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Sizzling meeting, cabinet in the hot seat

Whell, what a cracking good meeting that was!

Since the economic implosion a few weeks ago, a group of ordinary citizens have been organizing citizens’ meetings where they invite members of the government and others to come and respond to questions from the general public. Like the demonstrations that have been organized on the last seven Saturdays they provide an opportunity for people to come together and express their views, although obviously in a slightly different manner from the demos.

The first two citizens meetings were held in the Iðnó theatre, which is a fairly small venue. They were packed. The next one was moved to NASA, which was slightly bigger – it, too, was packed. This one tonight was held in Háskólabíó – the University Cinema – which seats around 700 people. Every seat was taken, people jammed the isles AND the sizable lobby in front was also packed with people, watching on screens. This meeting was broadcast live on national TV – for the first time.

Prior to the event, the organizers announced that they would reserve a labelled seat for every member of the cabinet. If they didn’t show up, the seat – with that person’s name in big white letters – would remain glaringly empty. Only one member of the cabinet – Minister for the Environment Þórunn Sveinbjörnsdóttir – confirmed that she would be there. In the end, the PM, the Minister for Foreign Affairs [who is also the leader of the coalition party], the Minister of Education, Science and Culture [who is deputy leader of the Independence Party], the Ministers of Finance, Industry, Communications, Fisheries and Environment were all there, as were several other MPs.

And what a sizzling event it was. Particularly for the PM and rest of the cabinet, who were reminded every few minutes with shouting and applause that the people want elections – they want cleansing! The speeches were impassioned and blazing, each one inspired and brilliant. [To me, the first one by economics professor Þorvaldur Gylfason – who I would like to see at the helm of the Central Bank immediately – and the last by writer Einar Már Guðmundsson were absolutely outstanding.] I found myself wondering repeatedly how the PM and the MFA and rest of the cabinet managed to sit there and take it … there was some seriously harsh criticism levied at them. And each time it was, and each time mention was made of the necessity of throwing out the cronies in the Central Bank, there was a torrent of applause, with people rising from their seats for added emphasis. It was amazing.

EPI and I had every intention of going tonight – it had been on the agenda for the last two days – but about an hour before it was about to start and right in the middle of fixing dinner, our main electrical fuse blew. It wouldn’t reset and we spent about half an hour searching for the problem, which turned out to be moisture in the kettle, right where the plug went in [the kettle wasn’t even on]. Anyway, that set us back time-wise and by the time we got it fixed and got the TV back on we saw from the live broadcast on Kastljós that, even at 7.30 pm, the auditorium was practically full – so we resigned ourselves to staying at home and watching it from the comfort of our sofa. I frequently found myself wishing I was there – but even at home, watching on TV, the fire and enthusiasm of those in attendance was infectuous.

I have to say, I was immensely proud of my nation tonight. There is so much fire in people, so much brilliance, skill, knowledge, articulation, clarity, sense of fairness and justice, desire for something new and wholesome and better … it has to come to pass. It just has to.

NOTHING QUITE SO DRAMATIC ABOUT THE WEATHER
Sure, it’s been blowing a bit today, but on the whole it’s been fairly tame. Cloudy skies, gray and fairly nondescript. Occasional drizzle. Temps right now 3°C [37F]. The midwinter sun came up at 10:26 am and set at 4:02 pm.

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  • Erlendur November 25, 2008, 12:17 am

    I thought that Stóri Salur of Háskólabíó had room for 1000. But this was a powerful meeting.

  • Karen* November 25, 2008, 12:20 am

    It’s still going on the link you gave us. Are those the government folks in the background?

    Did any of them speak, or respond to questions? Or were they just asked to sit there and listen?

    There’s some booing going on now… maybe one them is speaking! I can’t tell – no language knowledge! ‘Though it is an interesting …. flow … to the sounds.

    How old were you when you think you were first fluent in both languages?

  • Karen* November 25, 2008, 12:27 am

    Oh! I’m eating Gimli, Manitoba produced skyr while I’m listening in Ontario!

  • alda November 25, 2008, 12:30 am

    Erlendur – you may be right. I’m not sure of the exact number of seats – I thought it was around 700.

    Karen – so it is! It’s actually a video of the meeting. – Oh yes, the public demanded answers, so they asked questions and the cabinet ministers (they’re sitting to the left and right of the podium, PM et. al. to the right) responded.

    And I was around five when I became fluent in English as well as Icelandic.

  • Bluegrass Mama November 25, 2008, 2:48 am

    Let’s hope the citizens get some satisfaction soon. Obviously, there will be no miraculous turnaround that cures the economy immediately, but I’m sure everyone there is itching for change. Except those currently in power, of course. Then again, they probably don’t want to deal with it anymore.

  • Aline November 25, 2008, 9:33 am

    Alda, thanks for the information about the broadcast last evening. I watched from home here in Edinburgh and I was also really proud of Icelanders yesterday. My boyfriend has attended to all those public meetings but yesterday it was special for him. He called me just after the meeting to tell me how was it. Fantastic! You know… I don’t want to have hopes about Iceland, I want people to get engaged… thanks, Alda!

  • hildigunnur November 25, 2008, 9:50 am

    969 seats in the Stóri salur, iirc 🙂 We’ll soon have to move this to Laugardalshöll!

  • Muriel Volestrangler November 25, 2008, 10:26 am

    Thanks very much for for your interesting and adept summary, Alda. I watched part of it — yes, it was fascinating to watch. People were definitely aroused and it was great to see the rising (and angry) populist swell and to hear some intelligent, outside voices weighing in. But it was also sad in other ways. The government figures continued to give the same canned responses that they have given so far, that they were instigating matters, the loans were on track, they were working hard for the people, blah blah blah. They continued to put the blame on others — mostly, on the “world financial crisis” — and Geir said flat-out no to a new election and to an outside investigative panel. Ingibjorg Whats-her-name continued to evade the important issues and at one point said the people in the hall didn’t represent the whole population (booo!). Most distressing was the dull intellect displayed by these politicians (esp. Ingibjorg, the human log). In another country, they would be sitting on the local school board, not running a modern economy (or trying to) and negotiating foreign policy. On the other hand, the speakers were very impassioned and straight forward — they told them to quit or “disappear”. Everyone demanded new elections. I liked Thorvaldur’s suggestion (an obvious one) that there should be an investigation run by or with foreigners (the Norwegians) and that the mistakes or crimes of the government and the bankers should be laid open for the rest of the world to see. Well, it was a good effort, and if it continues these clowns may have to give in to new elections, even if they can’t admit the truth and recognize their own failures. They can cling to their positions on the bus out of town, I hope.

  • alda November 25, 2008, 10:39 am

    Muriel – thanks for this. I have to make a couple of points, though – the idea of foreign investigators into the bank crisis has been aloft since the banks went down and it’s generally agreed – even within the government – that this is what has to happen. As far as I know Geir agrees – he didn’t say a flat-out no to the outside investigators, although he continues to refuse early elections. But definitely the same old responses, yes. I have to say the person who surprised me the most was Þorgerður Katrín (Minister of Culture, Education…) as she was the only one who showed a semblance of humility and admitted that the government had made mistakes and needed to improve, esp. in terms of transparency.

  • Vikingisson November 25, 2008, 11:09 am

    Thank you for the synopsis, I wouldn’t be able to follow the Icelandic especially impassioned Icelandic. Of course the problems begin and end with the world economic crisis but Iceland didn’t have to play along especially since it can and did bring down the whole country. I’m sure that the credit failures in the U.S. far outstrip that of the Icelandic banks but they don’t amount to 10x the GDP, yet.

    This may be way off topic but I was thinking about what has happened to all the foreign geo projects. There were some rather large projects in eastern Europe and central America and perhaps other places. I think they were financed by the same failed banks? Initially some of the projects were a clever way to provide foreign aid that a small nation would not otherwise be able to give. But if the banks providing the low interest loans have crashed then what happens now…

  • Vikingisson November 25, 2008, 11:46 am

    FYI, I went to the URL that was in the background: http://www.borgarafundur.org/

    I still can’t understand the language but they seem to have done a very good job of breaking down the meeting and other related news. And they used the same WordPress and plugins that I use on my blog. Excellent use of the technology.

  • Rachael November 25, 2008, 12:19 pm

    Thanks for keeping us informed Alda, I hope the citizens’ views at these meetings are being listened to and noted by the government. How did they manage to get so many big cheeses to attend? Because it was on TV?

    (by the way, I’m still reading the Latest Headlines, and I’m sure I can’t be the only one! 🙂 )

  • jpeeps November 25, 2008, 12:30 pm

    And I’m reading the headlines too. Please carry on with them if they aren’t too much of a hassle.

  • Ad November 25, 2008, 2:23 pm

    Hey, I got my Icesave money back today so I’m a happy chap. All the best, Iceland. I hope things work out OK.

  • Marc November 25, 2008, 2:29 pm

    Exchange rate situation worse again. Free float 289/1 vs 180/1 official.

    I like the headlines. Read them every day. I read today that 42 MP’s expressed the will of 30% of the Icelanders and 18 expressed the will of the other 70%

  • alda November 25, 2008, 2:37 pm

    News headlines feedback noted – thank you!

    Ad – congratulations! That’s good news. I wish I could say the same here – my funds are still frozen in Glitnir. 🙁

  • Bryan Bessette November 25, 2008, 2:52 pm

    Wow! Fantastic civic engagement! Go Iceland!

  • Polar Bear November 25, 2008, 3:34 pm

    Who elected this pack of fools? Oh yeah, the people of Iceland….

    Never mind.

  • Andrew November 25, 2008, 3:44 pm

    “Motion of no confidence against the government voted down yesterday, 42-18.”

    If you keep up the demonstrations and meetings, I expect there will be more no-confidence motions and one may succeed! Has anyone thought of organising a petition to the President asking him to remove the government. If a really large number of voters sign it, he may respond.

  • Grif November 25, 2008, 5:41 pm

    I too read the headlines at least once a day. Think that it averages at 2 times. Because if you post more than 4 items a day the last one gets knocked off. So if anything, it would be great if we could read more headlines if they were from the last 24 hours or catch up with the last headlines of e.g. 7 days somewhere.

    Thanks for all the effort you put into this site 😀

  • James November 25, 2008, 5:54 pm

    Haarde’s main argument seems to be that it would be a mistake to hold elections now because the nation is in crisis (I read that he phrased it as in the middle of a rescue mission). So, if the crisis continues for several years, then it will be best if elections are postponed indefinitely. Term limitations would obviously be counter to Iceland’s stability, so a PM for Life would resolve the uncertainties. Alternatively, a King Haarde and his offspring could ensure continuity for a thousand generations.

  • James November 25, 2008, 5:58 pm

    “Is anybody still reading these? [25.11]”
    Yes! 🙂

  • alda November 25, 2008, 6:30 pm

    Andrew – I think there are already a couple of petitions making the rounds, and several Facebook groups that people can join. One problem, if you can call it that, is that there are protest groups all over the place. Although it seems that some of them may be joining forces and getting organized.

    Grif – Because if you post more than 4 items a day the last one gets knocked off. – Only if I knock it off! I just tend to think the column gets a bit long. I’ll leave them up if you’re still reading. As for past headlines, that sounds a bit too much like this, which would be a bit too time consuming under the present circumstances.
    And – you’re welcome. 🙂

    James – trouble is, we already have a King Davíð. Yes, that’s really his nickname around here. 🙂

  • Marc Scot November 25, 2008, 6:33 pm

    Yes! Still reading the headlines! Thanks!

    Watched bits and pieces of the meeting and wishing my Icelandic wasn’t so non-existent! Yay, civil society!

  • JoeInVegas November 25, 2008, 7:53 pm

    It sounds like your government reacts like ours, and most others – ‘It’s our country and we are fixing it and nobody can do better, but I’ll smile and ignore you common people’
    I’m glad we had an election scheduled, but now the current administration says they will do absolutely nothing for the next two months, and leave it all for Obama. The Republican radio stations are already calling this ‘Obamas recession’.

  • ballymichael November 26, 2008, 4:40 pm

    I’m very glad to see an english-language explanation of the entirely unterstandable popular discontent.

    I’m sorry if this is a basic question, but do icelanders have much concept of “democratic accountability”.? Put simply, it means politicians resign when they screw up badly.

    I realise iceland has this hugely long democratic tradition, oldest parliament in the world and all that. But this rather basic concept seems to elude icelandic politicians, just like “banking regulation” appears to have eluded the icelandic regulator. Here’s their mission statement, just for a laugh.

    Our mission is to:

    – Promote stable financial services market
    – Maintain solid foundations of the financial services market
    – Promote credible and lawful operations

    Keep the pressure up on them please.

  • alda November 26, 2008, 5:12 pm

    ballymichael – alas, no. One of the most frequent complaints in this country concerns this major blemish on the Icelandic political system. It is continually being pointed out to them that in our neighbouring countries, the ones we like to compare ourselves to, politicians resign over things that here would be considered petty – like buying chocolate bars and diapers (nappies) on a government credit card. Here an entire banking system implodes and one person – ONE – resigns, from the Central Bank’s board. None from the cabinet.

  • Grif November 26, 2008, 10:37 pm

    Only if I knock it off! ohh I see.

    The backlog could pretty much happen automatically, but then again, setting it up might require quite some work, making your point perfectly valid again :p

  • alda November 26, 2008, 11:39 pm

    Grif – if you’d like to arrange the set-up, I don’t mind supplying the headlines. 🙂

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