In our second in a series of interviews, we speak with Njörður P. Njarðvík, writer and professor emeritus at the University of Iceland. He has written a number of articles in Icelandic newspapers recently harshly criticizing Iceland’s government and parliament, and calling for a new constitution. Note that the interview was taken before the most recent protests began.
IWR: You have said that Icelandic democracy is dead. Can you explain?
NPN: Iceland is no longer a democracy. The Icelandic democracy that was established in 1944 has been reduced to nothing. Iceland today is a state of political party leaders. Its government is not a representative government. It is subject to the dictatorship of a handful of political leaders on a daily basis. The separation of the three branches of government is disregarded, Althingi [Iceland’s parliament] has been turned into a processing and handling institution for the executive power [the cabinet] and even the appointment of judges is subject to the whims of those in power.* This has become evident in the wake of the economic collapse.
Just as the heads of the banks walked out when the banks collapsed, the government should walk out and relinquish power. It should be clear to everyone that a government that has failed as utterly as the Icelandic government has can neither investigate nor clear up the past, nor forge a new path into the future.
An emergency government should be appointed temporarily – let’s say for 12 to 16 months. It should be an extraparliamentary government made up of honourable men and women with extensive powers. Its primary responsibilities should be two-fold.
On the one hand this emergency government should commission an extensive investigation into the economic collapse. It should also conduct a necessary cleansing in certain institutions, including the Central Bank and the Financial Supervisory Authority. All outcomes should be made public and should be followed up with legal action where necessary.
On the other hand, the emergency government should draft an entirely new constitution. This should be possible to do within a year. Subsequently the new constitution should be voted on in a national referendum, followed by parliamentary elections in accordance with the new government administration. It should be possible to do this within 16 months. The emergency government would then hand over the reins to the new government and new parliament.
IWR: Why do you feel that a new constitution is necessary?
NPN: The main purpose of a new constitution would be to ensure a real separation of powers between the three branches of government [executive, legislative and judicial] – thereby resurrecting Althingi as Iceland’s highest power institution.
We need a new procedure for elections where, for example, the Parliamentary Speaker is nationally elected, alongside other members of parliament. It would be sensible to take up the Finnish model, where the candidates from all political parties have a number and voters choose one candidate, who then brings other candidates from the party into government.
In Iceland today, the situation is thus: we elect a political party – not people, not individuals, but a party that has placed its candidates on a list. We don’t elect a government. We have no say about the basis on which it will operate. When elections have been held, party leaders – usually two of them – sit down and decide to form a government on the basis of some sort of “coalition agreement” that is so nebulously worded that it is virtually meaningless.
The “elected representatives” then take their seats in the legislature [parliament] under the new government, where they are to work on the basis of a division of power between the three branches of government.
However, in the Icelandic parliament the executive branch sits at a high table – facing the rest of the parliamentarians! Just to make it perfectly clear who is in charge! I know of no other legislative parliament where representatives of the executive branch are considered to have higher powers than other members of parliament. And the rest of the parliamentarians obey. In the blink of an eye, MPs are transformed into humble processing clerks. Not too long ago a young MP voted against her own convictions because she was “on the team”. In another instance, a parliamentary bill was blocked from debate because the government was preparing another bill about the same issue. Committee chairmen are instructed to put the matter to sleep.
It has now gone so far that it is not even enough for the executive branch to bully the legislature, they are also appointing their relatives and friends as judges. In other words they are also determined to subject the judicial power to their dictatorship.
It should be the main purpose of the new constitution to eradicate such corruption. However, above all else, the new constitution should include clear and strict provisions on ethics and responsibility that parliamentarians and cabinet ministers are subjected to. If they violate those provisions, they should resign.
The constitution that formed the basis of the Icelandic republic in 1944 is dead. The Icelandic nation is no longer independent and free – it is so enmeshed in debt that it can barely move. The government – and ultimately Althingi – are to blame for this.
For this reason the arrogance demonstrated by some cabinet ministers at this time is unbelievable. The Icelandic nation will not take this much longer. There is a danger that it will stop obeying authorities and that the result will be chaos and disorder, with unforeseeable results.
What has happened here is not some short-term phenomenon. There was a lengthy lead-up to the current situation. The problems this nation is facing are so great that they will not be resolved unless there are radical changes made, including fundamental changes to the government administration.
* Iceland’s Minister of Finance, who was acting Minister of Justice at the time, appointed Þorsteinn Davíðsson, son of Central Bank Director Davíð Oddsson, as regional judge in North Iceland last year. The appointment was highly controversial, and a complaint was filed by one of the other candidates. Last December, the parliamentary ombudsman ruled that the criteria for the appointment were “seriously flawed”.
[This post is filed under the “interviews” category]