Thorvaldur Gylfason https://www.opendemocracy.net/taxonomy/term/11932/all cached version 15/02/2019 20:04:16 en Iceland shows that a UK constitutional convention should involve politicians as little as possible https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/thorvaldur-gylfason/iceland-shows-that-uk-constitutional-convention-should-involve-politi <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="http://www.gallup.com/poll/165476/government-corruption-viewed-pervasive-worldwide.aspx">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="http://www.democraticaudit.com/?p=8840">Democratic Audit</a>.</strong></em></p><p><em>For more articles on reform and constitutional change, see our new series, the <a href="https://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/collections/great-charter-convention">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 https://www.opendemocracy.net Democracy on ice: a post-mortem of the Icelandic constitution https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/thorvaldur-gylfason/democracy-on-ice-post-mortem-of-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="http://www.opendemocracy.net/files/icelandfire.jpg" 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="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Collective_intelligence">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="http://www.venice.coe.int/webforms/events/">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="http://www.thjodaratkvaedi.is/2012/en/proposals.html">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="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IthLUGAjsdI&amp;feature=plcp">Jon Elster</a><span> from Columbia University and Prof. </span><a href="http://sans.is/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/CCP-Iceland-Report.pdf">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="http://www.voxeu.org/article/constitution-making-action-case-iceland">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="http://blog.pressan.is/illugi/2012/12/13/elita/">a certain elite</a>” (presumably including himself) should rewrite the constitution. The poor timing of this late criticism is noteworthy because the <a href="http://sans.is/">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="http://20.oktober.is/">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="https://www.facebook.com/caneuropemakeit">Facebook</a> and following us on Twitter <a href="https://twitter.com/oD_Europe">@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="http://sans.is/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/CCP-Iceland-Report.pdf">Review of Iceland’s Draft Constitution</a>, The Comparative Constitutions Project, October 14.</p><p>Gylfason, T. (2013), "<a href="http://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-88-470-5331-1_22/fulltext.html">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="http://www.cambridge.org/asia/catalogue/catalogue.asp?isbn=9781107032880">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 https://www.opendemocracy.net Iceland: direct democracy in action https://www.opendemocracy.net/thorvaldur-gylfason/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="http://www.opendemocracy.net/files/1280px-W06_Protesters_08446.JPG" 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="http://stjornarskrarfelagid.is/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Iceland_New_Constitutional_Bill.pdf">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="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wH7vOvJVs3w">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="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wH7vOvJVs3w"> </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="http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch2s23.html">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="https://webspace.utexas.edu/elkinszs/web/CCP%20Iceland%20Report.pdf">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="http://voxeu.org/article/constitution-making-action-case-iceland">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="http://www.cambridge.org/gb/knowledge/isbn/item2427594/?site_locale=en_GB"><em>Endurance of National Constitutions</em></a>, Cambridge University Press.</p><p class="Default">Elkins, Zachary , Tom Ginsburg, and James Melton (2012), “<a href="https://webspace.utexas.edu/elkinszs/web/CCP%20Iceland%20Report.pdf">A Review of Iceland’s Draft Constitution</a>,” ConstitutionMaking.org, University of Chicago, 15 October.</p><p class="Default">Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2011a), “<a href="http://www.voxeu.org/article/crisis-constitution-insights-iceland">From Crisis to Constitution</a>,”<em>&nbsp;</em><em>VoxEU</em>, 11 October.</p><p>Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2011b), “<a href="http://www.voxeu.org/article/crowds-and-constitutions-insights-iceland">Crowds and Constitutions</a>,”<em>&nbsp;VoxEU</em>, 13 October.</p><p>Gylfason, Thorvaldur (2012a), “<a href="http://www.voxeu.org/article/finance-and-constitutions">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="http://www.cesifo-group.de/portal/pls/portal/docs/1/1214953.PDF">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="http://stjornarskrarfelagid.is/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/Iceland_New_Constitutional_Bill.pdf">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 https://www.opendemocracy.net Thorvaldur Gylfason https://www.opendemocracy.net/content/thorvaldur-gylfason <div class="field field-au-term"> <div class="field-label">Author:&nbsp;</div> <div class="field-items"> <div class="field-item odd"> Thorvaldur Gylfason </div> </div> </div> <p>Thorvaldur&nbsp;Gylfason is Professor of Economics at the University of Iceland.&nbsp;He&nbsp;was one of 25 representatives in Iceland‘s Constitutional Council in session from April to July 2011, elected by the nation and appointed by parliament to revise Iceland’s constitution.</p> Thorvaldur Gylfason Fri, 09 Nov 2012 13:57:00 +0000 Thorvaldur Gylfason 69277 at https://www.opendemocracy.net