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Here comes the revolution

Have just returned from an incendiary citizen’s meeting in Háskólabíó.

It’s hard to convey to people the boiling cauldron of energy and ideas that is Icelandic society at this present time. I will go so far as to say that the force of what is happening now is like the movement that took place in the lead-up to Iceland’s declaration of independence – at these citizen’s meetings, demonstrations, in the media [some aspects of the media, at least], on blogs, between people. It is completely rocking the foundations of this society. [Mind you, those foundations are close to crumbling – which is perhaps why everything is rattling and shaking.]

People – young and old, from all walks of life – are coming out and expressing ideas that are radical and revolutionary and powerful. Like the idea that I’ve heard several times over the past few days – that we need a completely new constitution. In building this “New Iceland” that everybody is talking about, we need to start over. The details are intricate and too complex and numerous to do justice to in this space – but those details, the very fabric of a new society – are what people here are talking about these days. I’d say our biggest challenge is how to harness all this energy and all these ideas.

But back to the citizen’s meeting. There were four keynote speakers, each very different, each very good.

The first, Raffaella Tencon, an economist with Straumur Investment Bank in London [an Icelandic bank], gave an excellent and concise talk on where Icelandic society is at this moment in time – what our situation is, what the forecast is for the coming months, and what our options are, particularly in terms of currency [keep the krona / join the EU and adopt the euro / unilaterally adopt another currency]. Very clear and to the point.

The second, Robert Wade, an economics professor with London School of Economics, also gave an excellent talk. In July of last year, he wrote an article in the Financial Times in which he expressed his view that Iceland was heading for a fall – he had studied the economic meltdown in Asia in-depth and saw a very similar pattern here. The same day as the article was published, he was at a conference with a member of the International Monetary Fund, who praised him for speaking out about this matter – finally, someone had. In Iceland, meanwhile, he was denounced for his writings. Our current Prime Minister dismissed his article with the words that it was like a readers’ letter in DV [Iceland’s only tabloid][!!]. Wade touched on many things in his speech, but the one that evoked the greatest response was when he said that it was absolutely necessary, if Iceland wanted to re-establish any sort of credibility on a global scale, for us to “invite” our Central Bank director to look for another job. At this the crowd went wild and gave him a standing ovation.

The third speaker was an Icelander, an activist and documentary filmmaker, who delivered a rousing speech, in which – among other things – he traced the origins of democracy. He declared that the agreement between himself and those who are entrusted with his safety and welfare, and that of his family [i.e. the government] was broken. They had not held up their share of the bargain, and so the agreement was null and void.

The last speech, by a woman named Sigurbjörg Sigurgeirsdóttir, a public administrator, was definitely the most chilling. She began by saying that, earlier today, one of the cabinet ministers in the present government had said to her [aka issued a veiled threat] over the phone, when he found out she would be speaking: “be careful of what you say tonight”. [At this there were loud shouts from the crowd, demanding to know who it was.] She went on to expose an incident in which she had been involved, that so clearly demonstrated the corruption taking place behind the scenes in this country that it was staggering. In this case within the health care sector – surely the most vulnerable of all sectors in a depression.

Hearing such stories [which I absolutely believe to be true – mindful of the creepy exchange I had with an official from the Central Bank last month, I shudder to think of the pressure put on people who have something at stake] evokes such anger and such a feeling of utter powerlessness that it makes me want to scream and weep at the same time. The establishment in this country who have so comfortably placed themselves in seats of power, who continue to engage in nepotism and croneyism and what the speaker called “hands-off privatization” [i.e. when social services are privatized by a minister who makes sure his fingerprints are nowhere on the deal] and who REFUSE to step down or call elections or do anything to shoulder any sort of responsibility … who just don’t respond to the calls of the public for fairness and justice … what is to be done? What can be done with them? – I don’t condone violence in any shape or form, but I’m starting to think that nothing less than large-scale civil unrest will do in order to oust them from their lairs.

That last speaker also said that she knew of many people, professionals, academics, specialists in this country, who are appealing to their colleagues abroad to SPEAK OUT about Iceland, about what is happening here, because they, themselves, don’t have the courage to do so. Because they are afraid, for themselves and for their families.

Well I, for one, will not be intimidated. Let the scum rise to the surface, and let it all be revealed.

WEATHER
I’m so fired up right now that something so commonplace as the weather seems like an indulgence. Let’s just say that it was a perfect winter’s day. Utterly and totally beautiful. I started the day with a long walk at dawn [around 10 am], out by the lighthouse, with the full moon hovering overhead and a row of rose and gold in the eastern sky. So beautiful. Currently -4 [25F] but no wind. Sunrise was at 11.01, sunset at 4.12 pm.

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  • Adrian Hon January 13, 2009, 12:14 am

    It might sound a little odd, but I’m almost jealous of the level of debate and energy happening in Iceland now, from the sounds of your posts. That’s not to say that what has happened is tragic and far from desirable, but I’m impressed by the response of the citizens. Anyway, I’m really enjoying reading your blog – please keep it up!

  • Gregg Thomas Batson January 13, 2009, 1:22 am

    There is no need for a new constitution, Icelanders just need to someday read the one they have and actually follow it. On that note, you should stop waiting for the members of the Althing to call for new elections and appeal directly to the President since he is the one that holds the power to dissolve the Althing and call for new elections.

  • SchrodingersCat January 13, 2009, 1:58 am

    “The establishment in this country who have so comfortably placed themselves in seats of power”

    Not quite true, the voters placed them in power and now are sorry that they did. Before you head off to the barricades a bit of critical self-examination may be in order. This may prevent you from making the same mistake again.

  • Muriel Volestrangler January 13, 2009, 2:01 am

    Thanks for the nice summary, Alda.
    I didn’t watch Wade’s lecture but did see an interview with him on tv. Apparently he is very pessimistic. He said that Iceland’s situation was very bad (a non-functional banking system, not merely dysfunctional), the present government doesn’t understand the seriousness of the problem or won’t do anything, there will be a “second wave” of crisis (a very serious one) sometime in March-June coinciding with a global crisis, and that the Icelandic government must act immediately, within the next several weeks to next month to be prepared to deal with this second wave. (He didn’t say why he thought a “second wave” would hit, or what would cause it. You can supply any of the usual suspects – credit crunch, stock market crash, corporate bankruptcies, oil, war, etc etc. Nor did he say exactly what the government should do.)
    The second wave theory seems plausible enough. Individuals and companies will start to run out of money soon, and since wages and corporate income won’t keep up with inflation indexing (at 18%) there probably will be a new round of failures, foreclosures, and bankruptcies. Probably the “new banks” will fail too, since it would only take a 10-15% fall in income for them to tip over. And the government will run out of money from the first $800m IMF loan.
    Most likely the Icelandic government during the coming months will continue to do nothing.
    Btw, did anyone see Bush’s farewell “legacy” press conference today? He was either drunk, or he’s a complete moron. Maybe both.

  • Andrew January 13, 2009, 2:04 am

    Do you think the atmosphere is what the old Marxists called ‘pre-revolutionary’? I mean, if there isn’t an election sometime soon, could you see an angry mob storming Parliament etc?

    I am also wondering what your personal view of the currency is. Do you want to keep the Icelandic Krona, adopt the Euro or even the Norwegian Krone?

  • Don in Seattle January 13, 2009, 2:40 am

    Excellent reporting Alda. I’m glad to hear that you will be speaking freely. It sounds like that is becomming increasingly difficult to do there.

    Can you elaborate on your paragraph about professionals, academics, and specialists in Iceland being afraid to speak out. If they were to speak out, what sort of retribution would they face? Does the government have the power to intimidate those who dissent, and if so, how would it go about it? Vague, veiled threats or can they really cause harm (economic or otherwise) to those who want to speak their mind?

    Are the problems compounded because of the massive financial amounts involved and the possibility of criminal prosecution for their actions (or lack of oversight of actions) and what seems to be the subsequent attempt to cover up?

    All of this seems so un-Icelandic to me. If there was one place in the world where I thought fairness and justice prevailed, it was Iceland. Was I wrong to think of Iceland that way?

    Thanks again for the great information you provide.

  • Eric January 13, 2009, 3:35 am

    So politics arrives at last.

  • hildigunnur January 13, 2009, 8:27 am

    I really wish there was more dissent here, an article in Fréttablaðið today said there were only 29,5% of the population that had been actively involved in protests. I ask, where are the other ca 70%? Are they happy, or just lethargic?

    Future sure sounds scary. But we will continue.

  • alda January 13, 2009, 10:06 am

    Gregg – I think your point about appealing to the president is an excellent one.

    MV – he addressed the ‘second wave’ a bit more in his lecture. Apparently he feels it will be on a global scale and will be caused by millions of people throughout the world finally realizing the full impact of the recess / depression and the subsequent unemployment, lack of spending, etc.

    Andrew – I’m of the opinion that the krona should go. I’m perhaps not well informed enough to make a judgment about what should replace it, but the euro seems to make sense. That said, I’m not entirely convinced that joining the EU is a good idea (I vacillate on the issue) so perhaps it would be just as good to adopt another currency, like the USD or the Norwegian krona.

    Don – sadly, we’re seeing corruption on a grand scale here as more stones are overturned. The tactics are perhaps not as severe as in many other places (no executions, etc.) but there is a lot of fear, which is perhaps not surprising in such a small society. The damage that would be inflicted could, in my view, take two primary forms – overt or covert bullying (einelti, in Icelandic) which unfortunately is very widespread here, or economic, i.e. getting fired from a job, being transferred to a ‘lesser’ job, having your government department dismantled, etc. It was renowned throughout Iceland a few years ago when Davíð Oddsson dismantled the Economic Institute of Iceland allegedly because he did not like the criticism they were delivering.

    Hildigunnur – I ask myself the same thing.

  • James January 13, 2009, 11:25 am

    Interesting article. Even I felt radical by the end of it! But, given Iceland’s relatively impotent protests so far, it seems such a long way from revolution – and I suspect life would need to get much worse before the masses could be mobilised into insurrection! Perhaps the back of your Helvítis T-shirts could have Che’s “The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it drop.” 🙂 Vive la Revolution!

  • Annie Rhiannon January 13, 2009, 11:47 am

    Who was the documentary-maker who spoke third?

    Great post btw.

  • Trevor January 13, 2009, 1:20 pm

    “…a few years ago when Davíð Oddsson dismantled the Economic Institute of Iceland allegedly because he did not like the criticism they were delivering.”

    Wow! And this man STILL works at the Central Bank?!?! This is serious stuff… he should be banned from the capital entirely. It’s utterly incomprehensible to me how he still has a job when the hard-working and hard-hit Icelandic civilian population is having to be creative and do his job for him (i.e. figuring out how to fix the society’s economic problems, etc.)

    My overall response is just WOW. I really wish there were more and serious protests happening right now, but it sounds like maybe you’ll have to wait until the 2nd Wave before enough people get angry enough. The pity is that the 2nd Wave could be so much easier to get through if change happens RIGHT NOW.

  • Ljósmynd DE January 13, 2009, 1:20 pm

    There are currently so many trouble spots in the world that the Icelandic government might be tempted to try hiding, do nothing and blame the global situation for any further domestic decline.

    30% of the population involved in protests is not too bad on a global scale. Are there any ways discussed to convince the other 70% of the population – many of whom possibly caught in their daily treadmill to keep afloat – of the necessity and benefits to engage? Maybe they need to be shown perspectives of what can be achieved. Will there come a time to stop appealing to the parliament – whose members don’t seem to listen anyway – in weekly protests, which as time goes by might become kind of ritualised folklore, and broaden the operating range of actions?

    Has it been discussed in this meeting to appeal to the president in order to call for new elections?

  • Marc January 13, 2009, 1:38 pm

    Alda,

    I think your post explains very well that many in Iceland have come to realise that you are being governed by an incompetent and corrupt lot. But how to get rid of them? (obviously excluding violence and the like).

    In my view, the most important thing to do now is to create a platform text which can be supported by a great number of well known Icelanders (acedemics, writers, economists,…). This should not be a draft for a new society, but it should not mince words about certain truly unacceptable situations that exist currently.

    Next you need a couple of standard bearers who can speak for the Icelandic people. They do not need to be future politicians, writers will do. Also, you need to make clear to everyone that what you want to do is not to make everything new with new people, but that every law & decision should stand up to the scrutiny as being in the best interests of the Icelandic people, both short and longterm.

    Also you will need a place for katharsis. That means you will have to assign blame to the main culprits of the crisis. Officially, that is. Some kind of commission of truth should take care of that.

  • James January 13, 2009, 3:02 pm

    Marc – I suspect there are many prescriptive lists of what should be done, but the current paralysis is more likely due to the lack of an obvious leader to rally an insurgency. So, where is that elusive charismatic leader? Maybe there should be an Iceland’s Got Talent show to find him/her…

    Or, failing that, maybe the film Valkyrie will provide inspiration…

  • Elín January 13, 2009, 3:13 pm

    Any online video available of this meeting? Interesting that it was not broadcast live like the last Háskólabíó citizen´s meeting – could you speak to that for us? Is this the government suppressing the media or is the ownership of the media suppressing the story? Or both?

  • Stan January 13, 2009, 3:20 pm

    The documentary film maker who spoke third was Herbert Sveinbjörnsson. I am sure the omission of his name was just an oversight. But I’m touchy because I am a documentary film maker, too.

    Alda, I am so glad you are taking up this line and I hope that any einelti will not deter you or, even better, come your way at all.

    On one hand, I am a bit encouraged about how Icelanders are beginning to deal with the Kreppa, but on the other I am very cautious. A regime change would be difficult, but a whole hell of a lot easier than the cultural change needed to prevent this from happening again or even to clean up the mess. The work that you are now doing is important. I am wondering, though, what the role of us “outlanders” should be:

    “That last speaker also said that she knew of many people, professionals, academics, specialists in this country, who are appealing to their colleagues abroad to SPEAK OUT about Iceland, about what is happening here, because they, themselves, don’t have the courage to do so. Because they are afraid, for themselves and for their families.”

    I confess that I had higher hopes for the Facebook IWR group to discuss these issues and provide an on-going forum with an international base. I’ve even given it a few pokes, but it isn’t happening. Probably says more about Facebook than anything else. Maybe they’ll buy some T-shirts if they find out about them. We placed an order, by the way, and I am looking to presenting it to some Icelandic friends who live here.

    Keep it up!

  • alda January 13, 2009, 4:43 pm

    Annie, Stan – the omission of Herbert Sveinbjörnsson’s name was indeed an oversight – thanks for that, Stan. I was very tired when I posted this last night and wrote it very quickly.

    Trevor – yes, it happened while Doddson was PM. It was highly controversial at the time, but it was also at a time when practically the whole nation seemed to be asleep – or at least willing to turn a blind eye. They called the action something else, of course, but it was clear to many people what was really happening.

    LDE – the Icelandic government might be tempted to try hiding, do nothing and blame the global situation for any further domestic decline. We see that happening already. We’ve seen it ever since the crisis hit. – And no, this idea of appealing to the president has not been discussed, as far as I am aware.

    Marc – good list, and we already see some of that happening at a grassroots level.

    Elín – the meeting was filmed and will be shown on RÚV tomorrow evening at 22.20 local time. The people responsible for the citizen’s meetings have a website: http://www.borgarafundur.org. They don’t seem to have anything up about last night’s meeting yet, though.

    Stan – I agree, I’m slightly disappointed with the FB group also – BUT I’m working on an alternate plan. And the good thing about the FB group is that I can mail everyone with announcements (although I try to keep them to a minimum).

  • JoeInVegas January 13, 2009, 6:06 pm

    Most governments feel that their main job is to keep themselves in control. Look at all the dictators, and over here several people restricted by term limits (such as NYC mayor) are in favor of limits until they reach the end of theirs, then manage to change laws so that they can stay in power. After all, they are the only ones that know what to do! So I forsee your government starting to react to these ‘threats’ by beefing up security and starting to arrest those that keep getting in the way. Don’t expect them to go easily, but please keep pushing if you feel it is right.

  • maja January 14, 2009, 2:20 am

    I think speaking out instead of helping to hide the corruption is the best recipe for instigating change. It’s great that at least the people are trying to do something about Iceland’s situations even if the politicians are not. Change is always scary and hard but I think it will be worth it.

  • Dave Hambidge January 14, 2009, 1:13 pm

    Heady stuff!

    How many Icelanders were actually present at this event? Enough to turn rhetoric into action?

    dave

  • David January 15, 2009, 3:57 am

    Well, Mr. Davíð Oddsson will not easily let go of his office any more than a monkey will let go of a sweet. You know the story of how hunters used to catch monkeys in Asia: “They would hollow out a coconut, leaving a hole just big enough for a monkey to slip its hand in, but not big enough for the monkey to pull its fist out. The hunters would then attach the coconut to a tree with a rope and put a sweet treat in the hole. When a monkey came by it would smell the treat, reach in with its hand to grasp it, and get trapped. It was incapable of letting go.”)

    It seems Mr. Davíð Oddsson is also incapable of letting go. However, if he is a little smarter than a monkey, he will let go of his position as protests reach a crescendo. But whether he’s smarter than an monkey is – as yet – an unanswered question.

  • Guðmundur January 15, 2009, 11:15 am

    Dave, there were around 1300 people present at the meeting on monday. Add to that several thousands watching it on the telly last night, hopefully more people will wake up after this.

    Concerning asking the president to call for elections, well, that actually doesn’t work as he doesn’t have the power. I was at a meeting with Ragnar Adalsteinsson couple of months ago (Ragnar is the foremost human rights lawyer in Iceland and more often than not find himself in opposition to those in power) and he said all legal experts agreed that the president does not have the power to dissolve the government and call for elections. There is another option in the constitution, called “Landsdómur” (basically what in english is called impeachment), where the parliament can charge a minister for perjury, but this option doesn’t work as there’s hardly any distinction between the legislative and the executive branch in Iceland and the government always has the majority in the parliament, so there’s not a chance in hell anyone will be impeached.

    So, basically, in Iceland, the only one who can dissolve the government and call for elections is… the government. Quite scary. So, yes, we need a new constitution, with a clear separation of the legislative and the executive branch.

  • Gregg Thomas Batson January 15, 2009, 8:32 pm

    Guðmundur,
    Article 24 of the Icelandic Constitution states:
    24. gr. Forseti lýðveldisins getur rofið Alþingi, og skal þá stofnað til nýrra kosninga, [áður en 45 dagar eru liðnir frá því er gert var kunnugt um þingrofið],1) enda komi Alþingi saman eigi síðar en [tíu vikum]1) eftir, að það var rofið. [Alþingismenn skulu halda umboði sínu til kjördags.]1)
    and the English tranlation from the Icelandic government´s webpage:
    The President of the Republic may dissolve Althingi. A new election must take place within 45 days from the announcement of the dissolution. Althingi shall convene not later than ten weeks after its dissolution. Members of Althingi shall retain their mandate until Election Day.
    I would like to know how Ragnar Adalsteinsson could conclude that the President of Iceland does not have the power to dissolve the Althing when it is so clearly stated in the constitution. It reminds me of the fiasco over the veto of the media bill. Everyone debated whether the President could actually veto a bill when it is again clearly stated in Article 26.

  • Guðmundur January 15, 2009, 9:22 pm

    Yeah, I know, and IANAL so I can’t explain it well. But if I remember it right it has something to do with article 11 and/or 13:

    11. grein
    Forseti lýðveldisins er ábyrgðarlaus á stjórnarathöfnum. [The President of the Republic may not be held accountable for executive acts.]

    13. grein
    Forsetinn lætur ráðherra framkvæma vald sitt. [The President entrusts his authority to Ministers.]

    If I understand this right, the president hands the executive power to the chosen prime minister and his ministers, and therefore has no executive power himself. Article 24 therefore does not come into play except when there is no functioning government in the country and all tries to form a government have been fruitless. Then the president doesn’t have a choice but to dissolve the parliament and call for elections. Basically, the prime minister is the only one who can dissolve the government, then the executive power goes back to the president, who then can either invites a leader of another political party in parliament to form a new coalition, or dissolves the parliament and calls for elections. So, while there’s a functioning government, the president doesn’t have the power to do much of anything. And I think legal experts agree on this.

    But if Alda needs ideas for people to interview, Ragnar wouldn’t be a bad idea.

  • Gregg Thomas Batson January 16, 2009, 2:35 am

    Guðmundur,

    Yes, the Icelandic Constitution is an oddly written document. But the President “entrusting” his power to the ministers is really no different than a CEO entrusting his power to his management team. As long as the CEO holds the ultimate power of hiring and firing those people. Hence Article 15-Forsetinn skipar ráðherra og veitir þeim lausn. Hann ákveður tölu þeirra og skiptir störfum með þeim.(The President appoints Ministers and discharges them. He determines their number and assignments.) I am sure the legal experts have some rational explaination why the President can’t do this either. And Article 24 doesn’t say anything about a funtioning government. I guess what I would like to see is for the President to invoke the Article and let the courts decide what it really means. It seems such a waste to have 30 articles of a 79 article constitution refer to a position in the government that has no apparently has no power. Now that’s truly odd.

  • EEricson January 19, 2009, 11:48 am

    Finally the public is demonstrating in Iceland. I found it mindboggling after coming back, after a long time in the United States, how people here just silently took the political CORRUPTION and OPPRESSION.
    Yet people in other western countries were demonstrating over everything they wanted to oppose, naturally. Then I started to understand: NOONE WAS LISTENING. Just like noone listened to the warnings from Lars Christensen of Danske Bank and Robert Wade of LSE. Just like all the heads still sit on their posts, including the central bank head, contrary to the peoples´will and contrary to the criticism of both domestic and foreign experts. No, they were dumb and thought they knew it all. Dumb when they walked all over the people so footprints could be noted on peoples´backs. Dumb when they gave OUR banks to their political friends on a silver platter. Dumb when they almost gave away OUR electrical and heating company (Orkuveitan). Finally the people got angry enough to stand up.

  • EEricson January 19, 2009, 9:42 pm

    A correction to my statement above. It is not very fair and too general to say “noone was listening”, rather: few were listening. Too few, too late.

  • Bob Moore co March 5, 2009, 12:02 am

    As an Irishman, it’s scary to read your account – in many ways you could be talking about Ireland but we haven’t had the speaking out part yet. I guess our membership of the Eurozone has saved us from your fate so far. There’s a joke doing the rounds in Europe at the moment – “what’s the difference between Ireland and Iceland ? One letter and 6 months.”

    I hope it’s not true but with the share price of our 2 main banks at 60 c and 40 c at the moment – when 12 months ago they were both above € 20 – I am not confident.

    I wish you and yours all the best.