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Forum Post: Putsch: Iceland‘s Crowd-Sourced Constitution Killed by Parliament

Posted 6 years ago on April 2, 2013, 9:07 p.m. EST by LeoYo (5909)
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Putsch: Iceland‘s Crowd-Sourced Constitution Killed by Parliament

Monday, 01 April 2013 14:14 By Thorvaldur Gylfason, Verfassungsblog | News Analysis


Following its spectacular plunge from grace in 2008 when its banking system crashed, inflicting huge damage on foreign creditors as well as on local residents, Iceland caught attention for trying to come to grips with what happened by bringing court cases against bankers and others allegedly responsible for the crash as well as for inviting the people of Iceland and its directly elected representatives to draft a new post-crash constitution designed inter alia to reduce the likelihood of another crash.

Up against the wall, with throngs of protesters boisterously banging their pots and pans in parliament square in Reykjavík, the post-crash government formed in 2009, to its credit, set the process in motion. A National Assembly was convened comprising 950 individuals selected at random from the national registry. Every Icelander 18 years or older had an equal chance of being selected to a seat in the assembly. Next, from a roaster of 522 candidates from all walks of life, 25 representatives were elected by the nation to a Constitutional Assembly to draft a new constitution reflecting the popular will as expressed by the National Assembly. Believe it or not, the Supreme Court, with eight of its nine justices at the time having been appointed by the Independence Party, now disgraced as the main culprit of the crash and in opposition, annulled the Constitutional Assembly election on flimsy and probably also illegal grounds, a unique event. The parliament then decided to appoint the 25 candidates who got the most votes to a Constitutional Council which took four months in 2011, as did the framers of the US constitution in Philadelphia in 1787, to draft and unanimously pass a new constitution. The constitutional bill stipulates, among other things: (a) electoral reform securing ‘one person, one vote’; (b) national ownership of natural resources; (c) direct democracy through national referenda; (d) freedom of information; and (e) environmental protection plus a number of new provisions designed to superimpose a layer of checks and balances on the existing system of semi-presidential parliamentary form of government. The preamble sets the tone: “We, the people of Iceland, wish to create a just society where everyone has a seat at the same table.” The people were invited to contribute to the drafting through the Constitutional Council’s interactive website. Foreign experts on constitutions, e.g. Prof. Jon Elster of Columbia University and Prof. Tom Ginsburg of the University of Chicago, have publicly praised the bill and the democratic way in which it was drafted.

Even so, it was clear from the outset that strong political forces would seek to undermine the bill. First, there are many politicians who think it is their prerogative and theirs alone to revise the constitution and view the National Assembly and the Constitutional Council elected by the people and appointed by parliament as intruders on their turf. Second, many politicians rightly worry about their reelection prospects under ‘one person, one vote’. Third, many politicians fear losing their clout with more frequent use of national referenda, and also fear exposure under a new freedom of information act. For example, a crucial telephone conversation between the prime minister and the governor of the Central Bank in the days before the crash in 2008 is still being kept secret even if a parliamentary committee has demanded to hear a recording of it. Last but not least, many vessel owners dislike the prospect of being deprived of their privileged and hugely profitable access to the common-property fishing grounds. As a matter of public record after the crash, politicians and political parties were handsomely rewarded by the banks before the crash. It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that vessel owners must have likewise treated politicians and political parties generously in the past, an umbilical cord that many politicians clearly want to preserve.

In sum, it was clear that in a secret ballot the constitutional bill would never have had a chance of being adopted by parliament, not even after the national referendum on the bill on 20 October 2012 where 67% of the electorate expressed their support for the bill as well as for its main individual provisions, including national ownership of natural resources (83% said Yes), direct democracy (73% said Yes), and ‘one person, one vote’ (67% said Yes). But the parliament does not vote in secret. In fact, 32 out of 63 members of parliament were induced by an e-mail campaign organized by ordinary citizens to declare that they supported the bill and wanted to adopt it now. Despite these public declarations, however, the bill was not brought to a vote in the parliament, a heinous betrayal – and probably also an illegal act committed with impunity by the president of the parliament. Rather, the parliament decided to disrespect its own publicly declared will as well as the popular will as expressed in the national referendum by putting the bill on ice and, to add insult to injury, hastily requiring 2/3 of parliament plus 40% of the popular vote to approve any change in the constitution in the next parliament, meaning that at least 80% voter turnout would be required for a constitutional reform to be accepted in the next session of parliament. The politicians apparently paid no heed to the fact that under these rules Iceland’s separation from Denmark would not have been accepted in the referendum of 1918. In practice, this means that we are back to square one as intended by the enemies of the new constitution. There is faint hope that the new parliament will respect the will of the people if the outgoing one failed to do so despite its promises. In her farewell address, the outgoing Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, declared this to be the saddest day of her 35 years in parliament.

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.



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[-] 2 points by factsrfun (8213) from Phoenix, AZ 6 years ago

It looks to me that the Icelandic Supreme Court is the main problem here, we have a similar problem in the US, they simply threw out an entire elective body? can they be impeached? can the more Justices be appointed? That's what I would like to see in the US, two more Justices put on the Court.


[-] 2 points by factsrfun (8213) from Phoenix, AZ 6 years ago

oh I'd agree, mostly it just really struck me as bold that they went as far as they did just to have the Court throw it all out, we had a much smaller but still important thing happen here in AZ, we passed public funding in 1998 and in 2010 the Court gutted it, of course the elected people should not back down, they should impeach the bastards, so should we

[-] 0 points by OTP (-203) from Tampa, FL 6 years ago

All that stuff is very doable. It just takes a will from the people.

[-] 1 points by Builder (4202) 6 years ago

This will be a true test of direct democracy.

One to watch for sure.

[-] 0 points by justiceforzim (-17) 6 years ago

Builder...it is worth watching but not something I believe can work in a country as fractured as the US. Australia, on the other hand...

This link is from a conservative blog that will draw jeers from the resident dnc trolls, but I think you might find it interesting. I remember being forced to attend a 'diversity' class at my former fortune 100 employer late 80's early 90's. I got in trouble because I kept saying that America is a melting pot and celebrating/pushing differences is counter productive. Probably because my 1st generation mother always told me "american" when I came home from school and asked her what nationality we were. Anyway, here's the link. http://www.americanthinker.com/2013/04/critical_considerations_for_immigration_reform.html

[-] 1 points by Builder (4202) 6 years ago

The fact that America is really fractured might work to the benefit of individual states. The whole "uniting" process was flawed to begin with. There is still plenty of animosity running between north/south and east/west. Hell, the midwest doesn't even like the near/north, and the deep south will always resent anyone else.

Yep. sounds like a devil's playground to me. Thanks for the link. I'll have to check it out later. Bookmarked. Dinner time here.

[-] 0 points by justiceforzim (-17) 6 years ago

Am not sure why you see the UNITED states as flawed. As a resident of flyover country, I think that we in the midwest have no use for the left coast or east coast libs, and unfortunately, they seem to hold too much sway in DC. The South aligns with the midwest, it, too is flyover.

I;d say the biggest problems/differing social views lie more along big city and small town america. Big City has the money and power, but small town america has the numbers. No, I am not contradicting my first paragraph. There are many big cities on both the coasts! Heck, Illinois would be a red state if it weren't for that cesspool on the lake, Chicago. I know of what I speak, I grew up within spitting distance of it.

My point is that direct democracy functions better in a homgeneous society.

[-] 2 points by Shule (2638) 6 years ago

I'm not so sure the biggest problem is big town vs small town, left wing vs right wing, or even coast, coast, flyover zone issues (sure there are some). I lived all over, and have come to note the real problem is the corruption which has come to infest all. In almost every legislator be it national, state, or city, small city as well as big city, the politicians have been paid off, bought and paid for by some evil oligarchy that has grown into our nation like some cancer. If you don't believe me try getting something for the people passed in some local government, like getting rid of a Walmart, or saving a local park from condo construction. One finds although one can get over 80% of the folks involved, signing off on petitions and the like, in almost every case the ample majority gets overruled by a well paid minority, and the devastating project goes on anyway. I've seen it happen too often.

[-] 1 points by Builder (4202) 6 years ago

I'm sure it does, and I'm also sure that you're clearly a better reference point about your home than an Aussie from the east coast.

Thanks for your input, and solidarity, my friend.