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Of Iceland’s president and the supremacy of Icelandic democracy

On eyjan.is – one of this country’s most popular websites – there is a blog called Orðið á götunni [Word on the Street] which is written anonymously and focuses on the buzz in Icelandic society at any given time.

The current post claims that, since people are generally so pleased with President Ólafur Ragnar’s appearance in the foreign media, lots of folks would like to see him and Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir switch places – to have her move to Bessastaðir [president’s residence] and to have Ólafur return to parliament. The posts suggests that perhaps we could vote on that proposal as well in the upcoming national referendum.

Not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea, and the first comment beneath the blog post is pretty stellar. An eyjan reader named Jón Örn Marinósson writes:

I beg your pardon? I presume the proposal in the last paragraph is a light morning joke. Just the idea of having Ólafur Ragnar back on the battlefield of Icelandic politics makes me shudder; there are enough devious political foxes there as it is. In his “interview” with the BBC Ólafur uses the same tactic as his arch nemesis for many years, Davíð Oddsson, and tries with an incessant stream of words to prevent the host from asking uncomfortable questions. The president’s defiance borders on rudeness and is not fit for a man in his position. Ólafur also talked as though democracy in Europe was nowhere greater and more effective than in Iceland. I beg your pardon? What about the inequality of ballots in Iceland? What about the two-party governance that has infested Icelandic society for more than 100 years? Ólafur also talked as though referendums were a fundamental part of Icelandic politics and practically an annual event here in Iceland. In the just over 100 years since Iceland gained home rule, Icelanders have had a chance to take part in two referendums – on the alcohol ban and the founding of the Republic. I am 63 years old and have never voted in a referendum – and neither has Ólafur Ragnar. It is possible that some BBC listeners bought into Ólafur Ragnar’s unctuous description of Icelandic democracy – but it does not make me feel any better being supported by people who have been purposely deceived with the unsubstantiated claims inherent the interminable wordflow of our president. Ólafur Ragnar was not prudent when he gushed about Icelandic business acumen on his travels abroad and its supremacy on a global scale. I think he would do well to watch his words now when speaking about the excellence of Iceland’s democracy and its global supremacy.

For anyone who is interested, here is the BBC interview again:

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  • James January 9, 2010, 11:33 pm

    “…in Britain you don’t have an experience of trusting the people…”

  • sylvia hikins January 9, 2010, 11:57 pm

    Yes, he fooled me. From his words I concluded that a referendum was , as he put it, ‘ a normal part of the democratic process’, and therefore not an unusual event in Iceland. His treatment of your Prime Minister in not letting her know in advance of his decision, so that she could prepare a statement, is despicable. I have more than a gut feeling that he is part of a wider conspiracy to discredit her so that the present opposition can get their hands again on the reins of control. If that happens, who knows, your banksters just might decamp from their London and Moscow houses and take themselves back to Reykjavik again.
    sylvia from viking wirral

  • Schnee January 10, 2010, 12:18 am

    What about the two-party governance that has infested Icelandic society for more than 100 years?

    The Iron Law of Oligarchy at work. It’s the same everywhere else, too.

  • øyvind giæver January 10, 2010, 12:49 am

    If I were an Icelander (which I’m not), I’d be more worried about my president’s unconstitutional project of rewriting the constitution, than about the Icesave debt (which, after all, amounts to a fairly small fraction of Iceland’s total debts these days). Until recently, I thought he felt he was somehow forced to make the Icesave veto because of his unprecedented veto in a matter of (perhaps) smaller consequences a few years ago. Now, in the BBC interview, it turns out that it’s all part of a long term plan: he envisions a more direct democracy for Iceland, based on frequent referendums (and even changes history to make it sound like an ancient tradition)! As pointed out in Fréttablaðið some days ago (quoted on this blog), this is obviously not the intention of the constitution, and (mark my words!) you’re going to find it far more difficult to live with than the Icesave debt! (I must say I’m surprised that this apparently plays such a periferal role in the present Icelandic debates, with a few laudible exceptions, perhaps including Jón Örn’s comment above.)

  • Andrew January 10, 2010, 3:25 am

    We trust the people to vote out any government we don’t approve of!

    I think the Presedent should tone down the rhetoric a little. It might play well to part of the domestic audience, but it doesn’t sound so good to foreigners!

    I suspect you would have massive support in Britain with the simple message “Please help”. Remember the old British saying “Never kick a man when he’s down”? It still applies. You need to soften up the British Treasury, who are trying to drive a hard bargain (much too hard in my opinion).

    Good luck. Some of the British do care about you, you know.

  • Ethan January 10, 2010, 6:21 am

    That interview was full of zingers.

    By the way, I have a compromise for this IceSave dispute: During the Versailles Treaty negotiations, John Maynard Keynes noted that Germany will benefit by paying those massive reparations if the recipients spent a higher proportion on German goods than Germans spend on their own products.

    Perhaps Iceland should pay the IceSlave (Save) debt, while the UK and Netherlands promise they will only spend the compensation on Icelandic goods. The government will essentially be injecting $5.4 billion into its own domestic economy. Maybe require all radio stations to broadcast a certain number of songs by Bjork or Sigur Ros? Require all British and Dutch telcos to move their servers into Icelandic server farms? Just a thought…

  • Joerg January 10, 2010, 9:31 am

    I don’t understand, what should be so democratic about one single man ruining one year’s ‘work’ of parliament. It’s the opposite. 

    This kind of makeshift direct democracy without a sound foundation is somehow like Icelandic cronyism in disguise. 

    The veto and the call for a referendum may be convenient for the President this time. Next time, when he doesn’t want a referendum, he can easily do without it, as there are no unambiguos criteria given, when to ask the people. For him, the referendum is a playball in a power game.  

    Did people in Iceland really read foreign media? Or is the impression of the President’s appearance there only conveyed by Icelandic media with an agenda? The comments in German media in support are often coming from people with not much knowledge about the situation in Iceland. And those opinions can easily be swayed. If I were an Icelander, I would feel uneasy, if this should be the foundation of political decisions.      
     

  • Andrew January 10, 2010, 10:18 am

    Here is an interesting article:

    Iceland draws sword on ‘pillager’ Gordon Brown.
    Voters are ready to back their president’s refusal to repay debt to Britain, reports Rosa Bjork Brynjolfsdottir in Reykjavik.

    http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/europe/article6982397.ece

  • Joerg January 10, 2010, 1:08 pm

    I had a comment on the way but it appears to have got lost somehow.

    Just a remark on the value of trust on the international markets vs. playing chicken like this in the Icesave game.

    The Argentinean government is currently desperately trying to repay its debts to foreign creditors in order to regain trust and access to the international capital markets after many years of crisis. To this end they are even willing to plunder their Central Bank’s currency reserves, which is very controversial, even within the ountry.

    I guess, one day or other there is a price to be paid for regaining trust. In the case of Iceland, this price can be paid now or it will be be paid later – the difference being, perhaps, a lost decade.

  • James January 10, 2010, 6:29 pm

    According to The Economist’s Democracy Index, Iceland is 3rd in the world and UK is 21st. I wonder if The Economist’s assessment took account of one man’s power to, whenever he feels like it, override parliament and temporarily convert a parliamentary democracy into a direct democracy.

    http://a330.g.akamai.net/7/330/25828/20081021185552/graphics.eiu.com/PDF/Democracy%20Index%202008.pdf

  • Gregg Thomas Batson January 10, 2010, 7:56 pm

    A few points regarding the President and the Constitution.

    The first 30 articles of the Icelandic Constitution refer to the power of the president in some way. So 38% of the constitution deals with what is said to be a figurehead position. If the Icelanders didn’t want their president to have any power, why did they create the position in the first place and waste so much space in their constitution?

    The President of Iceland is the only member of the government who is directly elected by the entire country. And the people vote for a person when they vote for president, not a party list as in the case of parliament.

    Article 2 of the Icelandic Constitution states-
    Althingi and the President of Iceland jointly exercise legislative power. The President and other governmental authorities referred to in this Constitution and elsewhere in the law exercise executive power. Judges exercise judicial power.

    The President shares legislative power and holds the executive power. However he almost never uses his power. But he does have the power, none the less.

    The article that the President used to not sign the Icesave bill is number 26 and states-
    If Althingi has passed a bill, it shall be submitted to the President of the Republic for confirmation not later than two weeks after it has been passed. Such confirmation gives it the force of law. If the President rejects a bill, it shall nevertheless become valid but shall, as soon as circumstances permit, be submitted to a vote by secret ballot of all those eligible to vote, for approval or rejection. The law shall become void if rejected, but otherwise retains its force

    The president simply has the power not to sign. And it is not even a veto power as the president in the US holds. It only allows the president to put a law to the vote of the people. If the parliament is a fair representation of what the people want, the people should vote exactly the same way as the vote went in the parliament. But if the parliament has gone against the will of the people that they are supposed to represent then the bill will be voted down. This is a check on the parliament’s power. Why is there trust in the people to elect other people who most times have no experience to run the government but there is no trust in the people to vote in a referendum in which their very livelihoods depend?

    There is nothing in the constitution that even remotely suggests when or how the president uses his power. Fréttablaðið and others are making speculative interpretations on what is really a straight forward document. It is possible to read the English translation here-

    http://www.government.is/constitution/

    If some Icelanders are not happy with the President for exercising a power that he clearly has, then the only solution is to rewrite their constitution, not make unsupported statements as to what they think he can or cannot do.

    Gregg Thomas Batson

  • øyvind giæver January 10, 2010, 10:13 pm

    Mr Batson,

    Coming from a fairytale country where a King holds similar powers according to the written constitution as the Icelandic president, I believe constituions are as much about practice and precedence as written documents. Some countries (e.g. the UK) don’t have a written constitution at all, but they nevertheless have constitutions. The fact that no Icelandic president has ever used their constitutional power to veto IS a part of the Icelandic constitution, and, by changing that (non-)practice, the present president changes the constitution.

    I agree with you that the only solution now will be to change the written constitution, though. The present practice will make long term parliamentary reconstruction work very difficult.

  • Kevin January 11, 2010, 12:16 am

    I have to agree with Batson here, it’s just another one of the checks and balances to ensure that the electorate are properly represented. If the Icelandic Parliament passed a law suggesting to invade Poland (yes ridiculous example) you would expect him to veto it, wouldn’t you? Clearly the president thought that the majority of people felt misrepresented with it being passed, thus exercised his power for a referendum. The Swiss have referenda on everything, and no one calls them fascists, unless I’m wrong.

  • Bala January 12, 2010, 4:44 pm

    I agree with Kevin and Batson, you need to have checks and balances so the Parliament does pass law that the general public do not understand or vote for when the issue is as big as Icesave. I do not agree with the statement made by øyvind giæver. He seems to think that Parliament can hammer out all the issues, that is not true sometimes it makes sense for the people to participate in the process. The real issue with Icesave is:

    Iceland is being made to bear a disproportionate part of the liability. For example, if Barclays goes down the British Government gurantees only 50.000 pounds of the deposit. With Icesave the British and Dutch authorities have guranteed the entire amout without the consent of the Icelandic government or with the consent of a broken government. I think that is wrong, they should have done what they would have done for their banks… now that the money is out of the window, the Brits and Dutch want to be paid of course not at discounted levels but at the current prevailing market rate as a Loan Shark would… again that is wrong! A Political debt is much more powerful than a business transaction, the Brits and Dutch could have gotten so much Good Will if only they said we will bail out Iceland the same way we would bail out their communities.