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Gearing up for a constitutional review

Some of you may have noticed that I skated pretty nimbly over the issue of the constitutional reform the other day. If I do say so myself.

Of course the matter of reviewing the Icelandic constitution is a highly significant one, and I happen to think that the way we’re going about it here is pretty cool. By which I mean that anyone can be elected to the constitutional assembly — it’s not just being reviewed by a bunch of bureaucrats in gray suits.

As for why Iceland needs a new constitution at all — well that is because it’s never really had one. The constitution we’ve had since the founding of the republic was practically translated verbatim from the Danish constitution, save that “president” was substituted for “king”.

There were some concerns for a while that not many people would run for the assembly, but all that changed in the 11th hour [typical for Icelanders to do everything at the last minute]. In the end there were 525 valid candidacies, although since then, two have dropped out. So now we have 523 people running for the assembly, and as I mentioned in the previous post, one of the main concerns is how to adequately present all those candidates to ensure a fair election.

Sadly, the gender ratio is a bit off: 30 percent women to 70 percent male. The ladies’ own fault, obviously, for not turning out in greater numbers.

From a press release issued by the institution organizing the constitutional assembly:

Iceland is now in the process of reforming its Constitution. The method used in the process is unique and not known to have been used before when a country is reforming its Constitution. What is historic is that a special consultative Constitutional Assembly will be established next year. The  Assembly will review the constitution and present a complete constitutional bill to the Althingi for process.

The elections to the Constitutional Assembly will take place on 27 November 2010. The deadline for the Candidacies for election to the Constitutional Assembly was 18 October 2010. A surprising number of candidates handed in their intention to campaign for a seat on the Assembly, or 525 persons which is 0.2 per cent of all eligible persons in the country. The Assembly will be composed of a minimum of 25 and a maximum of 31 delegates and they will be elected by direct personal election.

Another unique method in the reforming process is that the Act on the Constitutional Assembly stated that a National Gathering of approximately one thousand people should be held before the elections to the Constitutional Assembly. Those thousand people should be selected by means of random sampling from the National Population Register. The National Gathering shall endeavour to call for the principal viewpoints and points of emphasis of the public concerning the organisation of the country’s government and its constitution; A Special Constitutional Committee shall process the information collected at the National Gathering and deliver to the Constitutional Assembly when it convenes. The thousand participants are already registered. The oldest participant of the meeting is 89 years old and the youngest 18. The format and the discussion process of the National Gathering is partly based on the experience which was acquired during a similar gathering last year. The National Gathering will be a one day event on Saturday 6 November 2010 in Laugardalshöll (sporting arena) in Reykjavik.

Incidentally, the national gathering is modelled on the national assembly held last year. And, like last year, I’ll be there helping out, possibly by doing some live reporting, possibly by organizing stuff for the foreign media that shows up [if any]. The national gathering won’t have any direct impact on the constitutional review process, except that its findings are designed to be used as guidelines for those elected to the constitutional assembly, so in that sense it’s the “voice of the people” in the democratic process.

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  • Rik Hardy October 28, 2010, 3:00 am

    I always get nervous when I hear phrases like “Special Constitutional Committee”, which will “process the information collected at the National Gathering and deliver to the Constitutional Assembly when it convenes.”

    I can’t help wondering, just WHO appointed the people on the Special Constitutional Committee, and how free are they from conflicts of interest?

    When I wonder next who appointed the people who appointed the people who appointed the people… I greatly fear that either Doddson or the Russian mafia will turn out to be behind it all.
    (And, by the way, just because I’m paranoid it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me…)

    But I seriously think this is the main reason that so little ever gets fundamentally changed here. Forming committees is a delightful pastime for some politicians – especially the ones who love talking – but it can be a deadly addiction, and it’s almost a foregone conclusion that the result will be the forming of yet another committee, while the thinkers in our society wonder what on earth the point of having a brain at all might be.

    I only hope that in the coming negotiations people won’t get so desperate for change that they’ll settle for any incompetent idiot who looks different. Or, even worse: A DYNAMIC incompetent idiot.

    Jóhannes Björn was on Silfur Egils the other day and he spoke like a man who sees the tendency to foot dragging in Iceland with frightening clarity – indeed, he looks frightened himself – but he also seems to have an equally clear idea of what needs to be done about it, and he really seems to care.
    I don’t remember him talking about forming committees very much, but those politicians who actually WANT us to get out of this mess really need to start listening to men and women with non-partisan views like his. Egill seems to have a knack for finding such people, but many of the rest of us can also recognize them easily when we see – or hear – them.

    Compare that with the endless queues of IP men who are given a ludicrous amount of media attention considering their black record, and who seriously expect us to listen while they talk about what “we IP men think of the current government, and what we IP men would do if we were in power”.

    What you IP men would do?
    Look, you did it for well-nigh twenty years, guys. And we remember.
    Give us a break already.

    Frankly, I don’t intend to forget the run up to 2008 before 3008 arrives.
    See you then.

  • James Wilde October 28, 2010, 9:17 am

    Cool! Fantastic of doing things. I can’t think of any other country which would dare hand over the process so much to the people. Mind you, the final stage will change everything – when the proposed constitution is handed over to parliament for discussion and approval. That’s where the current gang will ensure the status quo, and build in all their safety nets.

  • Amy Clifton October 28, 2010, 10:31 am

    Alda, I think it’s a bit unfair to say that poor participation by women is “the ladies own fault” . The fact that women haven’t volunteered to participate is more likely a result of women feeling somewhat disenfranchised, underrepresented in important jobs, more or less powerless, and generally not respected as much as men in Iceland. I believe this is true in spite of the PM being a woman and in spite of the number of women in Althingi. I see so many women in Iceland who suffer from low self-image and sticking to traditional roles in the home and workplace. Do you think this is a misperception?

  • alda October 28, 2010, 10:56 am

    Amy, all that is true, but there is no one who can change that but the women themselves. Sure, it is a complex issue, but this would have been one way for women to step up to the plate and perhaps add a little something to the process of social change. Why they didn’t could be a study in itself — but I believe just playing the victimization card and not doing something about it will never change anything.

  • Derek Sommers October 28, 2010, 10:58 am

    Totally rotten Iceland, with a few brave souls:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=thaBnm6DDKw&feature=player_embedded

  • alda October 28, 2010, 11:07 am

    Thanks “Derek Sommers”. Incidentally, everyone, “Derek Sommers” has also posted under the names Stephen Jones, Snorri P, Derek Lovelock, Rasmus Kristjansson and Peter Reeves.

    Such imagination!

    Ordinarily I would delete his comment and blacklist him for such misrepresentation, but his video is actually pretty good.

  • sylvia hikins October 28, 2010, 11:19 am

    We were promised a ‘constitution’ here in the UK when the Labour Party was voted to form a Government in 1997 and we are still waiting. It’s not likely to be on any future agenda. Dead as the proverbial dodo me thinks. Me also thinks it’s because the big time politicians don’t want power to the people. Too dangerous. Lobbying influence might be significantly reduced, scratching each other’s backs, redundant. And there could be some awkward decisions, not in accord with what big business or big government would expect. But who says that ‘ordinary’ people couldn’t make just as good a fist of things as those ‘specially chosen ones'[like democracy is voting once every five years and then leaving it up to the elected elite to get on with it??] who say one thing before an election so that they can get elected, and then do something completely different once they are in power? The development and subsequent controlling power of political parties is a relatively new phenomenom. In the UK, members of parliament are meant to represent the views/needs of their constituents, not be whipped into party subservience. How can, for example,the proposed raising of tuition fees for higher education, therefore making England the most expensive country in the WORLD to study for a degree, be good for local constituents? But it appears that party loyalty comes above breaking election pledges. No wonder people are apathetic and disillusioned. Politics simply means ‘of the people’. The entire west NEEDS constitutional reform. Iceland- show us how it can be done….
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland October 28, 2010, 12:53 pm

    “I only hope that in the coming negotiations people won’t get so desperate for change that they’ll settle for any incompetent idiot who looks different. Or, even worse: A DYNAMIC incompetent idiot.”

    I could be just the person, I can see myself up on the podium surrounded by thousands of hysterical Icelanders cheering me on.

    Die Partei ist Kevin! Kevin aber ist Island, wie Island Kevin ist! Kevin, Sieg Heil

    Must go now have a flight to book to Reykjavik and a pair of Jackboots that need polishing. Ha ha Ho ho

  • kevin oconnor,waterford ireland October 28, 2010, 1:31 pm

    @sylvia hikins yes the 5 yr dictatorship of sofa government.

    Tony Blair “I have spoken to W and Rupert Murdoch we invade Iraq to seek out those non existent chemical weapons”( ie=cans of flyspray) what do you think Alistair ?

    Alistair “Ok”

    Cherie “I’LL stand by you Tony”

    Tony Blair “Good that’s settled then”

  • Alexander E. October 28, 2010, 3:55 pm

    “If you want to kill any important issue – set up a committee to solve that issue” © 1918 Vladimir Lenin

    PS. Rik. I can assure you that Russian mafia is not out to get you (but can’t say this about Doddson). And when it is – you’ll be notified promptly 😉

    PS-II. just checking if I’m in black list

  • Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir October 28, 2010, 6:13 pm

    The Constitutional Assembly is a wonderful thing and I’m thrilled that so many people are running for it, even though it diminishes my changes – I’m one of the candidates. I’m also really excited to learn what the National Gathering will come up with. I was among the lucky ones being invited last time and it was an amazing experience. Everyone exchanging opinions peacefully and respectfully, no arguments, just progress. Alda, I totally agree with you on the women’s issue. Why so few women decided to take part in this ground-breaking event when opportunities are perfectly equal is beyond me.

  • Missoula October 29, 2010, 2:05 am

    Any new, proposed constitution should be the work of a citizen-based Assembly ONLY, and should be voted up or down afterward, directly by the national electorate, w/o any tampering or amending by the sitting (and often corrupt) national parliament.
    Such basic start-points are progressive rules-of-thumb for all and any nations whose citizenrys lay claim to being ‘ruled by the people’ in this darkening era of tyrannical corporatism/neo-oligarchy/neo-plutocracy.

    In the case of Iceland: If Althingi members [regular MP’s) can basically do what they want with the recommendations of the Constitutional Assembly, then it’s hard to see how all these impending efforts by (presumably) mostly-average, honest, non-insider Icelanders will yield a desirable result — a desirable result being : a new and more citizen-empowering constitution.

    Case in Point: If Althingi MP’s have the ability to take proposals from a CA document [for exmple, a proposal that the new Icelandic constitution henceforth accords enumerated political rights only to human beings and specifically deny such rights to corporations– this being crucially-needed feature of any new constitution in the current era of corporate domination of government], and then amends such a proposal to become its opposite intent in the very processs of enacting the new document as a mere legislative bill, –then the entire citizen effort will run the risk of having been in vain, or even become something worse than simply leaving the present constitution in-place.

    Since it’s virtually certain that established (reactionary and illicitly privileged) power founts in the Althingi (or in any other so-called western/democratic parliament) will never vote to voluntarily diminsh the current legal /constitutional arrangements that favor their oligarchial ambitions, the ability of any such MP’s to easily re-shape the CA’s proposed document, while its in this still-mouldable condition, could, to repeat my point, well yeild a worse constitution than the present one.

    This gaping procedural pitfuall in the changing-out of national charters all too often yields anti-democratic results in other countries, it should be noted; and is one reason why, especially in the case of Iceland, –a country whose average people have been recently, badly-financially screwed by illicit arragements between government insiders and the agendas of private corporations, the Althingi should really only have, at most, the power to place (or not place) any proposed new constitution on a general election ballot — “as-is, “—and should not , in any case, have any powers to tamper with the document before it goes to the electorate.

    Even semi-ideally, Iceland’s CA’s members should have:
    [1] been formally elected by general public ballot, to begin with — with prohibitions against any sitting Althingi member from also running for, or serving in, or attempting to influence, the CA.
    [2] fashioned their proposed new constitution strictly as a collective and legally-empowered body of diverse citizens —though required in their assumbly proceedings to take free testimony and input from all sectors of society — but otherwise remaining independent of any other, formally-required interface with existing government institutions or personnel.
    [3] been allowed, by prior enabling legislation of the Althingi, to then place the proposed, finished document on the general election ballot for direct citizen approval or disapproval.
    And, if any such proposed constituion were written competently, it would at minimum have to contain proceedures for it own, future amending by, but only by, the Icelandic cizenry-at-large.

    The fact that few if any of these sine-qua-non, safeguarding democratic proceedures are being followed or newly instituted a-priori where necessary by Iceland’s regular/sitting parliament, or are not being annouced by the formalizing rule-makers of the about-to-be CA itself, casts doubt about the outcome of Iceland’s citizens’ attempt to refashion their constituion in a way will yield some significant and enduring deepening of democratic values and future law-making procedures of the regular parliament.

    None of what I say here is offered as any intended ‘lecturing’ to Icelanders by me or other of us USA progressive political theorists, most of us whom admire and hold dear Iceland’s amazing evolution of [heretofore] democratic political and economic institutions.

    Instead, these words are offered, for what they’re worth, as friendly-intended, ‘don’t -make-the-same-mistake-we-have’ warnings — warnings about the growing subtlty which out-of-control and increasingly sociopathic corporations employ in their aim to manipulate – if not outright own — legitimate, citizen-elected, democratic government in the west.
    With the exception of Nordic northern Europe – and its remotest outpost, the island nation of Iceland, the rest of the so-called western European decmocacies, and the USA, have, in fact , become near-irrescuable corporatocracies — nations and cultures whose politics, laws, constitutions, economic systems, social norms, and previously free mainstream news media are now almost wholly shaped by the agendas of, if not the outright ownership of, unelected, unaccoutable power founts of privately-pooled capital, pools run increasingly by ethically deranged individuals of insatiable material and ego-image greed.

    I care about Iceland, especially, because of all other developed nations, and until very recently, its people and government stood as an example of how to become more prosperous and more personally-free, w/o resort to the idiocies of doctrinnaire state socialsim , or fundamentalist pseudo-Christian religion, or the self-destructing solopsisms of Ayn Rand-type hyper-capitalism.

    So, my message, here is finally this: As you last-in -the-west-to-be-institutionally-corrupted Icelanders now go about possibly supplanting your constitution with another, better one — presumably so as to never easily let such a financial meltdown outrage ever happen again, be aware that your process for doing-so may not work as presently envisioned. Your citizenry may well need to tighten-up the legal procedures of your refrom processes, right now, to make those reform processes more radically-democratic and securely-grounded than they’re currently allowed to be.
    It ‘s likely that, otherwise, nothing effectively real is going to happen to thwart the growing corporatization of Iceland.

    And if you Icelanders need a normative reference point to remind you how, despite seeming differences in political cultures, modern corporate capitalism is increasingly co-opting and destroying every single instituion of Enlightment democracy across the planet, please recollect what just recently happened in the USA, where in our oligarchy, faced with apotentially violent mass rebellion against its outrageous imperialistic wars and domestic financial robberies at the end of the Bush Administration,, colluded to see to it that a fradulent but ethically high-sounding, democratic reformer, Barack Obama, get elected to draw-off the explosive steam; and how, once elected, this faux-reformer, a corporate quisling really, instantly proceeded to turn further-fascist than his widely-hated predecessor — all the while, and to this day, mumbling democratic/progressive nostrums for public consumption.

  • Rik Hardy October 29, 2010, 2:30 am

    @ Alexander E.
    How do YOU know they’re not out to get me?
    And WHO will notify me promptly if they are?
    You, perhaps?
    There’s something you’re not telling us here…

    @ kevin
    Go Kevin!
    Jackboots not necessary, but bring some warm socks.

  • Easy October 29, 2010, 11:42 am

    In my opinion this is just a watste of time, to be more accurate a distraction, one reason: the timing. How convinient the timing is, isn´t it? not even a sweat to shift the attention from the whole nation, from the real problems to the “possitive”.

  • Rik Hardy October 29, 2010, 1:14 pm

    I’m afraid Missoula is right.

  • Alexander E. October 29, 2010, 4:35 pm

    @ Rik Hardy
    “How do YOU know they’re not out to get me?”
    Rik, I know my country men well enough to be sure that you paranoia about Russian Mafia is just a … paranoia 🙂

    “And WHO will notify me promptly if they are?
    You, perhaps?”
    I’ve been retired long time ago – so not me for sure 🙂

    “There’s something you’re not telling us here…”
    You want the truth? Ok.
    Stop watching for Russian mafia behind all you troubles – then you might see who/what really caused the troubles 😉

    PS. Just joking about my retirement 😉

  • i am unique November 1, 2010, 2:28 pm

    Once again, Iceland is special : “The method used in the process is unique and not known to have been used before when a country is reforming its Constitution. ” I seem to remember, have no time to check, that it is exactly what Afghanistan and Irak have done of late. Constitutional Assemblies are the way constitutions are revised, France has had a couple for the last two large scale revisions. African countries do it all the time. Why do Icelanders always have to feel unique ?

  • Bjartur November 19, 2010, 11:53 am

    @ Missoula:
    I do understand your concerns regadring the Parliament being able to do whatever they want with the proposal of the Constitutional parliament…but I have somewhat more confidence in ym fellow country-men for the past 2 years. Icelanders havce learned to make themselves heard by the governemtn and parliament. Still all aprtues try to paly the old game, but because Icelandic politicians are having ahrd times to change or to accept change, they still think they can rule as they did the past 66 years. So I really do believe that if the parliament is tearing the draft of the Constitutional parliament apart, they will run into so much protest, that the 2008 demosntrations look like stree performances…that would be the end of the Althingi as we know it.
    A big problem for the sitting politicians is, that this Constitutional Parliament has more legitimation than Althingi itself, due to the election process and non-partizenship, and therefore is a threat in itself. maybe Icelanders can see now all by suddden, that a country of 320’000 can run with a direct democracy like Switzerland, if these few people decide to involve themselves in important decisiosn. the arguemnt of the “public being not informed and knowingly enough” to run states affairs themselfes can’t be sued anymore, can it? if you let the “publæic” decide the constitution, how can you deny them “lesser” issue to decide? Also, is Switzerland, with a far larger poplation and much more complicated infrastructure and society (mutli lingual, multi-ethnic, …) some kind of a failed state or one of the most successful nations in the world for the past few hundered years?

  • Missoula November 27, 2010, 12:45 am

    @Bjartur-

    Interesting observations in your post. Thank-you.
    Most other Icelanders I talk to apparently agree with your point that: current Althingi members would not dare reject or significantly
    tamper-wth recommendations of the constitutional assembly.
    I guess we’ll see if that’s true — soon enough .

    RE: direct democracy: it’s not clear to me how the logistics of absolutely-direct democracy would operate in Iceland or any other nation.
    Even given your example of Switzerland (which, granted, has more-direct democratic processes than most nations), there are still elected ‘representatives of the people’ both at the canton and federal levels. So, I don’t think one can eliminate the need for some degree of representationalism in anything much politically bigger than a tribe.

    Yet, I agree that the Swiss have fashioned governmental structures & procedures that are, from a democracy-valuing standpoint, superior to almost all others — especially in their frequent allowance and use of electorate-wide referenda, compulsory rotation of the federal presidency, and method for parliamentary passage of laws.
    As adapted to Iceland’s demography and culture, it would be hard to find a better generic model than Switzerland’s.

    Lastly, for now: what gives me the most concern over Icelanders’ brave intention to re-craft their national charter is that the preparation time allowed for this seemingly citizen-based process has not been -and will not be — adequate to the complexities of the challenge.
    If the Iceland-citizen challenge is to re-fashion a constitution that will make both government and economic forces more citizen accessible/accountable/transparent, without at the same time creating a
    dysfinctional bureaucratic monstrosity that stifles creativity and legitimate capital entrepreneurialism, then I don’t think the constitutional reform procedures are allowing enough time to do all that thoughtfully.
    Since the chief threat to democratic governanve institutions (in the industrialized west) now mostly comes from the ability of huge corporations’ and mega-wealthy individuals to, in effect, ‘buy’ both the mainstream news media and the political election process, their respective disastrous power to do so must now be legally and fundamentally curtailed.
    Yet, even in the best of Iceland’s CA candidates’ promotional literature, I see virtually nothing about how these issues would be seriously addressed, namely:
    nothing about disallowing legal corporate personhood,
    nothing about the need to publicly finance all political election campaigns,
    nothing about the need for anti-monopoly principles being applied (especially) to news-media ownership.

    As Iceland ineluctably enters, ever-deeper as it must, into a global political-economic meta-system now dominated as never before by anarchic and increasingly sociopathic powers of private wealth and power, it’s good citizens must have sufficient time to deliberate, understand, and craft a new constitution that at least provides constitutional resistance to these overwhelming anti-democratic forces.

    Unfortunately, Icelanders, who are officially the most literate people on the planet, may be nonetheless-here be stupidly trying to jam all this crucial and complex citizen work into a too-too-short time frame.
    Of course, since I love the country and its people, all I can do at this point is hope to hell that I’m wrong.
    But if I’m right, Icelanders’ rushing to meet this challenge may end up with a constitution that works even less-well than the present one –and that prospect should be given due thought, Right Now.

  • Laura November 30, 2010, 10:59 am

    Still no election results? Two days were estimated for tabulating and I am assuming these are hand counted. Hopefully we will see a short biography on each elected individual. It would be interesting to know more about the packets and sample ballots that were sent to each household. With 520+ candidates in the running, I would imagine that Icelanders were somewhat (further) overwhelmed.
    Let us know if anyone creates a blog where folks can offer (succinct) suggestions to the CA.
    Americans whom are still capable of thinking beyond themselves are praying for you, in the greatest hope that your government does not trade you into servitude of the EU.

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