceland.</em></span></span><br /></span></span></p><p><span> </span></p></a></p><p class="p1"><span>[III]&nbsp;<a href=""></a></span></p><div class="partnership-in-article-banner-infobox"> <div class="partnership-in-article-banner-infobox-inner"><span>This article is published in association with the <a href="">Westminster Foundation for Democracy</a>, which is seeking to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion on openDemocracy about what approaches work best. Views expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of WFD. WFD’s programmes bring together parliamentary and political party expertise to help developing countries and countries transitioning to democracy.</span></div></div> <p>&nbsp;</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-read-on"> <div class="field-label"> 'Read On' Sidebox:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p><a href=""><img src="// Charter Convention (1).jpg" alt="" width="140" /></a> </p><p><a href="">The Great Charter Convention</a> – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.</p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ourkingdom/phil-england/rebuilding-democracy-in-iceland-interview-with-birgitta-jonsdottir">Rebuilding democracy in Iceland: an interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/ourkingdom/phil-england/iceland%27s-unfinished-revolution-interview-with-hordur-torfason">Iceland&#039;s unfinished revolution? An interview with Hordur Torfason</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ourkingdom/phil-england/priorities-of-people-interview-with-citizens-foundation">Priorities of the people: an interview with Iceland&#039;s Citizens Foundation</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> uk uk A constitutional convention Rethinking representation Great Charter Convention Phil England Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Wed, 01 Jul 2015 11:33:32 +0000 Phil England 94026 at Priorities of the people: an interview with Iceland's Citizens Foundation <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Phil England interviews Gunnar Grimsson and Robert Bjarnson of the <a href="">Citizens Foundation</a>, pioneers of an open-source software platform, Your Priorities, which allows citizens to develop ideas to improve their areas and take more control of public spending. </p> </div> </div> </div> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="//" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="//" alt="" title="" width="460" height="182" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'></span></span><em>(Image: krismadden, <span>Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic</span> </em><span><em>(<span>CC BY-NC-SA 2.0</span>) </em></span><em> )</em></p><p><em><span><span>What was the genesis of the Better Reykjavik project? Did it have roots in the crash and the protest movement that followed?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>For sure. It’s a direct outcome. We started our work in late 2008 just right after the crisis was happening. A group of people came together and said ‘it’s clear that we haven’t really been paying enough attention to what’s going on with our government, our institutions and our society.’ So we were thinking at first about giving people more influence but also to build bridges and connect citizens with representatives in better ways. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>It’s generally talked about as an economic or financial crash or crisis. It was as well and maybe even more a trust crash. It was like a severing over time between the representatives and the citizens. So we’ve definitely been trying to connect those two together. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Was the connection that the Better Reykjavik project had with the satirical political party the Best Party – and the fact that they ended up winning the Mayoral election in 2010 – the reason why the project ended up being formally adopted by the city?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>We launched Better Reykjavik effectively a week before the city elections in 2010. So we created an area on the website for every political party running for the city. We seeded it with their main policy areas and sent them all an email saying, ‘Try some electronic democracy.’</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>The Best Party didn’t really have an agenda. They promised to break all their promises and other jokes. It was cool actually but they realised, ‘we’re going to be a majority and we don’t have any policies.’ So they jumped on the opportunity to use our software. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So as soon as we had launched it, the Best Party told their supporters to go onto the Better Reykjavik website and help us make our policy for the next four years. And the thing is that at that point, without a policy platform, being effectively a joke party, they were still polling like close to 40%. So as soon as the Best Party said this, the media went crazy for it. So Better Reykjavik was in the media, online, in the news on TV, it was everywhere in all the days before the elections. So that really put it on the map, if you like.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>But then it was the coalition between the Best Party and the Social Democrats that decided to integrate Better Reykjavik in a more formal way into the City administration.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>So how did that end up looking in practice? Have many of the ideas submitted via Better Reykjavik ended up being taken on by the city council?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yeah a lot. Actually if you count both Better Neighbourhoods and Better Reykjavik then it’s probably about 600 ideas that have been approved. And some of those are to build some stuff and some are to change or modify policy. In some cases like with Better Neighbourhoods where there is a binding vote on a project in the neighbourhood then basically it’s exactly what people want. Sometimes they take the input in, somebody comments who has an idea about changing something, and maybe the city doesn’t do exactly like that but their view is incorporated into a final compromise. So there’s many different levels of it how the ideas are affecting the city but it is affecting the city in a big way. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Are there a couple of examples you could point to of things that you are particularly happy about being taken forward?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yeah. One example is to close in the summer the main shopping street downtown Reykjavik. This was a really narrow car road. A simple idea like that has been really effective if you know the downtown area. There was a campaign to turn an old power station into a youth centre. And they used Better Reykjavik to do the final push on that. So now this power station is a youth centre. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>And in Better Neighbourhoods there’s an aluminium ladder down to the beech at one point. There is more shelter for the homeless. It doesn’t really matter which neighbourhood in Reykjavik you walk around, in a few minutes you’ll see something that came through an idea through Better Neighbourhoods. It’s definitely changed the city for sure. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Sometimes it’s brand new stuff. Some of it’s quite a bit out of the box. And sometimes it’s ideas that have been percolating in society for some time. It’s just a mix. I think what’s more exciting about it is there’s a lot of ideas that would not necessarily come from the normal bureaucratic process. It’s not like the citizens have taken over and are completely controlling the city obviously – there’s a lot of professionals working in the planning department, for example – but the balance is shifting in the right direction towards involving citizens more. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>One of the biggest complaints is that citizens are not given enough control or power over budgets. That’s one of the biggest complaints people have. It’s not only here. On the other side is the influence of money. The big fishing companies for example that own so much of the wealth of the country they have so much influence. It’s part of our mission to change the balance a bit to give citizens a stronger voice at the table. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Now with Better Reykjavik, firmly every month 12-15 ideas go into the City Hall committees. Citizens have a voice. Those ideas are discussed.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>So is that the practical commitment that the city has made?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>There’s two different processes. With Better Neighbourhoods it’s ideas that people vote in. They are then costed by the City and citizens vote for them in a secure online system. And that’s like direct democracy at the end where people vote for it, but giving the city quite a lot of power in the costing process.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>With Better Reykjavik every month 10 to 15 of the top ideas are taken out and marked as moved to this or that specialist council, like the tourism or education council. At that point everybody that has interacted with that idea gets an email telling them it’s been moved to, say, the tourist council. And then maybe in a month or two, or more in some cases, you get an answer from the tourist council about the status of the idea. You get an email and it’s also put on the website. With Better Reykjavik there is no obligation to say yes to any single idea but quite a few ideas have been approved. But that’s definitely not direct democracy as you can see.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Because it’s an open process, has there been any sabotage by vested interests?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Not really. We encourage pressure groups to Better Reykjavik. The cyclists in Reykjavik have used it quite effectively to push their agenda. For example, just a few days after the site was launched, the fifth top idea was to have more cycle paths and repainting the streets. The increase in cycle paths since the Best Party took power has been measured in hundreds of per cents. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>With any system like this we try to give equal opportunities to people to know about it. In the end, if people use it effectively then they can cause things to go through but then this is a normal democratic function.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Has there been much talk about other forms of direct democracy in Iceland? There have been a few referenda which have received quite a bit of publicity but perhaps that has that just happened when the politicians feel pressured? Is there any formal process currently for allowing people to call for a referendum?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>No. The president can refuse to sign laws then we should have a binding referendum. When that happened for the first time, parliament decided to withdraw the laws. The other two times when he has refused to sign a law it has gone to a referendum and both of those were about the </span><a href=""><span><span>Icesave banking issue</span></span></a><span>.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Those Icesave referendums helped build up a belief that people could really make a difference. The government was under a lot of pressure from the EU, IMF and everybody to push this through. It was an overwhelming ‘no’ in both referenda and people were quite empowered and later on the people have been quite vindicated. I mean so far at least after the courts have basically sided with what people felt intuitively, that it was a private bank and that the taxpayer should not have to take over the debts. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>What about a digital method of inputting into policy formulation? Rather than just coming forward with projects or initiatives, do you see any potential in the future for digital platforms to enable citizens to have an input into legislation and policy-making?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well one example actually from Estonia where in late 2012 there were political scandals. Campaign donations out of control. So they decided to use our open-source Your Priorities software which is the same software as Better Reykjavik runs on. It was a very narrow scope just to change the law governing the political parties. And the president of Estonia agreed with the grassroots that he would put the proposals forward in the parliament as the end step of the crowd-source process. People collected ideas on Your Priorities. About 2000 ideas were submitted. Then they prioritised those. And then the top ideas went into a peoples’ assembly – a physical meeting – where randomly selected people fleshed them out into law proposals. The Parliament decided how it dealt with those president-submitted proposals. And as of last November seven of the ideas have become Estonian law. Some are new laws, some are modifications of older laws. An interesting part of it is that one of the laws that was approved was about one thousand citizens being able to send issues to the parliament for processing and there’s been a law created already from that process. So the law is already making babies. It’s a bit of a meta-law.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So in the future, policy for sure. We are working a lot now with artificial intelligence technology to help people be better informed when they’re writing ideas. To pull information in from all sorts of databases, planning regulations, planning maps and things like that to help people be more qualified writing actual policy. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I don’t think that society can escape the fact that electronic communication, electronic democracy will become more of a part of the decision-making process. The thing is how is it going to be done and how well is it going to be connected while it is being done?</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Do you have a view on the draft Icelandic constitution in terms of the democracy clauses in that? Would that take democracy forward in Iceland significantly if that was adopted?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>It would. At least let it make more sense in a functional way. It would be a step forward for sure. It would increase people’s motivation to take part. It would give people more opportunities to call for a referendum. If people participate now in a vacuum there’s very little they can do as citizens even if they’re organised. The only thing they can do is have a petition. They can just collect signatures. It’s the only thing they have.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>It’s basically a King’s constitution we have now from Denmark since like 80, 90 years ago, something like that. We’ve replaced the King with a president and a few other localised issues, but apart from a better humanitarian part the rest of it is pretty much like it was way back. So there’s lots of clauses in it saying the president does this, the president does that but then there’s a clause that says the president outsources his power to the prime minister. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So definitely from a functional standpoint it makes sense to upgrade the constitution. But also in terms of trying to improve things at the same time as well. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I think the constitutional committee [that drafted the new constitution] reached a good sort of compromise. I find it way too conservative, but it’s a good compromise.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Are there any particular clauses that you’d pull out and say ‘this would be really good for democracy’?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I don’t have them in my head. One thing about the [draft] constitution is that the fact that it was was killed or put to sleep is one of the biggest sources of the current apathy in Iceland regarding political and civic participation. That was really quite a blow for a lot of people.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Does the fact that the right-wing parties [that set into place the conditions that gave rise to the financial crash in 2008] have got back into power again and the fact the&nbsp; [draft]constitution has been frozen help to explain why the Pirate Party have started polling as </span><a href=""><span><span>the most popular party in Iceland</span></span></a><span>?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>It’s definitely all connected. You can see the same in Spain in the recent elections. In many places where people are looking for something different in terms of how </span><span><span>&nbsp;</span></span><span>politics is working. You have people looking for changes and you have people so totally fed up with the old parties that they’re just not going to vote for them no matter what if there’s no alternative. They would definitely vote for the Pirates as it is now because there’s no longer the problem of ‘if I vote for them my vote might be wasted’. If they keep polling well up until the election nobody knows what might happen. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>We were very surprised in 2012 when we did our first participatory budgeting vote with Better Neighbourhoods, because people need an electronic ID or a special password from the government so we get anonymous democratic data. We thought it was going to be the stereotypical young men online, but actually the 16-20 year olds are really low and 20-25 year olds are low as well. So one of our key questions at the moment is how we can increase youth participation. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Is the Better Neighbourhoods project just happening in Reykjavik?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yes. The ten neighbourhoods of Reykjavik get allocated a fixed amount of money and citizens put in ideas about how they want that money to be spent. People vote those ideas up and down. Then the city costs them and they are voted for in a secure online voting system.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>So it’s not like citizens are taking control of the full budget, but there’s a proportion of it that they can dictate spending on?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yeah.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>And when did that start? </span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>We did it for the fourth time now so it would have been 2011. The process starts in the late Autumn in October, November with the gathering of ideas, then the voting process is around March or April. So the process actually started in Autumn 2010.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>At one time I saw talk of a Better Iceland project. Did that move forward? Could the same kind of thing work at a national level?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yeah it probably could. Seeing the state of the nation at the moment it might be ripe for that now. The basic problem is a lack of resources our end to keep juggling all these balls and doing many different projects. We have some towns that are signed up to Better Iceland like </span></span><span><span>Hafnarfjörður</span></span><span><span> which is the third largest town or city and a few others. People do use the Better Iceland website - there’s a lot of ideas there. And we’re planning something for next year in the year leading up to the elections to try to revive that a bit. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Is there anything else I’ve you’d like to mention that I’ve not given you the opportunity to?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>We’re actually working with the National Health Service on this project called NHS Citizen. So we did some trials and experiments last year and we’ll be doing some more this year mostly using our open source software. The project is largely run by some non-profits in England including <a href="">Democratic Society</a>. There’s an atmosphere in this non-profit civic activism group of people to share knowledge not only code but we also try to build from each other’s experiences in the different countries.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Would you say NHS Citizen was a success? </span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Definitely. Last year was just about doing a pilot project but it got funding again properly for this year so it’s a success from that perspective. It’s a long-term project and if you google it you’ll see there’s a report. Ideas were collected, opinions were gathered both offline and online and then there was a voice at the table at the NHS England board. The conclusion of the first trial was that the NHS listened to them but I don’t know if anything’s going to come out of it. With this trial mass participation was not the target but to find the best procedures and the best practice. We’ll be doing the next experiments in September. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Why is it important for people to have more opportunities to take part in democratic processes?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>For me the answer is quite simple: to move the balance of power towards citizens and their needs. Corporations should have influence as actors in society but the situation now is that corporations and money has far too much influence on politics and decision-making and the financial crisis made a lot of people realise that here in Iceland. We should give people more direct influence and more transparency to see what’s going on. It’s our money, it’s our taxpayers money so we should have more say in it.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>The decisions that are made affect the lives of citizens so it actually sounds quite stupid if citizens don’t really have a say in the changes to their environment and their society. Often the people that know the most about things and are closest to where it’s at and have information are the citizens. So if you don’t bring the people that are going to be using and working inside what you’re changing you’re not going to get as good a result.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Every four years to vote in something: that whole democratic system is old. It was the same in the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s or whenever. Just think about how much happened in one year in 1920 compared to what happens in one year now. I think that’s one reason why the democratic system can be abused so much because the world is so complicated that the politicians can promise everything before the election but then after the election reality hits they say ‘we can’t do that.’ We have the opportunity now with the internet to give citizens more oversight and we should take it. It’s needed.</span></span></p><p><span><span><em>See <a href=""><span><span>The Independent</span></span></a> for&nbsp;Phil England's&nbsp;accompanying overview of the current situation in Iceland.</em></span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-read-on"> <div class="field-label"> 'Read On' Sidebox:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p><a href=""><img src="// Charter Convention (1).jpg" alt="" width="140" /></a> </p><p><a href="">The Great Charter Convention</a> – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.</p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ourkingdom/phil-england/rebuilding-democracy-in-iceland-interview-with-birgitta-jonsdottir">Rebuilding democracy in Iceland: an interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/ourkingdom/phil-england/iceland%27s-unfinished-revolution-interview-with-hordur-torfason">Iceland&#039;s unfinished revolution? An interview with Hordur Torfason</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> uk uk Rethinking representation Great Charter Convention Phil England Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Tue, 30 Jun 2015 23:11:11 +0000 Phil England 93991 at Iceland's unfinished revolution? An interview with Hordur Torfason <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>The award-winning human rights activist credited with starting Iceland's 'pots and pans revolution', discusses with Phil England the prospects for 'unfreezing' the draft new constitution.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><span class='wysiwyg_imageupload image imgupl_floating_none 0'><a href="// torfason.jpg" rel="lightbox[wysiwyg_imageupload_inline]" title=""><img src="// torfason.jpg" alt="" title="" width="460" height="308" class="imagecache wysiwyg_imageupload 0 imagecache imagecache-article_xlarge" style="" /></a> <span class='image_meta'></span></span></p><p>(<em>Image: OddurBen, <span>Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported</span> </em><span><em>(<span>CC BY-SA 3.0</span>) </em></span><em>)</em></p><p><em><span><span>You’re credited as the person who started the “pots and pans revolution” in Iceland. How did the protests start?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I’m 70 years old this year. I started becoming an activist around 20 years old. Not that I wanted to become an activist, not at all. But I’m gay and it tells you a story that I’m the first gay man in the history of Iceland who steps forward. When I was 30 years old I was very famous. Everybody knew my song. I was on television, radio, doing concerts, LPs. I was doing everything that a young man can dream of. I was close to be a star or something like that in Iceland, in this small community. Except I was never happy because people were always trying to stop me being gay. I was not allowed to talk about it. It was like living in a dark cave.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>One day I just decided to step out and say, “I’m gay and that’s it.” And everything went upside down, I had to go into exile and so on. That made me more determined to start fighting using my talent. I’m educated as an actor in the national theatre. I could play, I could sing, I could dance, I could write songs, I could write stories. This was how I started to become an activist, mixing activism and art. My main thing for all these years was to create awareness. Not only with myself but also travelling around talking to people through songs and stories. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So in the crash in October 2008, I had already done things like this. I’ve learned a lot of what I would call facts or methods through my years of dealing with people. So what I simply did is what Socrates did in the old days, I went around asking people questions. I just placed myself in front of the parliament building and I asked people, ‘Can you tell me what has happened in this country?’ and ‘Do you have any idea what we can do?’ I stood there every day during the lunch-hour and it didn’t take me long to understand the seriousness of the situation, the anger among people and how scared people were.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So I decided to put up a big outdoor protest meeting. I just called friends, artists and intellectuals and asked them to clarify the situation with a speech, because the government wasn’t doing that. I thought what I will try to do is to inform people about what is happening. The first meeting was like a week later, the 17</span><span>th</span><span> October and that’s how it started. And I remember looking over those thousands of people who were there. I had been talking to many of them. That’s what I do usually, I go among people I know and I don’t know, I just ask them questions, have a conversation with them about the situation. But what struck me there was the anger and the confusion. Nobody seemed to know what had happened and the government, the prime minister was telling us we should just relax he would take care of it. And in my heart I would never believe that. A person who has led us into this confusion, this terrible situation, I didn’t trust him to lead us out of it. Not at all. And it’s my constitutional right to stand up and protest so I simply asked people to stick together, talk together. We were all in this together. And I simply asked them, ‘do you want another meeting in the same time, the same place next week?’ And thousands said ‘yes’ and that was enough for me. And I simply started working on this very seriously.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>And those weekly protests continued for about five months?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yes. I didn’t know how long it would take of course, but my experience is you do the same things, repeat things systematically. It saves us a lot of money, advertising and things like that. I did the meetings like no more than 45 minutes as it was cold. Same place, same time. What I also did, reaching out to people, saying ‘look, I cannot do this alone, I need your help.’ But then again I had problems with that because you can never trust people. You can never know who’s in disguise for police or whatever people want. So I had to be very careful and I had my own methods in working. Let’s put it this way: I use everyone, trust no-one. That’s the only way to do things like this. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>And this went on, of course, for five months, and in 1st December I found a person who I wouldn’t say I could trust 100% but he promised to be my right-hand and assist me in every possible way whenever I needed. And he did – like many other people – and he was with me for three months and he was really a saviour for my work.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>What I usually do – because I’ve done this before on a smaller scale – is go around talking to the scholars, the intellectuals, the artists, I seek their opinion and know-how on matters. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Were people feeling the direct impacts of the crash at this time or were they just worried – seeing the banks fail and being nationalised, seeing the stock market crash – about what might happen to the country? </span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Yes. We did not know what was going to happen. We heard all kinds of stories. We began to see the stores lacked some types of food and we were fed with rumours that we were bankrupt and within a few days or months we wouldn’t even have food in our stores. People were very scared, yes.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>As a knock-on were companies affected? I understand there was quite a rise in unemployment as well.</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well that was hard to trust. I was more concerned more about how people felt. Unemployment – I don’t recall looking into that. I found that maybe more as a natural result it would come. I wasn’t worried about that. I remember there was a story about the minister of finance trying to save some money and save some food. There was a lot of confusion and stories that made people scared. My main concern in the first months in October and November was trying to inform people with something the government did not. [Editor's note: Hordor Torfason wrote on March 8 2016 to make this correction</span></span><span>: "T</span><span>housands of people lost their jobs. Even my husband and that changed everything for us and thousands of other people. I just want to say I am sorry of this mistake. And please note the unemployment was quite high here in Iceland right after the crash."]</span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>I’m very interested that you had a set of clear demands. How important do you think that is to the success of a protest movement?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>That is the clue. That is the glue. I went around for the first three weeks and asked people ‘what we do we want?’ From the very first week I kept a diary and I noticed what people were demanding. And my conclusion was that they wanted the government to resign, they wanted the board of the national bank to resign and they wanted the board of the money supervisory authority to resign. Of course the list was endless but my experience told me that social changes happen very slowly and three things would be sufficient. So I think it was on the third big meeting when I asked the crowd ‘do you want this?’ and I mentioned those three demands. And thousands of people said ‘yes.’ This was the glue that kept us together. This was the aim and I read this aloud every meeting. And in a way this made our meetings legal. This is simply what we are asking for. At the same of course we were totally ignored by the government, the ministers. So what I did in December was to start writing letters to the ministers or people in power asking for a meeting so that they knew what they were doing out there because we only got silence from their side. They pretended we didn’t exist and they called us names. So what I did was to ask for meetings. I went there. I read the letter out loud, which was in a way ‘I want you to resign for these reasons.’ I asked them ‘do you understand the letter’ and they said ‘yes’. Sometimes the meetings were up to one or two hours, very interesting meetings with some of them. Others were very blunt, very short and polite. They accepted the letter and that was it. I did my best to make these people aware of the situation. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>I’ve read in a different account, that one of the demands was for a new constitution, but you didn’t mention that.</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>We spoke of it all the time. Many of the people who were making speeches spoke about a new constitution because that’s been a promise of the political elite since 1944 but I could not put it forward as demand number four because of the nature of it. That’s going to take years to do. But the underlying demand of all these protests was and still is ‘we want a new constitution.’ We haven’t given up. I haven’t given up. I’m on the sideline following what’s happening in this country. And we will get a new constitution. That’s what I aim for.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>In terms of the demands you were iterating at every meeting, you were successful in achieving those.</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>The government stepped down and took the board of the financial supervisory authority with it. Then it took the head of the central bank another month to step down. But the board of the central bank refused to resign so that meant our protests took longer than needed. But I had a meeting with the new prime minister in February and said I would stay there with the protests until they resigned. And she said ‘don’t worry we are passing a law through the parliament to make them leave.’ And they did at the end of February 2009 or the middle of March.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>With the new government you had what I think was a unique situation in terms of the European financial crash context, where the government created a special commission to prosecute top bankers and senior officials. Presumably it was popular pressure which provided the incoming government with the political space to do that? And perhaps the Citizens Movement which had four MPs in the new government also played a role in this?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well the way I work is, at the end of February or the beginning of March 2009 I back out of the situation. People wanted me to go to the parliament and join a political party but I’ve never been involved in politics in a political party. I know from personal experience, when one person starts something, other people will follow. I’ve been going around for the past years with my speech. I’ve been invited to talk about my ideas and my speech is called “When I becomes we.” That is my purpose. I start things, I activate some people and they take off. I leave.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>That’s on the personal level. But there was a lot of activity. There was the Citizens Movement that was a political party. But I haven’t been involved in these activities. I started but the people will take over.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>You said you haven’t given up on getting a new constitution but the process is currently effectively frozen. The right-wing parties that caused the crash in the first place are back in power. At the same time the Pirate Party are now polling as the most popular party in Iceland. What do you think is the best hope for “unfreezing” the constitutional process?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>OK. I’ll tell you one thing. The Pirate Party is very popular today. Good. And I believe in that. I’ll tell you a personal experience. In 1975 when I was stepping out as the first gay man in my county, it was right by law to be gay. But the church and the attitude towards gay people in Iceland, if anyone found out you were gay you lost your job, you lost your house, you lost everything. It was very tough. There was no information about being gay. There were very few words and they were all very negative, humiliating. I stood up as a young man, everybody in this country knew who I was, people loved my music and overnight I became persona non grata and I had to go into exile to protect my life. People tried to kill me actually.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>I moved to Denmark but I kept visiting Iceland, finding and talking to gay people. I managed on 9th May 1978 to establish a gay organisation to fight for our rights and that was a very tough job because people always thought I wanted to open a sex club, or something like that. That tells you how ignorant people were. We worked hard for the next decades. It took a lot of sacrifice through the AIDS epidemic and finally in 2006 there were new laws which secured every individual to be equal to law. It doesn’t matter your gender, sexuality, the colour of your skin or your religion, everyone has equal rights in this country. It took us 30 years. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So what I’m pointing out is that to change society takes time. But in modern times – and this was one of the first things I pointed out in the big meetings – today with the internet it takes seconds to reach people. Whereas in 1975 I had to write letters, try to follow people in the street, calling them and so on. It took a lot. Today it’s very easy. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>So what happened after the cutlery revolution – people call it a revolution, personally I don’t – was that the nation, or at least one third of it, woke up. Now, six years later, the awareness among people of the political situation is fantastic. People are beginning to understand how desperately we need the new constitution. And we have seen young people coming into the parliament: the Pirate Party. And they are to most people very honest and frank. They are not trying to lie and use Machiavellian tricks. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>There was a protest last Tuesday here in Reykjavik. There were thousands of people downtown. I went there. I was just checking on things. I think the majority of people today are saying that now is our chance: we have to make the government we have today resign, get the pirates to go into the parliament, take the new constitution that is ready, give them six months to go through it and then have new elections based on the new constitution. This is our position today the way I see it.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>And the protest on Tuesday was about what specifically?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>It wasn’t about anything. It was very confusing. It tells you a lot. There’s a lot of angry people out there. There have been protests again and again these past years. They are desperate. They are trying to improve the situation. But it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to run good protests. I am a professional actor and director. I have had 40 or 50 years battling for my rights as a human in this society. Like I told them last Tuesday when I had a short meeting with the Pirates and explained my attitude. I said, ‘This is our only hope today. Are you ready?’ ‘Ah we will be ready.’ Because now it’s May. The summer is starting in Iceland. You can’t get people to come out and protest. Finally we get out of our caves and we like to stay in the sun. September, October – yes, we will.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Is that where you step back in? It sounds like you need a clear set of demands again. For the constitution, for the government to resign and new elections maybe?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Like I said to Birgitta, the leader of the Pirate Party, I will be ready in September, October because we have to do this. This is our only chance that has been created today. It’s taken us six, seven years but that’s how it goes. We have to be ready when the opportunity arrives. </span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>And how important would you say the new constitution was? How radical a change could that bring about in the country?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well that’s a huge question. The new constitution was created by people we trusted. It’s a modern constitution. The constitution we have now was written in 1873 by the King of Denmark. We need a modern constitution and we need to restart our system. The system has become corrupt. And I believe we need to restart our system every 20 years. And I think our only hope today is to restart our system and do our best. We are, after all, dealing with human nature, which is interesting, as always.</span></span></p><p><span> </span></p><p><em><span><span>Is Iceland unique or can these things happen elsewhere? What are the lessons people should be taking away from what’s happened in Iceland?</span></span></em></p><p><span> </span></p><p><span><span>Well, this slogan, ‘Act local, think global,’ that’s one of my mottos. You can learn from this of course. I’ve been visiting 15 countries, many of them more than once, </span><span><span>&nbsp;</span></span><span>talking to activists. I’ve been invited to make speeches and share my experience as a very successful activist because – it’s sounds very over the top, but this is a fact – every time I’ve stepped out and done my thing with protests it’s been 100% results. My theory is to simply use the system we live in. I work in the spirit of the society I want to live in. Many of the activists I speak to, especially those in the Spanish M15 movement, they were the first ones to call me, are telling me, ‘in many ways you were right and we started following your ideas.’ I don’t believe in violence for example, because that doesn’t lead us anywhere. Violence just creates more violence.</span></span></p><p><span><span>&nbsp;</span></span></p><p><span><span><em>See <a href=""><span><span>The Independent</span></span></a> for&nbsp;Phil England's&nbsp;accompanying overview of the current situation in Iceland.</em></span></span></p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p>&nbsp;</p><p><span> </span></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-read-on"> <div class="field-label"> 'Read On' Sidebox:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p><a href=""><img src="// Charter Convention (1).jpg" alt="" width="140" /></a> </p><p><a href="">The Great Charter Convention</a> – an open, public debate on where arbitrary power lies in the UK today and how we should contest and contain it.</p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ourkingdom/phil-england/rebuilding-democracy-in-iceland-interview-with-birgitta-jonsdottir">Rebuilding democracy in Iceland: an interview with Birgitta Jonsdottir</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/ourkingdom/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-shows-that-uk-constitutional-convention-should-involve-politi">Iceland shows that a UK constitutional convention should involve politicians as little as possible</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-rights"> <div class="field-label">Rights:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> CC by NC 4.0 </div> </div> </div> uk Can Europe make it? uk Iceland A constitutional convention Building it: campaigns and movements Great Charter Convention Phil England Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Tue, 30 Jun 2015 04:25:53 +0000 Phil England 93958 at Iceland shows that a UK constitutional convention should involve politicians as little as possible <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>The people of Iceland drafted a new constitution. But their parliament has essentially ignored it.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p>After the financial crash of 2008, Iceland’s prospects looked promising in two respects. First, the government decided to call the IMF to the rescue following the Central Bank’s botched attempt to get Putin’s Russia to protect Iceland from the IMF’s ‘Kiss of Death’. The Fund-supported recovery program served Iceland well. Second, up against the wall, Parliament gave in to the demands of the ‘Pots and Pans Revolution’, including the protesters’ demand for a new constitution to be drawn up by the people, not by politicians or their lawyers. From 1944, when Iceland adopted what was essentially a translation of the Danish constitution from 1849, Parliament had consistently failed to keep its promise of constitutional reform. Without the crash, there would have been no new constitution.</p> <p>Parliament took four key steps toward a new constitution. First, it appointed in 2009 a seven-member Constitutional Committee comprising mostly academics from a range of fields, including law, literature, and science, thus implicitly acknowledging that the constitution is not exclusively, and not even principally, a legal document, but primarily a social compact, a political declaration that supersedes ordinary legislation by virtue of the fact that the people are superior to Parliament. Second, the Constitutional Committee was tasked with convening a National Assembly in 2010 at which 950 citizens, drawn at random from National Register, defined and discussed their views of what should be in the new constitution.</p> <p>Third, the Constitutional Committee organized a national election of 25 Constitutional Assembly representatives to draft the constitution, a task that the Constitutional Assembly, renamed Council, completed within the four months assigned to it in 2011 by producing a partly crowd-sourced constitution bill, fully consistent with the conclusion of the National Assembly, and passing it unanimously with 25 votes to 0, a rare feat. The elected council members included five professors, three other academics, four lawyers, and so on. Fourth, Parliament held a national referendum on the bill in 2012 where the bill was accepted by 67% of the voters and its individual key provisions were approved by 67% to 83% of the voters.</p> <p>The bill was drafted from scratch, based on the 1944 constitution. The text was made public week by week for perusal by the public that was invited to offer comments and suggestions on an interactive website specifically designed for that purpose. Hundreds did. Many thoughtful and constructive comments were thus received from the public. An open invitation to all made it needless to invite representatives from special interest organizations to express their views, a clear departure from common parliamentary practice which has been, and remains, to invite special interest groups to influence, or even draft, legislation of interest to them.</p> <p>The bill reflects a broad consensus in favour of change. It is, by design, firmly grounded in and fully consistent with the conclusion of the 2010 National Assembly, virtually without exception. This helps explain the 67% support for the bill in the 2012 referendum. The bill embraces continuity plus new provisions aiming to</p> <ol><li>Strengthen checks and balances to limit executive overreach;</li><li>Secure equal voting rights, i.e., ‘one person, one vote’, to stem over-representation of rural areas in Parliament;</li><li>Ensure national ownership of natural resources, mainly to uproot the Russian-style handling of Iceland’s natural resource wealth, especially the fisheries;</li><li>Promote environmental protection; and</li><li>Increase freedom of information. </li></ol> <p>Some of these provisions are feared by politicians owing their careers to, inter alia, unequal voting rights and the umbilical cord binding them to vessel owners, the major beneficiaries of the deeply discriminatory management of Iceland’s natural resources.</p> <p>The constitutional bill is firmly anchored in the will of the people because (a) the bill fully reflects the declaration of the 2010 National Assembly at which every Icelander 18 years or older had an equal chance of being invited to take a seat and (b) it was approved by 2/3 of the voters in a national referendum against the wishes of much of the discredited political class.</p> <p><strong>Killing a democratic constitution</strong></p> <p>As time passed, support in the Icelandic Parliament for constitutional reform weakened. The opposition emerged gradually. The political parties showed no interest in the Constitutional Assembly election in 2010 which the Supreme Court decided to annul on flimsy if not illegal grounds. Never before has a national election been invalidated in a democracy. The political parties did nothing to promote the bill before the national referendum held by Parliament in 2012. The bill was an orphan. It fell upon ordinary citizens, including former members of the Constitutional Assembly whose legal mandate had long since expired, to present the bill to the voters. Only after the bill was accepted by 67% of the voters, did its opponents turn openly against it, waving objections that no one had raised before concerning provisions that Parliament, rightly, had seen no reason to put on the ballot. Their criticisms, sometimes dressed up in legal jargon, were political – and irrelevant because they appeared too late.</p> <p>All along, Parliament had moved slowly. When the Constitutional Assembly, renamed Council, after four months of work, had delivered its bill to Parliament, the minority in Parliament used an unprecedented filibuster against the bill for months. The government majority in Parliament shied away from breaking the filibuster by applying the ‘nuclear option’ permitted by law, which also would have been unprecedented. The filibustering minority complained that it did not have enough time to consider the bill and delayed the referendum from June until October 2012. After the referendum, where turnout was 49%, Parliament asked local lawyers to polish the language instructing them not to change in any way the substance of the bill. The lawyers, led by an official at the Prime Minister’s office, tried to turn natural resource provision upside down in favour of the vessel owners, but to its credit the parliamentary committee in charge restored the original language of the clause proposed by the Constitutional Council. At the eleventh hour, Parliament asked the Venice Commission for its reactions, and found them easy to incorporate into the bill. The bill was now ready for a vote in Parliament to ratify the outcome of the 2012 referendum.</p> <p>As the vote approached, private citizens opened a website inviting MPs to declare their support for the bill. One by one, 32 MPs (a majority) declared support. If Parliament allowed a secret ballot, the bill might have been stranded. In an open ballot, however, members of the government majority that had launched the constitutional reform process could not permit themselves to vote against the result of the referendum. On the last day of Parliament, before the parliamentary election in 2013, violating procedure, the Speaker failed to bring the bill to a vote. The election brought the old rascals—the main opponents of the bill—back to office. With 51% of the voters behind it, the new government shelved the constitution bill, some of its members referring to the 2012 national referendum as an irrelevant ‘opinion poll’.</p> <p>At present, the most democratic constitution bill ever drafted is being held hostage by self-serving politicians in the clearest possible demonstration of a fundamental principle of constitution-making – namely, that politicians should neither be tasked with drafting nor ratifying constitutions because of the risk that they will act against the public interest. The conduct of Parliament in Iceland is seen by many as a direct affront to democracy. Events like some of those described here—with six Supreme Court judges annulling a national election on flimsy if not illegal grounds, Parliament deliberately disrespecting the overwhelming result of a constitutional referendum—are simply not supposed to happen in a democracy.</p> <p>In view of all this, Iceland faces uncertain prospects because many observers in Iceland see the country as having gradually become a Russian-style oligarchy marred by sometimes cartoonish corruption. According to <a href="">Gallup</a>, 67% of Icelandic respondents consider Icelandic political corruption pervasive. The Parliament’s putsch against the constitutional referendum deepens such concerns, further undermining social cohesion and public trust.</p> <p>There may be a lesson or two also for the UK in the Icelandic constitutional saga as it has played out thus far. A national assembly comprising a statistically significant sample of the electorate is a crucial initial step toward a democratic constitution because political parties tend to serve as interest organizations for politicians or other groups. For that reason, politicians should not be allowed near the constitution making process because of the danger that they will try to hijack the process for their own benefit. Large countries like the UK should have no trouble with extending an open invitation to the public to participate in the process through crowd sourcing as long as appropriate sampling techniques are used to compile a representative collection of comments and suggestions offered by the citizenry.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p><p><em><strong>This piece first appeared at <a href="">Democratic Audit</a>.</strong></em></p><p><em>For more articles on reform and constitutional change, see our new series, the <a href="">Great Charter Convention</a>, examining the case for a people's constitutional convention and with an eye on next year's 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.</em></p><div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> </div> </div> uk Can Europe make it? uk Civil society Convention UK A constitutional convention Great Charter Convention Thorvaldur Gylfason Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Mon, 10 Nov 2014 00:11:11 +0000 Thorvaldur Gylfason 87410 at Democracy on ice: a post-mortem of the Icelandic constitution <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>In spite of clear popular support, Iceland's new crowd-sourced constitution was recently killed by politicians. An ex-member of the constitutional council sheds some light on what happened - and why there might still be some hope for this unique experiment.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" alt="During the 2009 Icelandic Kitchenware Revolution. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved." width="460" height="312" /><span class="image-caption">During the 2009 Icelandic Kitchenware Revolution. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved.</span></p> <p><span>Iceland earned the respect of many observers of democracy around the world when, after the financial crash of 2008, its parliament decided to go back to basics and revise the country‘s constitution. A constitutional overhaul was long overdue. For nearly 70 years, Iceland’s political class had repeatedly promised and failed to revise the provisional constitution of 1944, which was drawn up in haste with minimal adjustment of the 1874 constitution as part of Iceland’s declaration of independence from Nazi-occupied Denmark. Clearly, the 1944 constitution had not prevented the executive overreach and cronyism that paved the way for the corrupt privatization of the Icelandic banks from 1998 to 2003 - and their subsequent crash a few years later.</span></p> <h2>Collective intelligence</h2> <p>Faced by pots- and pans-banging crowds in Parliament Square in Reykjavík in late 2008 and early 2009, the politicians admitted failure, accepting the protesters’ demands for, among other things, a new constitution.</p> <p>The new post-crash government that came to office in early 2009 – the first majority government to include neither the centre-right Independence Party nor the agrarian Progressive Party – decided to break new ground by asking the people, not the politicians, to draft a new constitution. To this end, the parliament appointed a constitutional committee of seven to prepare the ground and organize a national assembly comprising 950 individuals drawn at random from the national registry.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>The national assembly, organized in 2010 in accordance with the notion of <a href="">Collective Intelligence</a>,<a href="#_ftn1">[1]</a> concluded after a day’s deliberations in November that a new constitution was called for and ought to contain certain key provisions concerning, e.g., electoral reform and the ownership of natural resources, for a long time two of the most contentious political issues in Iceland. In October of that year, the government also held a national election to a constituent assembly to which 25 individuals were elected from a roster of 522 candidates from all walks of life, most of them with no particular political or special interest affiliations. </p> <p><span>With the constituent assembly about to start its work in early 2011, some opposition politicians could not conceal their displeasure. The conclusion of the national assembly constituted an unequivocal appeal for the revocation of privileges – e.g., the privileges of those who benefit from unequal access to the country’s common-property natural resources as well as from unequal voting rights. Understandably, the prospect of 25 individuals over whom the political parties had no control being about to begin their work guided by a legal mandate to revise the constitution in broad accord with the conclusions of the national assembly made some politicians uneasy.</span></p> <h2><strong>Obstacles</strong></h2> <p>What happened next? Three individuals with documented connections to the Independence Party, Iceland’s largest political party until the crash of 2008, filed a bizarre technical complaint about the way the election to the constituent assembly had been conducted. On the basis of these complaints, six Supreme Court justices, five of whom had been appointed by successive ministers of justice from the Independence Party, declared the election null and void - even if no one had ever claimed that the results of the election were at all affected by the alleged technical flaws.</p> <p>Never before had a national election in a fully fledged democracy been invalidated on technical grounds. The parliament reacted to the ruling by appointing the 25 representatives who had received the most votes to a constitutional council, thereby changing a popularly elected assembly into one appointed by parliament. The opponents of constitutional change celebrated victory and thereafter used every opportunity to undermine the creditworthiness of the council.</p> <p>The opposition was not confined to the Independence Party. The Progressives, who had previously expressed strong support for a new constitution, changed course and joined the opposition to reform. Even within the new governing coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement, there were pockets of passive resistance to change as well as among some academics apparently disappointed that <em>they</em> had not been asked to rewrite the constitution.</p> <p>Whence the fierce opposition to constitutional reform? The chief opponents were the usual suspects: the political allies of special interest groups such as the fishing vessel owners whom the politicians had turned into a state within the state through <em>gratis</em>, or practically <em>gratis</em>, allocation of valuable fishing licenses. The opposition also came from politicians who would not stand much chance of being reelected to parliament under the principle of ‘one person, one vote' (as the current system requires much more votes to be elected as an MP in Reykjavik than in one of the more rural areas). Indeed, constitutionally protected national ownership of natural resources and electoral reform to ensure ’one person, one vote’ were the two principal hallmarks of the bill.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>But the constitutional council paid no attention to any of this. Within four months, it produced a constitutional bill incorporating virtually all the conclusions of the national assembly, and approved the bill unanimously by 25 votes to zero, no abstentions, and delivered the bill to parliament in mid-2011. In the course of preparing the bill, the council sought and received the advice of numerous experts in different areas as well as from ordinary citizens who were invited to offer their comments and suggestions on the council’s interactive website. Representatives of special interest groups, unused to not being invited to exclusive legislative meetings, did not respond to this open invitation to the public. After the bill was completed, they could not rightly complain that they had not been consulted. </p> <p><span>After delivering the bill to parliament, the constitutional council disbanded. The parliament took over, seeking further comments from local lawyers as well as, ultimately, from the </span><a href="">Venice Commission</a><span>. The parliament was encouraged to translate the bill into English so as to be able to solicit foreign expert opinion, but failed to respond. Instead, a </span><a href="">translation</a><span> was arranged and paid for by the Constitutional Society, a private nonprofit organization. This translation made it possible for world-renowned constitutional experts such as Prof. </span><a href=";feature=plcp">Jon Elster</a><span> from Columbia University and Prof. </span><a href="">Tom Ginsburg</a><span> from the University of Chicago to express their helpful views of the bill.</span></p> <h2><strong>Referendum</strong></h2> <p>The bill was brought to a <a href="">national referendum</a> in late 2012. Initially, the parliament intended the referendum to coincide with the presidential election in June 2012 to secure a good turnout, but the opposition Independence Party and Progressive Party resorted to filibuster to thwart this plan, holding parliament hostage for days and weeks on end. </p> <p>At the same time, they complained about not having enough time to consider the bill – which was, of course, largely due to their reluctance to accept and follow the constitutional process. When the Independence Party leader was reminded of the classic example of <em>chutzpah</em> (this is when you murder your parents and ask for mercy on the grounds that you are an orphan), he complained about being unfairly likened to a murderer. </p> <p>Nevertheless, the referendum was delayed until October 2012. Voter turnout was 49 percent. No less than 67 percent of the electorate declared their support for the bill as well as for its key individual provisions such as national ownership of natural resources (83 percent said Yes) and equal voting rights, meaning one person, one vote (67 percent said Yes). By inviting the voters to accept or reject the bill <em>in toto </em>(specifically, the first question on the ballot was: “Do you want the proposals of the Constitutional Council to form the basis of a legislative bill for a new Constitution?") as well as its key individual provisions, the parliamentary majority was able to say to the bill’s opponents: Look, the voters support both the bill as a whole <em>and</em> its key provisions. In view of the results, parliament decided to suggest only changes of wording where considered necessary and to abstain from substantive changes (except concerning the church where the voters did not accept the formulation in the bill). The people had spoken.</p> <h2><strong>Further obstacles</strong></h2> <p>The path forward, however, proved tricky. Three of the seven members of the constitutional committee which had been fairly unanimous in its work criticized the bill, unmoved by the result of the referendum, conducting themselves <em>ex post</em> like agents of the parliamentary opposition to the bill. The majority of four is known to support the bill and to respect the result of the referendum. A committee of lawyers asked by parliament to suggest only changes of wording went beyond its mandate by, among other things, suggesting substantive changes to the natural resource clause in a poorly disguised attempt to thwart the intent of the constitutional council and the will of the voters as expressed in the referendum. The council had made it clear in its proposed constitutional provision as well as in its supporting documents that the allocation of fishing quotas does not bestow on the recipients of such allocations any private property rights to the common-property resources. To its credit, the parliamentary committee in charge restored the council’s original formulation.</p> <p>There was no dearth of academic viewpoints on the council as five of its 25 members were professors and three others were junior academics. But unlike the many academic experts who generously offered their help and advice to the council during its four months of intensive work in 2011, a few others were less forthcoming. </p> <p>It was only after the October 2012 referendum that some of the unsupportive academics stepped forward with critical comments on the bill, presented in newspaper articles and television interviews as well as at a series of conferences organized by some universities. The criticism offered was generally of low quality on top of being late, reflecting personal opinions rather than academic research as well as total disregard for the timetable laid down by parliament. </p> <p>In a newspaper interview, after the referendum, one professor called the council “completely illegitimate,” adding that “<a href="">a certain elite</a>” (presumably including himself) should rewrite the constitution. The poor timing of this late criticism is noteworthy because the <a href="">Alliance for a New Constitution</a>, a private association established to explain the constitutional bill to the voters before the referendum, had written to the rectors of the universities ahead of the referendum, asking them to encourage their experts to contribute to public debate on the bill. Their reaction appeared only after the referendum. It seems that the dissenting academics hoped the bill would be rejected in the referendum and thought it unnecessary to discuss it.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <h2><strong>Endgame</strong><strong>&nbsp;</strong></h2> <p>A month after the referendum, parliament at last asked the Venice Commission for its reaction to the bill. In record time, Venice produced a draft report with various suggestions, several of which the relevant parliamentary committee decided to incorporate into the bill. The bill was now ready for a final vote in parliament. A <a href="">majority of 32 MPs</a> out of 63 declared in public and in writing that they supported the bill and wanted it passed before parliament was dissolved in time for the April election. Based on earlier related votes in parliament, it seemed likely that only fifteen or twenty MPs would vote against the bill; the October 2012 referendum was approved by 35 votes against fifteen, with thirteen abstentions. Victory seemed assured.</p> <p>Or was it? The main opposition parties, the Independence Party and the Progressives, threatened a final act of filibuster, a tactic they had used successfully to delay the 2012 referendum and to derail and destroy various other legislative initiatives of the government. (In a telling comparison, one pro-constitution bill MP likened her attempts to get work done in parliament to trying to file her income tax return with monkeys at the kitchen table.) The government majority behind the bill, including a small opposition party, the Movement, did have the legislative means to stop the filibuster to prevent time from running out but they were reluctant to do so, even if it was clear that failing to do so would kill the bill.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>I received advance warnings from MPs that the bill would not be passed; “I smell sulfur,” one MP wrote to me. Some council members with good connections to parliament had warned all along that parliamentary support for the bill was rather weak. The strategy of the Alliance for a New Constitution was to force the issue into the open. We understood from the outset that in a secret ballot the bill might fail in parliament; after all, rising against the fishing vessel owners in Iceland has been described as “suicide” for rural MPs.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>Parliament does not vote in secret, however, and this was key. In an attempt to ensure that the constitutional bill would have to be brought to a vote, Margrét Tryggvadóttir MP presented the bill put forward by the parliamentary committee in charge (of which she was a member) as an amendment to another related last-minute bill. But the president of the parliament put the last-minute bill to a vote without first presenting the amendment, thereby failing to bring the constitutional bill to a vote, in violation of parliamentary procedure. This happened at 2 A.M. on the morning of the last session of parliament before recess. The enemies of constitutional reform carried the day and democracy was put on ice. The government blamed the misbehaving opposition for the debacle, while the outgoing prime minister who had launched the process in 2009 said this was the saddest day of her 35 years in parliament.</p> <h2><strong>More ice, then thaw</strong></h2> <p>The April 2013 election produced a coalition government of the Independence Party and the Progressives, the two parties that privatized the banks <em>à la Russe</em> and set the stage for the crash of 2008. The parties represented in parliament hardly mentioned the constitution in the campaign; they wanted to avoid the subject. The Progressives won the election by promising instant household debt relief. In office, the first thing they did – surprise, surprise – was arrange instant tax relief for the vessel owners. It is clear that the two parties have no intention of reviving the constitutional bill. To them, it does not matter that 67 percent of the electorate expressed support for the bill and its key provisions. Further, they have decided to put Iceland’s 2009 application for EU membership on ice. Expect more ice to come.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>As always, however, there will be a new parliament after this one. One day, most probably, the constitutional bill approved by the people of Iceland in the 2012 referendum or a similar one will become the law of the land. Stay tuned.</p><p><em>If you enjoyed this article then please consider liking <em><strong>Can Europe Make it?</strong></em> on <a href="">Facebook</a> and following us on Twitter <a href="">@oD_Europe</a></em></p> <p><a href="#_ftnref1">[1]</a> The 2010 assembly was modeled on a privately organized national assembly the year before.&nbsp;</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-read-on"> <div class="field-label"> 'Read On' Sidebox:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p class="Default">Ginsburg, T., Z. Elkins, and J. Melton (2012), <a href="">Review of Iceland’s Draft Constitution</a>, The Comparative Constitutions Project, October 14.</p><p>Gylfason, T. (2013), "<a href="">From Collapse to Constitution: The Case of Iceland</a>", in&nbsp;<em>Public Debt, Global Governance and Economic Dynamism</em>, ed. Luigi Paganetto, Springer, 379-417.</p><p>Meuwese, A. C. M. (2013), "Popular constitution-making. The case of Iceland" in D. Galligan &amp; M. Versteeg,&nbsp;<em><a href="">The social and political foundations of constitutions</a></em>, New York: Cambridge University Press, 469-496.</p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-still-missing">Real democracy still missing</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/when-politics-strike-back-end-of-icelandic-constitutional-experiment">When politics strike back: the end of the Icelandic constitutional experiment?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorhildur-thorleifsdottir/from-people-to-people-new-constitution">From the people to the people, a new constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitutional-experiment">The Icelandic constitutional experiment</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Thorvaldur Gylfason Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Europe 2.0 Wed, 19 Jun 2013 08:20:56 +0000 Thorvaldur Gylfason 73409 at Real democracy still missing <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Those of us who were actively working for a sustainable and democratic society in Iceland have always wondered when the window of opportunity opened by the 'pots and pans revolution' would close. Did the last elections bring&nbsp;<span style="line-height: 1.5;">an end to&nbsp;</span><span style="line-height: 1.5;">Iceland's radically democratic moment?</span></p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" alt="Icelanders vote in the 2013 election. Demotix/Eythor Arnason. All rights reserved." width="460" height="307" /><span class="image-caption">Icelanders vote in the 2013 election. Demotix/Eythor Arnason. All rights reserved.</span></p><p>&ldquo;The road ahead might be long and hard. But at least the road is open.&rdquo; These were the last words of my <a href="">previous article</a> on democracy in Iceland - let&rsquo;s take up the story from there.</p> <p>As early as the summer of 2009, those of us who were actively working for a sustainable and democratic society in Iceland started asking ourselves when the window of opportunity opened by the <a href="">'pots and pans revolution'</a> would close.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>There is usually a period of greater opportunity for change in the aftermath of a crisis. This is mainly due to three factors: defaults of the current system are visible and obvious to all, the system and its ability to reproduce itself is weakened and, facing decreased opportunities to meet expected living standards, people are more willing to direct their resources/attention towards progressive movements.</p> <p>But as time goes by the system restores itself. In this case, it was salvaged by a left wing government which chose to restore rather than restructure the system &ndash; promising to change things once the crisis was resolved. As I have <a href="">pointed out</a> in my last article, many were highly sceptical of this approach, arguing that it would be far more difficult to change a restored rather than a broken system.</p> <p>Still the window of opportunity remained open - and is still open in many regards, especially in comparison to the state of affairs before the 2008 crisis. But as the system restores itself the window is slowly closing. The results of the last election will most probably lead to a right wing government which will rule out many opportunities, and speed up the restoration according to a neoliberal ideology of the markets.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>One of the few, and by far the most innovative and interesting attempts by the former left wing government to restructure the system was the <a href="">Constitutional Council</a>. Alas, although the basic idea - that the general public should be actively involved in creating a new constitution - was indubitably right, the implementation had many flaws that were soon exploited by those against this radical proposal. Ultimately, the attempt <a href="">failed</a> as Althingi (the Icelandic parliament) could not reach a majority to follow through the proposals of the Council - even though a <a href="">referendum</a> was held and a two-third majority of voters supported the Council's proposals.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>During the campaign leading to the referendum, many pressure groups were formed to defend the Council's constitutional draft. The same groups then pressured the government and parliament to ratify the proposals. In the political arena, new political parties were formed with the specific goal of making the parliament adopt the draft Constitution if elected, and members of the Constitutional Council sometimes even joined their ranks.</p> <p><span>But these parties did not get elected to the parliament. In contrast with the strong support that Icelandic voters showed for the constitution&nbsp;in the referendum, polls indicated that the constitutional issue ranked low on voters' priorities in the 2013 elections.</span></p> <p>But why didn't the previous parliament finish the process before the election? This can mostly be pinned down to excessive optimism on the part of the proponents of the constitutional experiment &ndash; there are many lessons to be learned here. The most important is that when you engage in a huge task such as a revision of the constitution, the whole process needs to be clear from the very beginning. Clearly stated and publicized. Back when the elections for the Constitutional Council were held, it was still unclear how the Council's proposals would be implemented. Would the parliament simply ratify them, or would political parties be allowed to revise the draft? Was there going to be a binding referendum, even only symbolically, as the constitution doesn&rsquo;t allow for it? These issues, among others, were left pending when the process started. The consequence proved to be decreased legitimacy and trust in the whole process.<span>&nbsp;</span></p> <p>There is little reason to hope that the Council's proposals will be implemented as the expected right wing government was generally against the process and the draft constitution. It would thus come as a major surprise if the proposals came back on the political agenda during this government's four year term.</p> <p>And that&rsquo;s where we are at. The journey towards real democracy and sustainability is going to be long and difficult. And longer, more difficult than initially expected.</p> <p>Yet, the movement is not quite dead: grassroots organizations multiplied during the crisis and a lot of effort was put into many different activities. Some of these efforts focused on <a href="">Icesave</a>, others on feminism, the constitutional process etc. Many are still active and will keep fighting for years to come, while some will undoubtedly wither away. Numerous political parties were founded but only two, Bright Future and the Pirate Party, got members elected to the parliament. A lot of people put great effort into political projects that did not bear fruit in the last elections.</p> <p>That&rsquo;s the lesson we&rsquo;ve learned so far. The project of making our societies truly sustainable and democratic is a long term one. It&rsquo;s going to take time, patience, organization and a lot of effort. For many it might seem that the window of opportunity was wasted and is now lost. I disagree. Some opportunities were wasted, of course, and many things could have been done differently for better results. But it was to be expected that in a period of anomie and crisis, any mitigating attempts would be slightly chaotic.</p> <p>This is another very important lesson. When the financial crisis hit, we weren&rsquo;t prepared. Thatcher would have said there was no alternative &ndash; in our case, we didn&rsquo;t have associations, let alone political parties, with adequate organization and a coherent policy and institutional model that could replace our current system, while ensuring sustainability, real democracy, greater equality and increased well-being for all.</p> <p>Considering this, at least we now have a task. A long-term task to introduce, support and press for a new institutional model. To polish and refine our ideas. It takes a long time to introduce new ideas into the general public, even though many of these ideas are themselves quite old. It also takes a long time to create associations and groups with the adequate organization to generate resources needed to mount a successful campaign. But never mind the time it takes, it is what we have to do.</p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/when-politics-strike-back-end-of-icelandic-constitutional-experiment">When politics strike back: the end of the Icelandic constitutional experiment?</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/thorhildur-thorleifsdottir/from-people-to-people-new-constitution">From the people to the people, a new constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Kristinn Már Ársælsson Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Elections 2013 Fri, 17 May 2013 07:48:16 +0000 Kristinn Már Ársælsson 72737 at When politics strike back: the end of the Icelandic constitutional experiment? <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>A wave of enthusiasm took Icelanders through the 2012 referendum&nbsp;after the 2008 crash, once the widely-praised 'crowd-sourced' constitution appeared to be within reach. But Icelanders’ hopes seem to be evaporating in the haze of this week-end's parliamentary elections.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" width="460" /><br /><span class="image-caption">Protestors outside the Icelandic Parliament, 2010. <a href=";popup=1">Demotix/Cinzia d'Ambrosi</a>. All rights reserved.</span></p> <p>The Icelandic constitutional experiment attempted to bring more equality and direct democracy into Icelandic society. Yet, the parliament has been reluctant to respond. Now, after almost two years of fruitless debates, the coming national elections cast a negative shadow over the future of the new constitution.</p> <h2><strong>The Icelandic constitutional experiment</strong></h2> <p>In the fall of 2008 the Icelandic financial system collapsed following the bankruptcy of the major Icelandic banks. After people stood up for themselves in a series of vociferous demonstrations, the right-wing Prime Minister resigned and a new left-wing coalition, comprised of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement won the national elections. But quickly, general disillusion towards traditional politics provoked grassroots political initiatives. Among them, a new draft constitution was written by an elected Constitutional Council of 25 ordinary citizens using the internet to gather input from citizens. In 2011 the bill was presented before Althingi, the parliament of Iceland, which started discussions preceding the vote. The government soon realised that the hostility of the opposition parties could prevent the bill from being approved. It then called for a national referendum, held in October 2012, to show that the constitution was backed by the whole nation. </p> <p>Though the referendum was non-binding, general belief was that if the outcome was positive, the parliament would feel under far greater pressure to proceed accordingly. </p> <p>With a 49 percent turnout, two thirds of the voters affirmed their wish for the proposal of the Constitutional Council to be used as the basis of a legislative bill for a new Constitution. But contrary to initial expectations, the parliament then proceeded to disregard the popular will and has yet to agree on the draft.</p> <p>It is not that MPs were completely blind to what was happening outside the corridors of power - the issue has actually been debated extensively in parliament&hellip; So extensively, indeed, that they were not able to put it to a vote before the end of the current parliamentary session and elections, which are due on 27 April. The problem is that the newly-elected parliament will then have to start from scratch. </p> <h2><strong>Politics strike back</strong></h2> <p>&ldquo;I&rsquo;m disappointed, but I&rsquo;m not surprised,&rdquo; says Gudr&uacute;n P&eacute;tursd&oacute;ttir, chairman of a Committee that helped the Council draft the constitution proposal. The conservative opposition, made up of the Independence Party and the Progressive Party, has never looked kindly upon the work of the constitutional council. However, the ruling coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance and Left-Green Movement, which formerly backed the work of the Constitutional Council, have also failed to show unanimous support for the draft. </p> <p>&ldquo;The motivation to pass the draft constitution was not high enough. The majority was weak and at the mercy of powerful people who were against it,&rdquo; says P&eacute;tursd&oacute;ttir. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s too revolutionary.&rdquo;</p> <p>One of the most disputed clauses in the constitutional draft is the one stating that Iceland's natural resources are the &ldquo;perpetual property of the nation.&rdquo; It is no surprise that the Independence Party strongly opposed it, as the fishing industry, a traditional supporter of the conservative party, would be most damaged by this clause.</p> <p>The stalled situation, according to 'The Movement' MP Margr&eacute;t Tryggvad&oacute;ttir, happened because the draft introduces changes on how politicians should behave. &ldquo;But they clearly want the old ways,&rdquo; she says. </p> <p>But disagreement over individual provisions is not the only reason for the paralysis. &ldquo;The powers-to-be are afraid of the new constitution because they don&rsquo;t get it, they don&rsquo;t understand it,&rdquo; says Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, a Pirate Party (P&iacute;ratar) member and parliamentary candidate. &ldquo;Lawyers dislike the proposed bill because it is nowhere near what they are used to,&rdquo; he explains, and therefore do not know how it works. "They complain that many good ideas in the draft have no jurisdictional history", Gunnarsson says, underlining the fact that, &ldquo;the whole idea behind the proposed bill is to change how the government fundamentally works.&rdquo;</p> <h2><strong>Reform, frozen</strong></h2> <p>The future of the constitution now depends on the election results. As many as 15 parties have submitted their lists of candidates. This exceptionally high number seems to reflect people&rsquo;s disillusionment with old politics. Tryggvad&oacute;ttir, who is now a candidate for the newly formed Dawn (D&ouml;gun) party list, explains: &ldquo;four years ago everyone was angry and hopeless, but now people feel they can make some changes.&rdquo; Only a few parties, however, are expected to reach the five per cent threshold necessary to earn seats in Althingi. </p> <p>Perhaps surprisingly, given the popular wish for political renewal, the long-established Progressive and Independence Party are currently leading the polls. A survey conducted this week by the Social Science Research Institute for the newspaper <em>Morgunbladid</em> reveals that respectively 24.4% and 24.8% of voters favour them. Back in 2008, they were blamed for the financial collapse, but a restyling of leadership faces has enabled them to come back into play again. These are also the parties that have objected most to the work of the Constitutional Council. However, as Tryggvad&oacute;ttir asserts, &ldquo;that doesn&rsquo;t mean that Icelanders don&rsquo;t want a new constitution,&rdquo; but just that &ldquo;people are struggling with loans&rdquo; and see in the programme of the Progressive Party a solution to their problems. As home debts are connected with inflation, and inflation is very high, sorting this out is now a priority for Icelanders. By making good use of the citizens&rsquo; disappointment with the government, P&eacute;tursd&oacute;ttir affirms, &ldquo;they&rsquo;re making populist promises that are impossible to keep.&rdquo; &ldquo;That&rsquo;s why they&rsquo;re doing so well,&rdquo; she concludes.</p> <p>Regardless of the majority Althingi will have next week, parties such as P&iacute;ratar and D&ouml;gun are ready to fight to see the draft constitution approved. &ldquo;If we don&rsquo;t manage to replace the whole constitution, we&rsquo;ll work to implement at least the clauses that went before the referendum &ndash; and that people clearly wanted,&rdquo; states Gunnarsson. &ldquo;To do so, however, we need to deal with every single point individually and that&rsquo;s going to be a long process,&rdquo; he concludes. </p> <p>To become law, the new constitution &ndash; or the amendments to the old one &ndash; has to be put through a parliamentary vote. Once it has been approved by two thirds of the 63 MPs, new elections are to be called and the newly-elected Althingi has to ratify it again with at least two thirds of votes.</p> <p>The council has submitted a proposal, and the nation has expressed itself through a referendum. It is now up to the Icelandic parliament to take this process seriously. It will certainly take years, but now that citizens know what they themselves are able to do, they will not be content to just stand by and watch.&nbsp;</p> <fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorhildur-thorleifsdottir/from-people-to-people-new-constitution">From the people to the people, a new constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitutional-experiment">The Icelandic constitutional experiment</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Ideas </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Civil society Democracy and government Ideas Giulia Dessi Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Europe 2.0 Elections 2013 Fri, 26 Apr 2013 09:25:49 +0000 Giulia Dessi 72384 at From the people to the people, a new constitution <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>What the future holds in store and what will be the fate of the bill for a new constitution is hard to say at this point in time. But what is evident is that the battle of “who owns Iceland” is being fought and is at its high water mark. There is much at stake.<strong><em></em></strong></p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" alt="During the Icelandic &#039;Pots-and-Pans Revolution&#039; in January 2009. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved." width="460" height="307" /><span class="image-caption">During the Icelandic 'Pots-and-Pans Revolution' in January 2009. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved.</span></p><p>The end of the cold war marked the beginning of a process which led to the great financial collapses in 2008. People had been locked in ideological prisons since the end of the war and dualism has dominated the discussion, west or east, for or against, black or white, good or bad. No alternatives, no shades were allowed. </p> <h3>The first fall</h3> <p>This situation came to an end - metaphorically speaking - with the fall af the Berlin Wall. Suddenly people were out in the open. The winds of &lsquo;freedom&rsquo;, i.e. the free market, blew over the world, no longer hindered by walls. Post- modernism followed with what most people would argue, rightly, was necessary deconstruction and re-evaluation. Extreme individualism, another byproduct, craved diversity to such an extent that no two people had anything in common. In the name of freedom and so called healthy competition &ndash; &lsquo;everyone for him or herself&rsquo; dominated everything else. People were judged and valued by the scale of greed, the more you could grab the more you were admired. No questions asked. This was the new gospel glorifying individual &lsquo;freedom and happiness&rsquo;. </p> <p>This is of course a short and simplified version of what happened, but nevertheless, this was generally the atmosphere that paved the way to a new Iceland. With the help of the government, a coalition of the conservative party, called Independent Party and a central party called The Progressive Party, great changes took place. Deregulations, privatization of banks, sold off at low prices to members of these two parties, were amongst the measures taken to encourage the growth of the financial scene.</p> <p>Buying and selling of fish quotas, with great profits, enabled by new laws, created a new class of extremely rich individuals and families, hitherto unknown to that extent in Iceland. The stock exchange overflowed, not only did the new rich class buy stocks using the money that mainly came from selling fish quotas, the general public was encouraged to buy stocks, even to take loans out to buy them, which was easy. The banks seemed bursting with money and were giving loans out left, right and centre. Everyone could walk into a bank and get money to buy houses, cars, stock or any and every consumable. What was not known, partly due to a very weak Financial Supervisory Authority, was that all this consuming was financed by foreign loans. On the surface everything was blooming. Iceland was top of the list of the richest countries in the world and the idea of Iceland becoming a banking empire on a worldwide scale was fostered. </p> <p>Growing nationalism became apparent. We were supposed in some ways to be superior, due to our viking blood and heritage. Even the president of Iceland went around boasting about our genetic superiority. The young bankers and financial geniuses were hailed like national heroes which enabled and encouraged them to continue gambling, not only in Iceland but with the savings of people in other countries like England and Holland, which later led to the so called &lsquo;Icesave case&rsquo;. The banks grew to weight three times the GNP, so that the collapse when it came in Iceland was far heavier than in other countries. Signs of great political and financial corruption were routinely ignored. </p> <h3>The second fall</h3> <p>This was generally the situation when the spectacular financial crash took place in October 2008. Three banks comprising 85 percent of the country&acute;s banking system collapsed within a week and the domestic equity market was virtually wiped out overnight. The rest of the banking system crashed in quick succession. The natural thing for inhabitants in any country to do in such a situation is to inspect their legal and constitutional foundations in order to look for latent flaws and to fix them. </p> <p>This in fact took place in Iceland. Meetings were held every Saturday on a square, called Austurv&ouml;llur, right in front of the Parliament House. Thousands of people turned up and this gradually grew into what became known as the Pots&ndash;and-Pans revolution. It owes its name to the boisterous banging of kitchen utensils, which was to emphasize the fact that the general public, real families and homes were the actual victims of the financial crash. The three main demands of the Pots-and-Pans revolution were the following: for the government to resign, the general director of the Central Bank to resign (interestingly enough he was the former prime minister and leader of the conservative party, who had himself appointed to this post when he resigned from politics) and for a new constitution. The government resigned in early 2009 and a new government was formed - a coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement. Soon after the general director of the Central Bank was forced to resign. An election was held in the spring , after which the two above-mentioned parties formed a new government. One of the promises it made was to rewrite the constitution.</p> <p>After the election in the spring of 2009 the parliament decided to face up to a promise it had made itself to revise a constitution that had been pending for 65 years. It decided to have a constituent assembly elected by the people to do the job. It must be recognized that the prime minister, J&oacute;hanna Sigurdard&oacute;ttir, leader of the Social Democratic Alliance, had over the years spoken of this possibility and put forward resolutions on the matter, so she cannot be accused of rank populism. The Althing&acute;s decision was to proceed in three steps: a) Calling a National Assembly, b) appointing a Constitutional Committee and c) holding an election for the Constitutional Assembly. Thus emphasizing that the constitution should come from the people rather than from politicians and their lawyers.</p> <ul><li>a)<span> </span>The National Assembly consisted of 1,000 individuals selected at random from the national registry, with certain restraints such as to select an equal representation of men and women of different ages and from different parts of the country. It was held for one day in October 2010 in a big sport stadium in Reykjav&iacute;k. People were divided into small groups of 10-12 persons who discussed what they wished to see in a new constitution. The National Assembly had expressed very strong views on, for example, public ownership of the country&rsquo;s resources. The Constitutional Assembly was by law expected to consider the conclusions of the National Assembly.</li><li>b)<span> </span>A Constitutional Committee, consisting of seven professionals from different areas of expertise, including law, literature and political science, was appointed by the Althing. Its role was to gather information, provide analyses and propose ideas. The committee produced a 700-hundred- page report with detailed ideas and information, for example, quotations from different constitutions and related literature, as well as clause-by-clause analysis of the constitution from 1944, always taking into consideration views expressed by the National Assembly, including on the management and ownership of natural resources.</li><li>&nbsp;</li><li>c)<span> </span>The Constitutional Assembly was elected in November 2010. There were 523 candidates competing for the 25 seats in the assembly. The candidates were all representing themselves as individuals, not presenting any political parties or unions, and the campaign was very civilized and moderate. Most candidates just put their names forward, wrote a few articles emphasizing their viewpoints on different matters, hardly advertised at all and answered questions put to them by the media or the public through Facebook.</li></ul><p>The political parties did not support any special candidates, but the Independence (conservative) Party and The Progressive Party opposed the idea of electing an assembly from the beginning and encouraged people to ignore the election. Just before the election day The Independence Party mailed a list of favoured candidates to its party members, but only two of those were elected. The media, including state television and radio, did little to inform the public about the issues or candidates. No opinion polls were conducted, so no one knew which were most likely to be elected. The electoral system used was STV (single transferable vote) and the turnout was 37 percent.</p> <p>The representatives elected formed a very diverse group of people, with broad and different experience: doctors, lawyers, political scientists, priests and professors, a farmer, a bold fighter for the rights of handicapped people, mathematicians , mediapeople, former members of parliament, a nurse, a philosopher, a theatre director and a labour union leader.</p> <h3><strong>An unexpected hiccup</strong></h3> <p>A surprising aftermath was the sudden and unexpected intervention of the Supreme Court of Iceland. One unsuccessful candidate and two other individuals, all with connection to The Independence Party, filed a technical complaint about the designs of the voting booths, claiming the election was not secret. The fact being that the booths were 15-20 centimetres lower than in parliamentary elections, but approved of in many countries.</p> <p>After reviewing the complaints, the Supreme Court declared the Constitutional Assembly election null and void in what must be the first instance of a national election being invalidated in a democracy and, as considered by many, on very flimsy grounds. It must be mentioned here that members of the Supreme Court had over the years been appointed by The Independence Party and/or The Progressive Party. The appointments were often highly criticized, especially during the reign of Mr. David Oddsson, leader of The Independence Party and Prime Minister for seventeen years. Also worth mentioning is that according to opinion polls the public does not have great confidence in the judicial system, even less in fact than it has in the political system or rather Althing, i.e. around ten percent.</p> <p>The Althing reacted to the Supreme Court decision by appointing the 25 elected representatives to a Constitutional Council, revising accordingly the law governing the Constitutional Assembly. Of the 25 elected representatives, ten women and fifteen men, all but one accepted the parliamentary appointment. The abstainer was replaced by the person who came in 26th position in the vote tally.</p> <p>Probably as intended, the opponents of the project have used the Supreme Court intervention to question the legitimacy of the Council, referring to it as an irrelevant &lsquo;conference&rsquo; that no one needs pay any particular attention to. Others have asked: if the parliament wanted to appoint 25 people to a Constitutional Council, which 25 individuals would have been better suited to the task than the 25 who were elected through a process that not even the Supreme Court claimed was affected by the alleged technical flaws in question? This is a key point: the Supreme Court invalidated the election without suggesting that the election results had been affected by the problems cited.</p> <h3><strong>Back to work for democracy</strong></h3> <p>But back to the now-appointed Constitutional Council, and its work. Opinion polls suggested that the broad consensus among the elected representatives as well as among the 523 candidates reflected not only the sentiments of the National Assembly as attended by 1,000 randomly selected citizens, but reflected also public opinion. For example, the broad consensus among the representatives about the need to substantiate, or rather reclaim, the people&rsquo;s ownership rights to their natural resources accords with public opinion polls that have for many years consistently shown about 70 percent of the electorate opposing the discriminatory nature of the fisheries management system that has turned a small group of boat owners into billionaires and major political power brokers.</p> <p>The National Assembly echoed this popular sentiment. The Constitutional Council considered itself obliged by law to take the resolutions of the National Assembly into consideration. Therefore, no one should have been surprised when the Constitutional Council approved and delivered to parliament a <a href="">constitutional bill</a> that, if ratified in a national referendum, will entail a major overhaul of Iceland&rsquo;s constitution.</p> <p>Early on in the Constitutional Council&rsquo;s work it became clear that most of its members wanted to start with a clean slate, to write a new constitution rather than revise the existing one. Even so, the council reached a consensus, approving the bill after four months of work with 25 votes against zero, a remarkable feat, not least in view of the fact that the reforms proposed are quite far-reaching and radical in a number of ways. The bill stresses stronger checks and balances between the three branches of government as well as between power and accountability. It stresses transparency, fairness, protection of the environment, and efficient and fair exploitation - plus national ownership of the country&rsquo;s natural resources. </p> <p>It aims to stamp out corruption and secrecy, yet leaves both words unspoken. At the same time, the bill promises continuity and stability by preserving and strengthening the semi-presidential form of parliamentary government laid out in the provisional constitution from 1944.</p> <h3><strong>&lsquo;Property of the nation&rsquo;</strong></h3> <p>A short preamble in first-person plural sets the tone:</p> <p>&ldquo;<span> </span>We, the people of Iceland, wish to create a just society with equal opportunities for everyone. Our different origins enrich the whole, and together we are responsible for the heritage of the generations, the land and history, nature, language and culture.<br />Iceland is a free and sovereign state, resting on the cornerstones of freedom, equality, democracy and human rights.&nbsp;</p><p><span> </span>The government shall work for the welfare of the inhabitants of the country, strengthen their culture and respect the diversity of human life, the land and the biosphere.</p><p><span> </span>We wish to promote peace, security, wellbeing and happiness among ourselves and future generations. We resolve to work with other nations in the interests of peace and respect for the Earth and all Mankind.</p> <p><span> </span>In this light we are adopting a new Constitution, the supreme law of the land, to be observed by all.&rdquo;</p> <p>All members of the Constitutional Council will agree that they might all have personal wishes or views that do not appear in the bill, but that is a natural result of consensus. You cannot have everything your own way. If that is your attitude you cannot work with other people, at least not in the consensus method. But most, if not all, would agree that article 34 is essential and it is also the one causing the most serious dispute because of its content, which radically changes the &lsquo;ownership of Iceland&rsquo;.</p> <p><span>In the new bill, article 34 is as follows:&nbsp;</span></p> <p><span>&ldquo;Iceland&rsquo;s natural resources which are not in private ownership are the common and perpetual property of the nation. No one may acquire the natural resources or their attached rights for ownership or permanent use, and they may never be sold or mortgaged. Resources under national ownership include resources such as harvestable fish stocks, other resources of the sea and sea bed within Icelandic jurisdiction and sources of water rights and power development rights, geothermal energy and mining rights. National ownership of resources below a certain depth from the surface of the earth may be provided for by law. The utilization of the resources shall be guided by sustainable development and the public interest. Government authorities, together with those who utilize the resources, are responsible for their protection. On the basis of law, government authorities may grant permits for the use or utilization of resources or other limited public goods against full consideration and for a reasonable period of time. Such permits shall be granted on a non-discriminatory basis and shall never entail ownership or irrevocable control of the resources.&rdquo;<br /></span><span>&nbsp;<br /></span><span>By &ldquo;full consideration&rdquo; is meant full market price &ndash; that is, the highest price that anyone is willing to pay, e.g., in a market, at auction, or in an agreement with the state as agent for the resource&rsquo;s rightful owner, the nation &ndash; for the right to exploit the resource in question. This marks a clear departure from current practice where vessel owners have been granted access to valuable common-property fishing quotas. The Iceland bill makes an explicit conceptual distinction between the &lsquo;property of the nation&rsquo; and &lsquo;property of the state.&rsquo; State property &ndash; office buildings, for example &ndash; can be sold or pledged at will by the state. The property of the nation is different in that it &ldquo;may never be sold or mortgaged.&rdquo; This means that the present generation or future generation do not have the right to dispose of the resources for its own benefit. These restrictions are meant to refer to the natural resources themselves as well as to the rights attached to the resources.<br /></span><span>&nbsp;<br /></span><span>In part to clarify the meaning of the nation&lsquo;s, as opposed to the state&lsquo;s, ownership rights to its natural resources, the article on natural resources is preceded by a corresponding article on cultural assets (article 32): &ldquo;Valuable national possessions pertaining to the Icelandic cultural heritage, such as national relics and ancient manuscripts, may neither be destroyed nor surrendered for permanent possession or use, sold or pledged.&rdquo; National ownership of cultural assets as well as of (renewable) natural resources is intended to impose on the current generation a duty to preserve the assets in question for unborn generations. State ownership involves no such duty.<br /></span><span>&nbsp;<br /></span><span>Articles concerning nature and environment are quite explicit. Article 33 starts as follows: &ldquo;Iceland&rsquo;s nature is the foundation of life in the country. Everyone is under obligation to respect it and protect it...&rdquo;. It reflects increased and growing awareness of the necessity for environmental protection. According to the bill public access to preparations for decisions that will affect nature and environment is ensured.<br /></span><span>&nbsp;<br /></span><span>Without going into the details of every article a few will be mentioned. Clauses on the electoral system, opening up the possibility to vote for individuals as well as party slates, equal votes, &ldquo;one person-one vote&rdquo;. This means that the votes of voters everywhere in the country should have equal weight. Not all politicians agree with this as MPs from rural areas currently have much fewer votes behind them than their fellow MPs from the Reykjav&iacute;k area. Clauses of freedom for the press, to ensure public access to information and documents in official possession and strict rules about appointment to public offices are also to be found in the bill.<br /></span><span>&nbsp;<br /></span><span>Worth mentioning is the article on referendum which allows &ldquo;Ten percent of the electorate (to) petition for a referendum on legislation passed by Althing&hellip;&rdquo; and &ldquo;Ten percent of the electorate may submit a legislative bill in the Althing...&rdquo;.</span>&nbsp;</p> <h3><strong>How it was done</strong></h3> <p>The Constitutional Council decided to do things differently from the customary methods used in political discussions and decision-making processes. The council was divided into three committees, each working on a different subject. Once a week the whole council met and introduced the work already done in the committees. Suggestions were discussed, altered if need be and voted on. When an article or a provisional one had been agreed on it was included in a paper, always published on our website for the public to see and comment on if they so wished, thus gradually building up a whole bill.</p> <p>Before the actual work began it was decided to aim for consensus and to have the process open to the public. The job was done in three overlapping rounds. First, each week, the Constitutional Council posted on its <a href="">website</a> some new provisional articles for perusal by the public. In a second round, usually two to three weeks later, after receiving comments and suggestions from the public as well as from experts, the Council posted revised versions of those articles on the website. Then, in a final round, proposals for changes in the document as a whole were debated and voted upon article by article, and the final version of the bill was prepared. At the end of the last round, each article was approved by an overwhelming majority of votes.</p> <p>The Council decided to invite the people of Iceland to participate in the drafting of the constitutional bill on the Internet. Judging by the traffic on the Constitutional Council's website, the people of Iceland welcomed the Council&rsquo;s invitation to participate in the project. The Council received 323 formal proposals that the three committees of the Council discussed and answered. More than 3,600 written comments were posted on the website by visitors; the Council representatives answered many if not most of them. Nearly all the proposals and comments received proved useful in one way or another.</p> <h3><strong>Owners, spoilers and gatekeepers</strong></h3> <p>Contrary to this interest of the public the lack of enthusiasm of the majority of academics, not only lawyers, became very evident. Like everyone else they were welcome to make their point on the website or visit the council. In spite of this it must be underlined that the council actively sought and received the advice of many experts, every step of the way, in meetings as well as in writing.</p> <p>In July, after four months of work, the council reached a consensus, approving the bill with 25 votes against zero. The bill was then sent to the Althing. Then another interesting process began. In discussing the bill The Independent Party and The Progressive Party opposed the bill so strongly that it proved impossible to get it through the parliamentary process. The content of the bill was hardly mentioned in the discussions - the emphasis was on the process. They claimed everything had been done the wrong way, the election to the Constitutional Assembly and the appointment of The Constitutional Council. The bill was bad they claimed, and needed to be corrected from beginning to end etc. although what and how was never stated.</p> <p>Furthermore and interestingly enough the main obstacle was never mentioned. Which was of course the article 34 concerning the nation&rsquo;s ownership of its natural resources or rather the fact that vessel owners and quota holders should from now on pay &ldquo;full market price&rdquo; for the utilization of the resources. This would deprive the elite that had until now been granted access to valuable common-property fishing quotas, of this privilege. The majority of vessel owners and quota holders support the Independent Party and pay great sums to it and expect in return to be protected by the party, which they have been. So there is much at stake here. Some would even say that the parliamentarian discussion on the bill crystallizes the battle of &ldquo;who owns Iceland&rdquo;. The nation or a few privileged!</p> <p>Not being able to pass the bill and legislate on it the government decided to put the bill into a referendum. Give it back to the public and ask whether it would like to base a new constitution on the bill proposed by The Constitutional Council. Thus taking one additional very democratic step. Five other questions were as well included in the referendum. The ownership of the natural resources was one. Another was if the Evangelic Protestant Church should be mentioned in the constitution (as it is in the existing constitution). There were further key questions regarding the electoral system, one person-one vote and the clause allowing the public to ask for a referendum. Needless to say the opposition was strongly against this referendum.</p> <h3><span>Who owns Iceland?</span></h3> <p>The referendum was held on 20 October this year. The turnout was around 50 percent and 69 percent said yes to the first question concerning the bill being used as a base for a new constitution and to four of the other five questions. Judging by the vote, Icelanders, contrary to the bill, want to have a state church. </p> <p>This result has not quieted the voices of opposition. The discussion is getting even harder. Now the whole process right from the year 2010, starting with the National Assembly handing the bill to the Constitutional Council is, just to mention a few arguments, called undemocratic, utterly unnecessary and a total waste of money. According to the opposition, the writing of a new constitution should not be done by amateurs but by Althing with the help of lawyers chosen by MPs etc.</p> <p>What the future holds in store and what will be the fate of the bill for a new constitution, or a new constitution altogether, is hard to say at this point. But what can be said and what is evident is that the battle of &ldquo;who owns Iceland&rdquo; is being fought and is at its high water mark. There is much at stake - and I personally hope the opponents are fighting a losing battle.</p> <p><em>Special thanks to Professor <a href="">Thorvaldur Gylfason</a> for giving me free access to his texts and writings on the writing of the bill for a new constitution and the Constitional Council.</em></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitutional-experiment">The Icelandic constitutional experiment</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/richard-bater/hope-from-below-composing-commons-in-iceland">Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item even"> Internet </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Civil society Culture Democracy and government Economics Ideas Internet europe Thorhildur Thorleifsdottir Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Europe 2.0 Tue, 13 Nov 2012 09:18:23 +0000 Thorhildur Thorleifsdottir 69311 at Real democracy in Iceland? <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>After the crash that destroyed Iceland's economy, Icelanders started to take an interest in new forms of political and economic governance. So - what can we learn from the country's experiments?</p> </div> </div> </div> <p align="center"><img src="" alt="During an Occupy London protest in May. Demotix/Paul Ottavio. All rights reserved." width="460" height="245" /><br /><span class="image-caption">During an Occupy London protest in May. Demotix/Paul Ottavio. All rights reserved.</span></p><p>Four years have passed since the financial system crashed in Iceland. The crisis hit Iceland harder than many other countries: the whole banking system defaulted and crashed. Attempts to bail out the banks failed, and because of the size of the banking system in Iceland, the government did not have the option of taking them over - the Icelandic state would have defaulted.</p> <p>It was a crude awakening for most people. The enormous &ldquo;success&rdquo; of the financial sector before 2008 was a matter of national pride. Living standards, mostly based on great expectations and debt, had skyrocketed. But it had all been a lie. And the political system had failed to prevent this unsustainable bubble. In fact political parties attributed the &ldquo;success&rdquo; to their own policies, while most did not read the danger signs and the few who did sound the alarm were not heard. After the crash swept it all away, trust in the political system fell to ten percent. It has not risen since then.</p> <p>In some respect, Icelanders have made their voices and interests heard in a way people of other countries have not. The protests after the crash got us a new government, the head of the central bank and the financial inspection agency were axed and a process to make a new constitution with the active involvement of the people was initiated. Public pressure got us a vote on <a href="">IceSave</a>. The Prime Minister of the government in charge at the time of the crash was convicted of negligeance. Because of the size of the financial system in comparison with the wider economy, it was allowed to default. Bailouts were impossible. A special agency was formed to investigate possible illegal activity within the banking system. And the government decided against a severe austerity programme (although there were cuts in spending).</p> <p>These are important achievements. Things that other countries could learn from.&nbsp;But frankly, most of these developments were also controversial in Iceland and overall, they could have been executed more efficiently. For example: the idea that the general public should be actively involved in creating a new constitution is indubitably right. But this could have been better carried out. The selection process didn't have the legitimacy it needed and random selection should have been used as well. The time given to the process was too short. There was not enough debate all over the country and in the media.&nbsp;Of course, in comparison with the constitution being rewritten by a small group of politicians in closed session, as usually happens,&nbsp;the new process was great. But it could have been better.</p> <p>And there are many, many unsolved issues. The financial system has not been restructured but restored. And a system that is restored will yield the same results. The political system, trusted by only ten per cent of the population, has not been fundamentally revised either. Most of the changes were minor and cosmetic. The path towards a real democracy is becoming clearer - and it will be a long one. That was already obvious in 2009: just after the elections for parliament, many sensed that the left-wing government simply didn't have the ideas and institutional models for restructuring our financial and political systems. Political parties didn&acute;t have a plan B - no alternative to western capitalism (and actually TINA - There Is No Alternative - has been one of the Icelandic right's strongest arguments during the last twenty years).</p> <p>As a response, a group of us formed&nbsp;<a href="">Alda</a> - the Association for Sustainability and Democracy. Our goal was first and foremost to introduce into the public debate ideas and institutional models on how to restructure our economy and the terrain of politics. Alda is only one of many new grassroots organizations in Iceland since the crash which focus on changing the structure of society in some way. Alda has been promoting ways to deepen our democracy - our focus is on institutional models that have been tried and tested. And fortunately there are a lot of great examples out there.</p> <p>When it comes to politics what is clear is that we need a shift to participatory democracy. Participatory budgeting is one way to go: the most famous example being <a href="">Porto Alegre</a> in Brazil, but participatory budgeting is starting to be used all over the world (New York is one of the latest cities to try the process). In Brazil it has led to greater equality in the distribution of public assets and services, less corruption and a more vibrant civil society - to name but a few positive outcomes. In Iceland, the city of Reykjav&iacute;k is also experimenting with an online version of participatory budgeting. For now, it concerns only a small portion of the city's budget, but we are hopeful this model will soon spread to other cities and communities.</p> <p>Alda also promotes the idea of randomly selected citizen assemblies. This participatory process has already been tried in various places. One example is the Citizen Assembly in British Columbia, where randomly selected people from the general public were invited to come up with ideas to change the electoral system. Directly involving citizens is the way forward - and research (by <a href="">Helene Landemore</a> for example) on random selection indicates that cognitive diversity outperforms individual ability or knowledge.</p> <p>The economic field also calls for more democracy &ndash; as currently there is almost none! Corporations are run by a few people while most staff&nbsp;members&nbsp;have no vote or say. Corporations, like all institutions, are based on cooperation between individuals. But only a very small minority of them are real cooperatives. And Alda thinks that all corporations should be democratic cooperatives &ndash; one person (employee, manager or CEO), one vote. Research shows that co-ops are efficient, more resistant to crisis, and have a more equal wage distribution. Plus, they contribute to the creation and strengthening of local communities.</p> <p>There are all sorts of other problems we need to solve, e.g. currency issues, fractional-reserve, exotic financial products, unsustainable production and consumption, growth in a world of finite resources, long working hours, inequality etc. And on those issues a lot of interesting ideas are surfacing since the crash. Even neo-liberal economists are now forced to admit that mainstream economics is deeply flawed.</p> <p>The old political parties in Iceland do not have a real democracy, as envisioned by Alda, on their agenda. A few of the numerous new political parties that have been created since 2008 might have adopted some of its aspects - but none has as of yet called for a radical restructuring of our political and economic system. Nevertheless, the ideas are gradually getting out there, into the public debate. And that's the first step, making them familiar - because people will not call for things they don't know about or turn to unfamiliar ideas. And that is our greatest regret - that there was no plan B when the financial crisis hit in 2008.</p> <p>But looking forward there is reason for hope. The crisis opened up a space for new ideas (and some old, unrealized ones as well). There are more active grassroots organizations than before 2008. The defaults in the economy and political field are clear for all to see. And more importantly, the people of Iceland are open to new suggestions.</p> <p>The road ahead might be long and hard. But at least the road is open.</p> <fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorhildur-thorleifsdottir/from-people-to-people-new-constitution">From the people to the people, a new constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-direct-democracy-in-action">Iceland: direct democracy in action</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitutional-experiment">The Icelandic constitutional experiment</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitution-on-way">Icelandic constitution on the way</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/richard-bater/hope-from-below-composing-commons-in-iceland">Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/herdis-sigurgrimsdottir/solomon-comes-to-iceland">Solomon comes to Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/kim-andersen/icelands-economic-downturn-is-%E2%80%9Dfreedom-of-speech%E2%80%9D-upturn">Iceland&#039;s economic downturn is a ”freedom of speech” upturn</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> <div class="field-item even"> EU </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item even"> International politics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Internet </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? EU Iceland Civil society Culture Democracy and government Economics Ideas International politics Internet europe Kristinn Már Ársælsson Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Reinventing the left Europe 2.0 Mon, 12 Nov 2012 09:29:47 +0000 Kristinn Már Ársælsson 69254 at Iceland: direct democracy in action <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>The Icelandic experiment raises many intriguing questions: how do citizens of a country get called to this office? How do they draft a new constitution? What sort of political forces do they have to balance? An insider view from a former member of the Constitutional Council.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" alt="Protesters gather in front of the Icelandic parliament after the 2008 crash. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved." width="460" height="307" /><span class="image-caption">Protesters gather in front of the Icelandic parliament after the 2008 crash. Wikimedia Commons/OddurBen. Some rights reserved.</span></p><p>Iceland went to the polls on October 20, 2012 to vote on a <a href="">new crowd-sourced constitutional bill</a> that emanated from the country&rsquo;s financial crash of 2008.</p> <p>The drafting of the bill was guided by a National Assembly of 950 citizens drawn at random from the national registry, meaning that every Icelander eighteen years of age or more had an equal chance of being invited to take a seat in the Assembly. Convening for a day in late 2010, the National Assembly decided that Iceland does need a new constitution, as the parliament had also resolved by 63 votes to zero, and laid down the lines for some key provisions that a new constitution needed to contain, including &lsquo;one person, one vote&rsquo; and national ownership of the country&rsquo;s natural resources.&nbsp;</p> <p>It does not happen every day that ordinary citizens are offered the opportunity to help rewrite their country&lsquo;s constitution. Like 522 other Icelanders, I decided to put my name forward. Friends of mine collected fifty endorsements, the maximum allowed (30 was the minimum), and I then left the country for Africa and did not return back home until after the election. I did not spend a penny as there was no campaign. Like other candidates, I was interviewed for three or four minutes on state radio, in my case by phone from South Africa, and I posted a few short articles on the internet with websites that accepted such contributions from candidates. Also, I opened a Facebook page where I posted a few short messages intended for my friends. The daily newspaper in which I had published a weekly column since 2003 asked me to lay aside my pen from the announcement of my candidacy until after the election. Many if not most of the other candidates kept an equally low profile before the election. Very few advertised or spent significant amounts of money to promote their candidacies. As I see it, this was the least expensive and most civilized election 'campaign' in the history of the republic. The turnout was 37%, which is respectable in view of the fact that this was a special election as opposed to a general election, and considering that strong political forces keen to preserve the status quo tried to denigrate the whole process and even encouraged their supporters to boycott the election. But, overall, the political parties did not field candidates nor did they interfere in the work of the Constitutional Council</p> <p>Elected by the nation and appointed by the parliament, the 25-member Constitutional Council <a href="">took on the task</a> of converting the resolution of the National Assembly into a coherent constitutional bill. In the process, the Council was encouraged by popular participation <em>via</em> more than 300 unsolicited reports from the public plus thousands of communications on the Council&rsquo;s interactive website. After four months of work in mid-2011<a href=""> </a>in full view of the public (the Philadelphia convention in 1787 also took four months, behind closed doors), the Council approved the bill unanimously with 25 votes to zero. Eight months after receiving the bill, in early 2012, the parliament directed some issues to the Council, convening it for a four-day follow-up meeting. There, in response to the issues raised by parliament, the Council, again unanimously, proposed alternative wording for some provisions in the bill, mostly for clarification, with minimal substantive changes involved. Four months thereafter, the parliament decided by 35 votes against fifteen, with thirteen abstentions, to hold a consultative national referendum on the bill and some of its key provisions on 20 October 2012. The referendum was fought tooth and nail by the political opposition in parliament. The opposition resorted to filibustering in an attempt to derail the promised referendum, an action that ultimately failed.</p> <p>The ballot presented six &lsquo;Yes or No&rsquo; questions, all of which the voters answered decisively in the affirmative. Presumably, the parliamentary majority&rsquo;s intention was to be able to say to the opposition afterward: Look, the voters not only accept the bill as a whole, but specifically also accept several of its key individual provisions. This strategy worked. Voter turnout was 49%, well above the Swiss average in more than a hundred referenda since 2000.</p> <p>The questions and answers of those who took a stand were as follows.</p> <ol><li>Do you want the proposals of the Constitutional Council to form the basis of a legislative bill for a new Constitution? <strong>67% said Yes</strong>.</li><li>Would you want natural resources which are not in private ownership to be declared the property of the nation in a new Constitution? <strong>83% said Yes</strong>.</li><li>Would you want a new Constitution to include provisions on a National Church of Iceland? <strong>57% said Yes</strong>. </li><li>Would you want a new Constitution to permit personal elections to the Althing to a greater degree than permitted at present? <strong>78% said Yes</strong>.</li><li>Would you want a new Constitution to include provisions to the effect that the votes of the electorate across the country should have the same force? <strong>67% said Yes</strong>. </li><li>Would you want a new Constitution to include provisions to the effect that a specific proportion of the electorate could call for a national referendum on a specific matter? <strong>73% said Yes</strong>.</li></ol><p>With such unequivocal guidance from the people <em>via</em> their clear expression of the popular will, the parliament must now finalize the bill and ratify it. The 1944 constitution stipulates that, for the bill to take effect, the next parliament, following a parliamentary election in April 2013, must also ratify the bill.</p> <p>Here the plot begins to thicken. The current opposition and allied forces have at least three reasons for opposing the bill. First, they have strong ties to the fishing industry that has for many years received fishing quotas&nbsp;practically gratis&nbsp;from the government, a corrupt arrangement that the bill aims to end. Second, they are worried about &lsquo;one person, one vote&rsquo; because some of their current MPs would not have much of a chance of being re-elected under &lsquo;one person, one vote.&rsquo; Third, the freedom of information provisions in the bill aim to promote transparency by breaking a pervasive culture of secrecy that has enabled the political class to get away with, among other things, the Russian-style privatization of the banks in the period from 1998-2003 that paved the way off the edge of cliff in 2008.</p> <p>The opposition insists on the right to propose substantive changes to the bill even if the bill has already been accepted by the people - two to one. Some think the opposition really aims to kill the bill. The parliamentary majority, by contrast, wants to respect the will of the people by making only a few changes of wording if necessary as well as perhaps fairly minor changes that the Constitutional Council already approved at its follow-up 2012 meeting. Confident of continued popular support for the bill, the prime minister has raised the possibility of presenting the final version of the bill to a second referendum at the time of the parliamentary election in 2013 in an attempt to reduce the likelihood that the next parliament tries to thwart the will of the people and kill the bill. In any case, the bill awaits a bumpy ride through parliament. &ldquo;The people have put the parliament on probation,&rdquo; said the prime minister after the vote.</p> <p>Around the world, nations routinely change their constitutions, every 19 years on average. In a remarkably prescient <a href="">1789 letter to James Madison</a>, Thomas Jefferson wrote that &ldquo;Every constitution ... naturally expires at the end of 19 years&rdquo; because &ldquo;the earth belongs always to the living generation.&rdquo; On the basis of its textual elements, taking into account its various provisions, <a href="">researchers at the University of Chicago</a> predict that the new Icelandic constitution, if ratified, will last 60 years, adding that &ldquo;drafting the right text has been found to be surprisingly important for constitutional mortality&ldquo; and declaring the bill to &ldquo;be at the cutting edge of ensuring public participation in ongoing governance, a feature that &hellip; has contributed to constitutional endurance in other countries.&ldquo;</p><p><em>A modified version of this article has previously been published on <a href="">VoxEU</a>.</em></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-read-on"> <div class="field-label"> 'Read On' Sidebox:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Elkins, Zachary , Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton (2009),&nbsp;<a href=""><em>Endurance of National Constitutions</em></a>, Cambridge University Press.</p><p class="Default">Elkins, Zachary , Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton (2012), “<a href="">A Review of Iceland’s Draft Constitution</a>,”, University of Chicago, 15 October.</p><p class="Default">Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2011a), “<a href="">From Crisis to Constitution</a>,”<em>&nbsp;</em><em>VoxEU</em>, 11 October.</p><p>Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2011b), “<a href="">Crowds and Constitutions</a>,”<em>&nbsp;VoxEU</em>, 13 October.</p><p>Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2012a), “<a href="">Finance and Constitutions</a>,”&nbsp;<em>VoxEU</em>, 11 April.</p><p>Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2012b), “Constitutions: Financial Crisis Can Lead to Change,”&nbsp;<em>Challenge</em>&nbsp;55, September-October, pp. 106-122</p><p>Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2013), “<a href="">From Collapse to Constitution: The Case of Iceland</a>,“ in&nbsp;<em>Public Debt, Global Governance and Economic</em>&nbsp;<em>Dynamism</em>, Springer (forthcoming).</p><p><a href="">Iceland Constitutional Bill</a>&nbsp;(2011), delivered by Constitutional Council to Parliament 29 July.</p> </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/thorhildur-thorleifsdottir/from-people-to-people-new-constitution">From the people to the people, a new constitution</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kristinn-m%C3%A1r-%C3%A1rs%C3%A6lsson/real-democracy-in-iceland">Real democracy in Iceland?</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitutional-experiment">The Icelandic constitutional experiment</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitution-on-way">Icelandic constitution on the way</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/richard-bater/hope-from-below-composing-commons-in-iceland">Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/herdis-sigurgrimsdottir/solomon-comes-to-iceland">Solomon comes to Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/kim-andersen/icelands-economic-downturn-is-%E2%80%9Dfreedom-of-speech%E2%80%9D-upturn">Iceland&#039;s economic downturn is a ”freedom of speech” upturn</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Equality </div> <div class="field-item even"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item odd"> International politics </div> <div class="field-item even"> Internet </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Civil society Culture Democracy and government Economics Equality Ideas International politics Internet europe Thorvaldur Gylfason Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Reinventing the left Europe 2.0 Mon, 12 Nov 2012 09:29:44 +0000 Thorvaldur Gylfason 69276 at The Icelandic constitutional experiment <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>This Saturday, a year after a Constitutional Council has written a draft constitution with the help of citizens, voters agreed this draft should be the basis for a new constitution. This writing experiment stands out for its surprisingly democratic process, but a closer look reveals some of its limitations.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p><img src="" alt="Ballot paper in the Icelandic referendum on 20 October 2012 regarding proposals for a new constitution. Demotix/Arnthor Ævarsson. All rights reserved." width="460" height="210" /><span class="image-caption">Ballot paper in the Icelandic referendum on 20 October 2012 regarding proposals for a new constitution. Demotix/Arnthor &AElig;varsson. All rights reserved.</span></p> <p>On a national referendum last Saturday, about two thirds of the Icelanders who went to the polls voted yes to the first question and backed the draft constitution.</p> <p>But if anyone thought that polemics over a new constitution would have ceased with the referendum, they couldn&rsquo;t have been more wrong. The parliament of Iceland, Althingi, has been indeed split between those who promoted the Constitutional Council &ndash; the movement and the ruling coalition of Social Democratic Alliance and Left-Green Party &ndash; and those who are against &ndash; the conservative opposition&rsquo;s Independence and Progressive parties. And it is still split today, over the interpretation of results and turnout.</p> <p>But rather than the text, at the centre of the controversy is the Council&rsquo;s work. Conservatives believe that the formulation of such a document should be the exclusive concern of the parliament. What has happened instead is that in the fall of 2010, 25 ordinary citizens &ndash; the Constitutional Council &ndash; have been elected by the nation to draft a new constitution. Through the Internet the general public had the chance to give comments and suggestions. The international media have praised this to the skies. They have gone as far as to say that the entire nation has written the new draft constitution. The facts are slightly different. There has indeed been a fundamental change in Icelandic society and those who have drawn up the document are really ordinary people. But a closer look reveals also three other limitations on this. Traditional party politics has had a finger in the pie. Some citizens did not have a clue about the whole rewriting process. And the parliament might still distort the draft constitution before approval of it. The intention of drafting a new constitution has its origins in 1944, when Iceland became a republic independent from Denmark. The country inherited the Danish document, but it was agreed to draft a new code in the following years. Still, only a few changes have been made since then. Right-wing and left-wing parties have repeatedly shown themselves unable to come to an agreement. </p> <p>When the financial system collapsed in 2008, Icelanders claimed important changes in the foundations of society. But the idea of writing a new document beyond the walls of Althingi came from the Social Democrat PM J&oacute;hanna Sigurdard&oacute;ttir. In 2010, one year after her election, the parliament appointed a Constitutional Committee of seven people not directly involved in politics. Their task was to prepare the groundwork for a Constitutional Council that would have to be elected soon thereafter.<span>&nbsp;</span>The Committee first organised a national brainstorming session &ndash; whose public response was outstanding &ndash; to discuss the type of constitution that Icelandic society wanted. Then, as many as twenty experts offered their knowledge on all issues through a 700-page report. &ldquo;This work made a lot of difference for the Council,&rdquo; says Gudr&uacute;n P&eacute;tursd&oacute;ttir, chairman of the Constitutional Committee. &ldquo;Even though they did it absolutely their own way, they didn&rsquo;t have to start from scratch.&rdquo; National elections for the 25-member Constitutional Council were held in November. Every citizen was allowed to run and 522 people presented their candidacy. The turnout was disappointing: only 35.9 percent of the eligible voters went to the polls. </p> <p>There appear to be three reasons of this low turnout. First, the Single Transferable Vote system proved to be too complicated. Under STV, people are asked to list their candidates in order of preference. Icelanders could vote either for one person or for all 25. H&ouml;rdur Torfa, artist and leader of the protests that rose in response to the financial collapse, argues that &ldquo;the system was wrong&rdquo; because people didn&rsquo;t know how to vote for 25 people out of 500. &ldquo;It took me more than a day to read all the profiles, but people didn&rsquo;t spend time doing this,&rdquo; he says adding that the government was to blame for not having explained it properly to the public. Moreover, many Icelanders lost trust in the process due to the uncertain future of the proposal once handed over to the parliament. &ldquo;People thought that the parliamentarians would change it to what they wanted it to be &ndash; in a time when trust in parliament was 10 percent,&rdquo; says Kristinn M&aacute;r &Aacute;rs&aelig;lsson, founder of ALDA (Association for Sustainability and Democracy). And, finally, the low attendance was also traceable to an abstention campaign by the Independence party. &ldquo;They called on people to stay at home,&rdquo; says Th&oacute;rhildur Thorleifsd&oacute;ttir, Council member and theatre director. &ldquo;They are very powerful and they have money, so they can buy opinion very easily.&rdquo; </p> <p>The boycott might have been successful but conservatives appeared not to have considered an unintended consequence of this tactic. Because people who went to the polls were more inclined towards other parties, they elected those who had similar political or ideological views. The composition of the Constitutional Council ended up being unbalanced in favour of the Left. Citizens also tended to vote for the people who had been in the spotlight before. Their jobs varied a great deal. But what they had in common was involvement in politics and the willingness to help the process of changing Iceland.</p> <p>Even so, some in Iceland did not appreciate their lofty motives. In January 2011, after three citizens reported technical irregularities during the polling, the Supreme Court nullified the results of the elections. Judges stated that voters were not allowed enough privacy while voting. Among the deficiencies were traceable ballots, unlocked ballot boxes, and separator panels in the polling booths that had been too short. Still, there was no evidence that privacy&rsquo;s rights had been actually infringed. The Supreme Court is supposed to be independent but seven judges out of nine were good friends of the Independence Party, says &Aacute;str&oacute;s Sign&yacute;jard&oacute;ttir, the youngest member in the Constitutional Council. The problem is that judges are appointed by the government and, since the Independence Party has been in power from 1991 to 2009, most of the judges were conservatives. The left-wing government agreed reluctantly to abide by the Supreme Court&rsquo;s ruling and answered by appointing a Council with the same 25 people that had been elected. </p> <p>The Council drafted a document that improves government transparency, strengthens human rights, and gives greater power to the people. &ldquo;Althingi exercises the legislative power on behalf of the nation,&rdquo; Article 2 states. In other words, the people are sovereign but they devolve the exercise of that power to parliament. Moreover, 10 percent or more of voters are allowed to demand a national referendum on new laws passed by Althingi. The proposed constitution also takes some powers away from the government and grants them to the parliament. &ldquo;We had a very strong Prime Minister who controlled the parties with an iron fist, but now people want to change this,&rdquo; says Gudmundur H&aacute;lfdanarson, historian at University of Iceland. As for human rights, the preamble seeks to promote harmony, security, and happiness as of paramount importance; but a good 30 articles in the second chapter also revolve around these points. </p> <p>Every single issue covered in the draft constitution has been debated within the Council, but citizens could put forward their suggestions. ALDA association was one of those that handed over very detailed and well thought-out proposals to the Constitutional Council. Among its twelve suggestions are innovative methods of appointing MPs and ministers. Twenty-one MPs out of 63 should be randomly selected from Icelandic citizenry, ALDA members advised. And ministers should be directly elected by people, instead of being nominated by the PM. None of the suggestions have been accepted. But some of them were part of the Council&rsquo;s discussions.</p> <p>A sore point in the whole process is the issue of time. Many believe that the time allocated was too short for the complexity of the task. &ldquo;Writing a constitution in four months makes absolutely no sense whatsoever,&rdquo; says Gunnar Gr&iacute;msson, the founder of Citizens Foundation, a non-profit organisation with the aim of promoting electronic democracy in Iceland. He believes that the Council has accomplished a remarkable job, but there is no excuse for the government&rsquo;s decision to economise. Saving money while writing a constitution exposes a country to a much higher chance of a poor result. Kristinn M&aacute;r &Aacute;rs&aelig;lsson, who has kept an eye on the Council&rsquo;s work, advances other reasons for that short time. First, the government lacked experience of interactive democracy. Second, it does not have much interest in changing the democratic system towards direct democracy, he says.<span> </span>J&oacute;hanna Sigur&eth;ard&oacute;ttir herself, the PM who promoted the idea of the Council, did not seem concerned by the rewriting process. &ldquo;She has never confronted us, never came to us, never talked to us,&rdquo; says &Aacute;str&oacute;s Sign&yacute;jard&oacute;ttir. Neither she nor the ministers were present when the Council handed over the draft to the parliament.<span> </span>&ldquo;We were handing out a new constitution for Iceland and nobody cared,&rdquo; she says with dismay. &ldquo;Foreign media said that the nation wrote the constitution, but it&rsquo;s only those who were interested watching the website and commenting.&rdquo; <span></span></p> <p>Only recently have people realised the challenging goal the Council has achieved in formulating a draft constitution and that a new foundation for their society is at stake. After all, this constitution draft hasn&rsquo;t exactly been written by the nation, nor has it been completely free from party political influence. &ldquo;The idea of selecting a citizens&rsquo; Council to come up with new ideas and the way the Council worked were pretty good. But they could have done it better&rdquo;, says Kristinn M&aacute;r &Aacute;rs&aelig;lsson. The final proposal also appears to be an adequate document. Still, the procedure had several faults. </p> <p>If it is true that in the aftermath of the crash the general public felt the need of a new constitution, it is also true that the whole process was pushed forward by the government. As the Constitutional Committee was appointed by the majority, the selected people were probably not ideologically distant from the left-wing government. Moreover, the Independence Party&rsquo;s boycott of elections for the Council meant the elections of members who were unlikely to have conservative political views. So, although nobody has tried directly to affect the Council&rsquo;s work, party political influence in it has been strong. Time constraints have prevented the great potential of this experiment &ndash; to engage the whole society in discussions, open meetings, and debates in the media. Icelanders did not have enough time to think over what kind of constitution they wanted. It is small wonder the draft constitution ended up being quite moderate in its clauses, as no innovative or radical ideas had the time to be fully digested &nbsp;and accepted. The Council, Kristinn M&aacute;r &Aacute;rs&aelig;lsson says, limited itself to the concepts that have been floating around in the general discussion up to that point, which is to say what parties had been discussing for years.</p> <p>Despite these flaws, the Council succeeded in running a surprisingly democratic process. And the national referendum has just paved the way for a new constitution based on their suggestions.&nbsp;<strong></strong></p><fieldset class="fieldgroup group-sideboxs"><legend>Sideboxes</legend><div class="field field-related-stories"> <div class="field-label">Related stories:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/giulia-dessi/icelandic-constitution-on-way">Icelandic constitution on the way</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/richard-bater/hope-from-below-composing-commons-in-iceland">Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/herdis-sigurgrimsdottir/solomon-comes-to-iceland">Solomon comes to Iceland</a> </div> <div class="field-item even"> <a href="/kim-andersen/icelands-economic-downturn-is-%E2%80%9Dfreedom-of-speech%E2%80%9D-upturn">Iceland&#039;s economic downturn is a ”freedom of speech” upturn</a> </div> <div class="field-item odd"> <a href="/article/email/opportune-knocks">Iceland: &quot;It will fix itself&quot;</a> </div> </div> </div> </fieldset> <div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item even"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Equality </div> <div class="field-item even"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Internet </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? Iceland Civil society Culture Democracy and government Economics Equality Ideas Internet Giulia Dessi Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Europe 2.0 Tue, 23 Oct 2012 11:03:46 +0000 Giulia Dessi 68983 at Hope from below: composing the commons in Iceland <div class="field field-summary"> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> <p>Never again can the world be told by the custodians of the old that the people cannot be relied upon to write the contract between citizens and government, and write it well.</p> </div> </div> </div> <p>Iceland's fate epitomizes the tragedy of ‘constitutional democracies’ as they have been variously practiced and imposed in recent times: whereby the writing of a constitution by the people is considered the revolutionary exception, and not the rule.&nbsp; Never before has a ‘peacetime’ state constitution been drafted by an Assembly of ordinary citizens.&nbsp; Never before has a constitution’s fundamental values framework been ‘crowd-sourced’.&nbsp; Never before has a constitution been produced under the intense gaze of a population, scrutinising each draft as it is uploaded onto a website, watching meetings beamed live on the internet, with publics relaying feedback for improvement in real time.&nbsp; Never before has so much been at stake in the peacetime re-drafting of a constitution in such circumstances, and never before have citizens had such a stake in the process of its creation.&nbsp; Never again can the world be told by the custodians of the old that the people cannot be relied upon to write the contract between citizens and government, and write it well. &nbsp;</p> <p>In what follows I hope to make up for the faintly patronising tone struck by <a href="">other</a> accounts dealing with this event.&nbsp; There are, I would argue, in fact, serious lessons to be learned from Iceland that may also be applicable to other, larger states.</p> <p>Iceland embarked on this path to constitutional change not following a pre-planned strategy but, as always, driven by events; irreducible to one or the other, but each, nevertheless, crucial to shaping the course of action that has since come to pass, <em>yet</em> could so easily have been otherwise.&nbsp; Disbelief, awe, frustration, astonishment, horror, spooked with a simmering fury, strike the tone that seeps out of every seething pore of <a href="">Andri Snær Maganson</a>’s bestselling, well-researched, non-fiction tragi-comedic polemic - <em><a href="">Dreamland (2006</a></em>). The book (and subsequent <a href="">film</a>) lucidly sketches the corruption, the botched ‘privatisations’, the cosy relations of the financial-business-political (and media) complex, the unique processes of ministerial accountability, <a href=",28804,1877351_1877350_1877340,00.html">Davið Odsson</a>’s uncanny ability to forever avoid participating in a parliamentary debate; as well as the concrete effects these arrangements have had for Nature whilst they have formed the ritualistic functioning of Icelandic government during recent decades.&nbsp; Magnason held the Mirror of Truth to Iceland, and the reflection wasn’t pretty.&nbsp; Many already knew something was going wrong, but had neither the energy nor the incentive to revolt.</p> <p>In January 2008, as the magnitude of the crisis was becoming apparent, a lone <a href="">Hörður Torfason</a> began to sing protest songs outside the Icelandic parliament, day-in-day-out.&nbsp; Persistently, insistently, during the dark days of the Icelandic wintertime, he <a href="">struck a rhythm</a> in harmony with mainstream, hitherto (on-the-whole) silent, opinion, and contributed to drawing-out the profound <em>dis</em>harmony between the population at large and the corrosive politics that had ruled elite Icelandic affairs, particularly since around 1991.&nbsp; Post-Soviet states have a term - ‘<a href=""><em>political technology’</em></a> - to refer to its similar widespread, intricate gaming of politics; Iceland has the less vast but similarly corrosive ‘<em>Octopus’</em>.&nbsp; Those responsible for the crisis number little more than thirty. &nbsp;But each weekend, as more and more people assembled outside parliament, the musician who would play protest songs became one among a multitude involved in the composition of a whole movement for change.&nbsp; </p> <p>For the first time in living memory, Icelanders assembled <em>en masse,</em> each Saturday, with ever more disregard for elites, ever-intensifying anger, and ever-solidifying determination to force those responsible for the present out of command of their collective future.&nbsp; For the first time in post-independence history too, citizen discontent met elite dissatisfaction head on; the citizens whose day job was to occasionally perform as riot police, were commanded to restore ‘order’ by <a href="">pepper spraying</a> the protesters into retreat.&nbsp; The ethical order that had proven its failure, and now, with the turn to violence, complete absence of authority, came under unprecedented popular pressure. The government was forced to resign.&nbsp; The <a href="">‘Pots and Pans Revolution’</a>, as it has become known in the media, is not a revolution strictly defined, but it did achieve the only government to be forced out by popular revolt owing directly to the ‘financial’ crisis (other governments such as Greece and Italy have been forced-out too, but overwhelmingly by finance industry pressures), and this in no small way contributed to the constitutional change of today that has inspired movements around the globe.</p> <p>The Social Democratic - Green coalition government, sworn-in on February 1, 2009, was led by <a href="">Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir</a> – a long-term advocate of constitutional renewal, ever-stymied in her attempts by the outright hostility to change both in the Parliament and Supreme Court. The twin-resistance of these institutions had more than a little to do with the existing Constitution itself that few objections to make with the ruling parties’ political, clientelistic appointments to the civil service and Supreme Court.&nbsp; The Alþingi’s<strong> </strong>(the Icelandic Parliament) Constitutional Council had been tasked with re-writing the Constitution within a year of complete independence of Denmark in 1944.&nbsp; By 2010 (aside from a few amendments), the Council had failed to complete this (only) task entrusted to it, resulting in the situation that the citizens’ governing contract with the Republic of Iceland remained structured by a framework more appropriate to the monarchy of nineteenth century Denmark.</p> <p>Why re-write the Constitution now?&nbsp; The leadership of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir offers some explanation, but by no means all.&nbsp; It is demonstrative of the depth of the <em>pathos</em> (described by eminent constitutional democracy scholar <a href="">Pasquale Pasquino</a>) afflicting the Icelandic political elites that not only the people but also the <em>politicians</em> no longer trusted themselves to adequately re-write a Constitution that would attain popular legitimacy.&nbsp;</p> <p>The government, too, located the source of the crisis not only in the risk-blind investment practices of the banks, their gargantuan leveraging-up of lending, their swelling of non-secured assets in an unprecedentedly short period, and their insider-trading; but also in the complicity of members of successive governments in these actions. In fact, as later revealed by the <a href="">Truth Report</a>, members of government actively engaged in insider-trading themselves; denied the economy was in a precarious situation, and funded propaganda campaigns to counter the diplomatic, yet stern, warnings of the IMF and others, as far back as 2005.&nbsp; </p> <p>The public was rendered blissfully unaware of the precariousness of the situation – crucial information was systematically withheld from the Prime Minister; committee meeting minutes and reports were ‘spun’ at best, or remained unpublished at worst.&nbsp; The paid-for press monopoly of <em><a href="">Morgunblaðið</a></em>, tight on funds and politically aligned to the governing parties, failed in its duty to critically investigate and make these, and other, issues public over successive years.&nbsp; </p> <p>In sum, aside from profound ethical lapses in the interconnected financial-government-business complex (<a href="">the ‘Octopus’</a>), what drove the crisis and ensured that it would never be effectively resolved on behalf of the people, were numerous, symmetrical, systematic ‘failures’ in accountability structures. These enabled and institutionalised obscure, inappropriate relationships that engrained particular rationalities of rule into the functioning of government, as well as the routine concealment of information, compounded by an ineffective media that may otherwise have equipped the population with information to make informed judgments for themselves.&nbsp; The economic crisis was completely and non-accidentally bound-up with the ways in which Iceland’s elites, particularly since the pseudo-privatisation of the fishing and banking industries, related to each other and governed in, and for, their own interests – a political malaise bred economic malaise bred social malaise bred environmental malaise.</p> <p><em>What happened next?</em>&nbsp; The new coalition government resolved to repair the constitutional infrastructure that had failed the people to the ruination of the country, by competently rewriting it.&nbsp;&nbsp; Thus on June 16 2010, the Alþingi passed (despite the opposition of the previous governing parties) the ‘<em><a href="">Act on a Constitutional Assembly’</a></em> – a historically-unique document that delegates the intensely legalistic task of writing a peacetime constitution to a group of citizens, supported by legal council.&nbsp;</p> <h3>What does Iceland mean today?</h3> <p>The <em>Act </em>established, first, a National Meeting in November 2010 with the purpose of crowd-sourcing the norms and values of the population of twenty-first century Iceland.&nbsp; The meeting adopted a sophisticated process based on participatory democracy techniques practiced by ‘<a href="">Agora’</a>, an Icelandic company that specialises in arranging and advising on participatory democracy procedures for rewriting documents such as organisational charters.&nbsp; The meeting was composed of fifteen hundred randomly selected citizens from around Iceland, and drew both on the experience of the National Assembly revived in 2009, and partly based on a (successful) speculative trial conducted on a small scale in January 2010 that focused specifically on the Constitution.&nbsp; Citizens were divided into small groups focused on particular themes (e.g. Human Rights), where each participant had the time and space to contribute meaningfully to the debate; to express opinions, ideas, and reach consensus.&nbsp; The aim of the meeting was to produce a bottom-up map of contemporary Icelandic values on particular constitutional matters – to establish the values framework within which the Constitutional Assembly (CA) would produce its draft Constitution.&nbsp;The Meeting <em>collectively</em> answered the question: <em>what does Iceland </em>mean<em> in the twenty-first century?</em></p> <p>Second, the <em>Act</em> initiated processes for the election of citizens to the twenty five-member CA.&nbsp; Any citizen was eligible to apply, subject to existing limitations on election to Parliament, provided they were not already elected members of the Alþingi, and as long as they were able to collect the requisite number of signatures to qualify for the shortlist. One potential shortcoming of this procedure, however, was that the elected were by and large already recognisable public figures. Nevertheless, they were chosen by the people for largely non-partisan reasons.</p> <p>Following the CA election however, several members of the long-hostile opposition parties submitted a complaint to the (also hostile) Supreme Court regarding the legality of the elections.&nbsp; Their argument was that six (very minor) technicalities invalidated the entire election process, despite the technicalities having, at the maximum, resulted in the election of one candidate who should not have been, and who in any case voluntarily withdrew.&nbsp;The Supreme Court agreed (see: ruling <a href=""><strong>here</strong></a> and thoughtful riposte <a href=""><strong>here</strong></a>), and ruled the election invalid.&nbsp; The decision left the government with three options: a) to re-run the election at considerable expense; b) to appoint representatives to a Constitutional <em>Council</em>; or c) to abandon the whole procedure.&nbsp; The government chose to respect the result of the initial election and <em>appointed</em> the victors to the Council.</p> <p>The Constitutional Council (CC) was sworn in, and was given three months (starting April 2011, later extended to four months) to write, from scratch, the Constitution, with the aid of a legal council.&nbsp; Councillors worked full time, and were paid the equivalent of a parliamentarian.&nbsp; The Council was completely self-governing – it elected a chairperson, and elected members to four sub-committees that were tasked with brainstorming statutes falling under their respective competences, within the values framework of the National Meeting.&nbsp;</p> <p>In a non-descript office block in the suburbs of Reykjavík, day-in day-out the Councillors met, brainstormed, and reviewed their statutes.&nbsp; At a weekly meeting, the sub-groups assembled in a (televised) general meeting, and debated and agreed new submissions and amendments.&nbsp; Each week, the new draft was uploaded onto the <a href="">website</a>, and the Council actively encouraged letters, Facebook messages, and emails from the general public, containing suggestions about how the document could be strengthened and improved; what should be added, what should be taken away.&nbsp; The composition of the Constitution process extended far beyond the bounds of the grey, concrete block in which it was written, to the living rooms, offices, and cafes of citizens throughout Iceland.&nbsp; The public’s submissions were actively considered and debated in the sub-group sessions, and on most occasions the correspondent received a human response.&nbsp;</p> <p>The Council’s legitimacy did not draw simply from its composition of elected ‘ordinary’ Icelanders; it stemmed from the ongoing, <em>real time</em>, technology-enabled dialogue between the Council and the people.&nbsp; It stemmed from the Council’s openness to the public (which was invited to observe general meetings) and from its complete independence from political meddling and subversive corporate lobbying. All public correspondence to the committee was published online.&nbsp; With each passing meeting, the CC attempted to achieve greater proximity between the written document and the sentiments of the people, whilst constantly referring also to ‘state-of-the-art’ Constitutional practices from around the world.</p> <h3>Becoming sovereign</h3> <p>Finally, the Constitutional Analysis Support Team (CAST), a semi-formal collective of individuals sharing an interest in the Constitution process, was established by <a href="">Smári McCarthy</a> and <a href="">Eleanor Saitta</a> in January 2011 in order to undertake analysis of the Constitution as it was drafted.&nbsp; The collective made itself aware to the CC, and indeed many of the Constitutional Councillors became involved in CAST’s project.&nbsp; In particular, towards the end of the drafting process as the Constitution started to ‘stabilise’ (mid-June), CAST arranged a Constitution ‘Stress Test’ – an event open to citizens with a willingness to contribute to testing and finding gaps in the Constitution. The testing drew heavily on the linguistic analysis expertise of the internet company, whose director was also a lead proponent of the exercise.&nbsp;All those present were divided into smaller working-groups operationalising different textual analysis approaches.&nbsp; The results were tweeted in real<em>-</em>time, and a summary report of the findings was produced and uploaded onto CAST’s <a href="">website</a>, and informally reviewed by many on the Constitutional Council.</p> <p>After four months of intense drafting, the Council completed its work on July 27, 2011, ready to be put to referendum.&nbsp; The Chairperson handed the draft Constitution over to the Parliament to the accompaniment of a rather stuffy wood-panelled fanfare - tradition that jarred with the <em>break</em> with tradition that the entire process had hitherto marked.&nbsp; The people had been entrusted with the task of writing the rules by which they are governed; of replacing the state of affairs that provided for the anti-politics-as-usual of previous years and the systematic production of concealment, patronage, and terror which contributed so acutely to our economic, social, and environmental ruin.&nbsp;</p> <p>The foundational <a href="">document</a> that defines and unites people is written by and for the ordinary people of the country.&nbsp;The Supreme Court would now be fully independent.&nbsp; The minutes of all meetings would now be made public.&nbsp; The Prime Minister would now be obliged to account for his/her government before Parliament.&nbsp; Information about issues that concern the public would now always be available to the public.&nbsp; Throughout, and because of this process, the people had been, and would henceforth, be sovereign.&nbsp; </p> <p>Whilst this is no guarantee of good government, Iceland’s Constitutional process nevertheless remains a timely reminder of not only the powerful hope that change from below represents, but, as evidenced by recent (anti-)democratic trends in southern Europe, a reminder of the necessarily interdependent, non-incidental character of relations between systems of government and the varieties of capitalism, that inform the foundational structure of the ways in which we are governed.&nbsp; The ‘Truth Report’ traced the roots of the economic crisis in Iceland (ruined poster-boy of neoliberal experiment) to a crisis of democracy, transparency, and accountability.&nbsp; </p> <p>A ‘Truth Report’ of transnational scope and ambition might just make it apparent that these were not uniquely Icelandic failures, but rather more intrinsic to the rationality of rule itself than the rulers are willing to admit, and hence make it incumbent on all those whose lives are tainted by the unique infrastructures of power peculiar to the family of neoliberalism to <em>also</em> radically reassess and recover their own constitutional democracy.</p> <p>&nbsp;</p><div class="field field-country"> <div class="field-label"> Country or region:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Iceland </div> </div> </div> <div class="field field-topics"> <div class="field-label">Topics:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Civil society </div> <div class="field-item even"> Conflict </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Culture </div> <div class="field-item even"> Democracy and government </div> <div class="field-item odd"> Economics </div> <div class="field-item even"> Ideas </div> <div class="field-item odd"> International politics </div> </div> </div> Can Europe make it? uk Iceland Civil society Conflict Culture Democracy and government Economics Ideas International politics Occupy! Richard Bater Spotlight on the Icelandic experiment Occupy Europe! Thu, 01 Dec 2011 23:13:30 +0000 Richard Bater 62955 at