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Icelandic democracy is dead

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]

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  • Elisabeth January 21, 2009, 12:10 pm

    I really do not understand why a country of 300,000 needs to model themselves on the governmental structures used by countries that have millions and millions of citizens. Iceland should instead be modeling themselves after the governmental structures of large cities, wherein the town council (in this case the Althingi) makes all decisions, both large and small, broken up into committees specializing in various matters. The President could be an independent body, separately elected, overseeing the appointment of judges. But an “executive branch” per se is really unnecessary, a ministry of this and that and the other. All you need is offices where citizens can process any necessary application. I seriously think one office where a person can apply for everything from a building permit to citizenship would probably work here. In other words, strengthening the Althingi is what is needed, nothing else.

  • James January 21, 2009, 12:18 pm

    Wow. Another excellent interview and a really interesting perspective. Good stuff…

  • Dave Hambidge January 21, 2009, 1:02 pm

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/7842172.stm

    Is all the BBC managed on the days events.

    dave

  • ino January 21, 2009, 2:23 pm

    Not too long ago a young MP voted against her own convictions because she was “on the team”.

    the way the icelandic parliament and government function (coalition government and multi party parliament) is the same as in most western european countries (denmark, germany, holland, belgium etc) and should work fine if everybody plays their part right and follows the rules. the mp’s of the coalition influence the political course of the government through meetings and discourse within their own party. Njörður makes it sound as though mp’s are slave to the party, but this is nonsens. mp’s are the power that the government is based upon. if an mp disagrees with a law before him/her and feels strongly about this point, they inform their party leader. they in turn explain to the government what the problems are. a minister will then either compromise, trade off or drop the plan. the plan then goes through parliament and if the mp still feels strongly against it, should vote against it! if that brings the whole government down, so be it. and if an mp is against a lot of plans from his or her own government/party, then maybe it is time to take a good look at their ideals and maybe join a different team or start their own party.
    in fact, considering the size of the icelandic althing (63 members?) an mp has considerable more voting power than in bigger parliaments!

    the fact that this young politician voted against her conviction does not say anything about the democratic system. it says something about the people that play the political game in iceland. strong leaders rule their party as if it were their own and get members into parliament whom the can apperently bully.

    in that same vein; the majority of members of Samfylkingin are in favor of new elections, yet the Samfylkingin mp’s follow ingibjorg and do not feel the need to pull the plug. then don’t go out on the street to protest, call a special meeting for your party and explain to ingibjorg that she is the next one in line at the job office if she does not do what those that pay contribution to the party want.

    over the last few months, there has been a lot of talk about the nepotism in iceland. political parties gave away assets to allied investors etc etc. and now there is a call for change, but lets face it….the bankers got favors from politicians who rose to the top of their respective parties party through meetings, rallies and votes. voted for by grass-root members of those parties. so do not blame the system, or the parties. blame yourself for voting for them time and time again.

  • ino January 21, 2009, 2:39 pm

    So you want elections as soon as possible? the solution is very simple and does not call for getting pepper-sprayed in the eyes or throwing skyr at althing.

    find 50 friends who can spare a few thousand kronur. all become members of Samfylkingin and pay your contribution. you are now a part of the political system. get as many autographs from other paying members on a petition, demanding a special party meeting. hand the petition to the leaders of the party while the press is there. at the special meeting demand that Samfylkingin step out of the coalition and put it to a vote. if the polls are right, you should have no problem getting a victory. if you do not get a majority for your proposal, accept the fact that you might just live in a country of sheep.

    it is a very simple process and beginning to end should last no longer than 2 months! elections in august are very possible….

  • Jim January 21, 2009, 3:11 pm

    The only information about Iceland’s protests I’ve seen in America is from Iris Erlingdottir’s posts for HuffPo. The Obama inauguration dominates the news here.

    Her earlier post about Iceland’s resemblance to Zimbabwe echoes this interview.

  • jim January 21, 2009, 3:29 pm
  • Vikingisson January 21, 2009, 4:30 pm

    wow, there are logical explanations and solutions coming from sides that disagree with each other. I’m not sure which path to follow. But this is a very interesting saga. Doesn’t matter that Amerika or U.K. isn’t paying much detailed attention, the news is available from Iceland herself. I do think that something serious needs to happen very soon.

    Looking at events in Zimbabwe are not as bizarre as it seems. Totally different situations but there is one thing that sticks out to me perhaps because it is a method we use here in Canada. Black market. While the fight continues on the political front you can also quietly and without regard to laws deal in cash be it U.S., Euro, whatever works for you. The black market can have a profound effect on a market system. Sometimes the government will simply legislate an ugly fix that will criminalize the people but sometimes they fix the actual problem. We’ve seen that here where making a simple and practical change stopped a black market overnight but in a fair manner that the people accepted. In other places they would crack a few heads and take over the black market for their own profits. Essentially this is what has been happening and continues to do so. Those loans are being squandered and stolen as we speak.

    Move away from the digital money system wherever possible. Stop feeding the corrupt system and they will take notice. But don’t stop the skyr thowing, just make sure it is old stinky skyr since it would be a shame to buy good cheese to throw at bad cheese heads. I’ll start with my desire to visit again, I’ll pay cash for a room or apartment so I can avoid a hotel that I can’t afford otherwise.

  • Andrew January 21, 2009, 5:12 pm

    A stark warning that Iceland is a kind of dictatorship. You’d better watch out in case Haarde and Oddsson set up their own goon-squads to hang on to power!

  • James January 21, 2009, 5:48 pm

    Today’s attack on Haarde’s car is already in the international news:
    http://www.reuters.com/article/rbssFinancialServicesAndRealEstateNews/idUKLL11005220090121

  • Ljósmynd DE January 21, 2009, 6:47 pm

    Once again a great interview with clear-sightedness concerning upcoming riots – which wasn’t too difficult to predict given the arrogant attitudes of the government.

    What is the constitutional role of the Parliamentary Speaker, whom Njörður want’s to be elected nationally? For all I read the current office holder seems to be focused only on the execution of the parliamentary routine, nothing else.

    I really hope, the level of violence on either side will not escalate. And I hope that substantial changes for the better are coming soon.

  • Mondrian January 21, 2009, 8:05 pm

    Thanks for posting this!

    First of all, while the idea of an appointed caretaker body may sound like a panacea, it’s problematic in practice. This would involve the stepping down of an elected government, (albeit one which has made serious mistakes), to be succeeded by one (however temporary) which would be unelected with a shaky mandate at best. Moreover, who would be charged with appointing this body, and based on what criteria?

    Second, as was correctly noted in comments above, the faults of the current Icelandic parliamentary structure can be regrettably quite common among governments using a proportional representation system. Some PR coalition governments work very well, and others are hopelessly nonviable, but the difference frequently comes down to the professionalism and competance of those who govern rather than the structure itself. And yes, non-PR parliamentary systems also have their share of shortcomings (see “Britain, Great”).

    I too am really hopeful that all this mess can be solved quickly and successfully, but care should be taken that the cures are not worse than the diseases.

  • Dorothy Gale January 21, 2009, 8:52 pm

    Wow, I just looked at the second Huffingtonpost article. Is it true that “One-third of Icelanders have indicated that they are considering leaving the island.”? That exodus would be a bit unprecedented.

  • Muriel Volestrangler January 21, 2009, 9:06 pm

    Good article on the protests by Erikur Bergmann:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/jan/21/iceland-globalrecession

  • hildigunnur January 22, 2009, 9:55 am

    ino, we don’t need to do this, it’s happening within Samfylkingin as we speak…