In the wake of the financial crisis, Iceland was seen by many as a beacon of democracy in its attempt to create a new constitution. Activist and author, Smári McCarthy argues that although some may have seen Iceland as a utopia, the effort put into creating the new constitution have largely been squandered as those responsible for the crisis have returned to power.
Four years ago, we had hope. We had just been through an economic collapse, the likes of which had never been seen – an enormous portion of the economy gone over the course of a few maddening weeks, and the aftermath had been an uprising that dwarfed the NATO protests of 1949. But after the embers cooled and the tear-gas cleared, the reconstruction began.
Protesters outside the Alþingishús, home to the Icelandic parliament. (Credit: Haukurth, CC by 2.0)
Unemployment was around 9% at the time, up from just over 1% a year previously. Companies were going bankrupt all around, debt was crushing families, and food queues were getting longer. It was something we’d never seen in Iceland. A country that had the year before ranked amongst the richest in the world, a world-class welfare state with strong investment culture that was taking Europe by storm, had now been reduced to the same unimportant volcanic wasteland as it had been in the 60′s, only with better infrastructure and more debt.
After the government collapsed, a new social democrat and left-green coalition took over. Amongst the many things they promised to do was work towards a new constitution. The shortcomings of the old Danish hand-me-down constitution was not the cause of the collapse, but they certainly didn’t help. The call for a new constitution was as much a demand for cleansing as it was for a reconstitution of our values.
Creating a Constitution from the Bottom-Up
The constitutional process was kick started with an assembly. One thousand people were randomly selected from the census for the task of creating the constitution’s guidelines. Over the course of a day, people young and old collected their ideas, their hopes and their dreams, on small tickets that then underwent a process of statistical aggregation and processing. This was done in multiple rounds: the first round collected very shallow but broad ideas, partially to get people’s creative juices flowing, partially to widen the space of thought. As the day went on, these ideas were processed down and filtered into a large set of statements about the contents of the future constitution.
The outcome – a large set of ideas and statements – was sent to a committee, which outlined a legal basis for these ideas. When they had processed all of this into a thick report encompassing vague ideas, strong statements, and legalese, an election was called: twenty-five people were to be elected for the task of merging legal tradition, popular sentiment, outlandish ideas and strong demands into a document that would be ours.
Five hundred and twenty-three. When one in every five hundred people in the country is a candidate, things get a bit weird. The anticipation in society was so great, candidates were everywhere. It became popular to run campaigns without advertising, but not everybody agreed. Some ran small spreads in the papers, made little handouts, or bought airtime. Others took what little attention they could get for free. The opinions varied too: some were more conservative, others more avant garde. Some spoke of reorganizing the entire structure of the country, others wanted to make only minor adjustments. A few wanted no changes at all.
(Credit: Matito, CC by 2.0)
Election day came and went, the results were tallied and the assembly was populated. Only, after the elections, the supreme court decided that there had been six violations of the election law. “Trivialities!”, some cried. “Banal nonsense!”, the old guard trying to prevent change, it was said. And the violations truly were trivial: the law says that the ballot shall be returned to the ballot box folded in the same way as it was provided by the election committee. The ballots had no fold at all.
The parliament was faced with a predicament. They could either repeat the election, which would have engendered anger from candidates and voters, reduced voter turnout, reduced faith in the process, and all with a price tag of over £1.2 million. Alternatively, they could scrap the entire thing. Of course they picked option number three: they scrapped the idea of a democratically elected assembly of twenty-five people, and instead politically appointed a council of twenty-five people. The people who would have won the election if the election had not been deemed a violation of the election laws were appointed to the committee. Disaster averted? Continue reading