Iceland’s ‘crowd-sourced’ constitution is dead

The true history of Iceland’s ‘innovative’ constitutional reform.

One of the recurring issues in news coverage on Iceland is how absolutely rubbish foreign news media is at reporting about Iceland.

We’ve seen how detached from reality economic news on Iceland is, ignoring our burgeoning mortgage crisis and the consequences of the government’s harsh austerity measures.

Their frothy and exuberant reports about Iceland’s proposed new constitution also tend to gloss over the details and ignore domestic discourse in favour of completely fabricated spin.

If you read what foreign language blogs and newspapers wrote about the constitution you’d believe that it was a daring experiment going from success to success and that we were now enjoying a completely new crowd-sourced constitution that had been passed into law with a referendum last autumn. Which is not true.

A complete and total clusterfuck is much closer to the truth.

It started well, with a national forum where a thousand attendees where chosen by lottery. These meetings gathered together a cross-section of society and let them outline what they felt ought to be the priorities in the constitutional process—what issues and matters should be covered.

This worked. It resulted in a predictably vague and wishy-washy list of touchy-feely priorities—little more than ordering a list of pre-selected words in order of importance along with a bunch of meaningless single sentence slogans—but it worked.

The problems began with the election for a constitutional parliament. First, those running weren’t given nearly enough time to promote and canvass, meaning that the list tat voters could choose from consisted mostly of strangers. Second, the ballot itself was extremely confusing, requiring extensive explanations. Thirdly, and most importantly, a lot of people didn’t believe any of it mattered.

Y’see, it was known from the start that whatever the constitutional parliament drafted would be non-binding—that the constitution draft would be rewritten by politicians anyway, rendering the entire exercise somewhat meaningless.

So, voter participation reached record lows in Iceland, where we’re used to voter participation in the 80–90% range.

Fewer than 37% percent voted in the election for the constitutional parliament.

And the clusterfuck continued. One thing that most foreign reporters omit is that there is considerable resistance to constitutional reform by a lot of influential groups in Iceland. Another thing omitted is the fact that the government at the time was a mess and couldn’t organise a piss-up in a brewery. So, it shouldn’t have been a surprise that the election was challenged in the courts and that Iceland’s High Court declared the election, and its results, null and void because of serious issues with voter privacy—that the secrecy of the individual vote had been compromised. (You can get more details at the Icelandic Wikipedia page on the election which is pretty accurate. Of course, as with most data and references on the subject, it’s in Icelandic.)

The government responded by ignoring the High Court and passed a law establishing a constitutional council composed of the exact same people as those who would have been members of the constitutional parliament.

That council then decided to do what most bloggers do: post their ideas online; listen to feedback on twitter, facebook, and in comments; and make sure that changes, drafts, and edits were noted online as they went along.

This is what the news outlets labelled crowd-sourcing. It’s no more crowd-sourced than boing boing is. Open, sure. Transparent, absolutely. But, crowd-sourced?

No. Not by a long shot. If the draft constitution was crowd-sourced then this blog is crowd-sourced as well and the term is meaningless. The draft constitution was written by a committee using a transparent process. It was a good thing that didn’t need to be spun into something it wasn’t.

Of course, over half the nation still believed that the work of the council was meaningless since anything with a bite to it would be removed by the politicians once they got their hands on it. But the council did its job as well as it could. It published a draft that contained a lot of interesting ideas while still remaining a somewhat conservative evolution of our existing constitution. It was exactly the sort of document that was enough of a compromise to have a chance of passing while still containing the reforms that Iceland badly needs.

A lot of the wording in the draft is vague and open to interpretation, which would be disastrous in a real constitution, but that’s only because it was still just a draft.

The next step should have been to put the draft to a committee that would then have solicited feedback from constitutional scholars, lawyers, and other experts. Parliament should have then spent several months of continuous work hammering out the gaps, loopholes, and wording of the document before presenting it to the nation.

Instead the government put it in a drawer and sat on it for months. Constitutional scholars kept commenting that the draft needed work and that work would take time. Lawyers openly worried about some of the consequences of the wording used in places. Foreign academics picked the draft apart when it was presented to them as a completed proposal.

And time was running out.

Here’s another fact that most foreign outlets leave out of their coverage of Iceland’s constitutional process: it’s very very difficult to change the constitution. Any change to the constitution needs to be passed as a law in two separate parliaments separated by a parliamentary election. Given that the next parliamentary election is going to be in the spring 2013 (this April, in fact) and that Iceland’s parliament today is so dysfunctional that passing even non-contentious laws can take months, the government had a very narrow window of opportunity to pull this off.

Especially because they wanted to hold a referendum on the proposed constitution before they actually passed it as a law.

At first the goal was to put the completed constitution proposal to a referendum alongside the presidential election in June 2012. Then it became clear there wouldn’t be anything concrete for people to vote on by then because little to no work was being done on the draft.

The second idea was to put a constitution proposal to a referendum in the autumn 2012 but, again, because no work was being done on the draft there was nothing to vote on. Instead they decided to hold a referendum asking voters six vague and bland questions on what they wanted from the constitution (and yes, that’s exactly what the national forum was supposed to discover).

Again, the referendum was non-binding and Bjarni Benediktsson, the leader of the country’s largest party, the Independence Party, declared beforehand that he thought the exercise was undemocratic and pretty meaningless.

Voter participation was around 50% and two-thirds voted that they wanted a new constitution that was based on the draft written by the constitutional council.

The Independence Party immediately declared that even though it was clear that voters wanted some kind of constitutional reform, it did not feel bound by the constitutional council’s draft since over two-thirds of voters had either rejected the draft or not shown up to vote. It was obvious from the debate in Icelandic news media that the referendum was going to be a completely ineffective tool for getting the Independence Party to support constitutional reform.

Which meant that the constitutional reform process was dead, because reform won’t get anywhere without the support of Iceland’s largest political party. The Independence Party is guaranteed to be one of the major parties in Iceland’s next government (most polls show a distinct swing to the right among Icelandic voters) and, remember, to change the constitution you need to pass the changes as a law in two separate parliaments with an election between. Even if the government had pulled its thumbs out of its ass, completed the process of turning the draft into a proper proposal and passed the law, the proposal would have died after the election at the hands of the Independence Party in the next government.

The only thing that the autumn 2012 constitutional referendum accomplished was to prove that the new constitution was dead.

But that’s not how foreign media reported it.

The government still had the chance to pull off an ideological victory of sorts. They could have completed work on the draft and passed the law proposing the change to the constitution. That would have forced the next government to address the issue directly and made sure that they would have had to explicitly reject the new constitution at the start of a new parliament.

But, no, they couldn’t even pull that off. The end of the current parliament grew nearer and nearer and the constitutional process didn’t show any life to speak of.

Until, at the last moments before the end of parliament, the government proposed an amendment of the current constitution with the intent of making it a bit easier to change the constitution. This amendment, which was passed in the last hours of the parliament, means that, if passed again by the next parliament, they will be able to change the constitution by ‘just’ passing a law with a super-majority in parliament (two-thirds of MPs have to vote in favour) followed by a referendum where over 40% of registered voters approve of the change. (So, if voter participation reaches 80%, over half of those who show up have to vote in favour.)

This amendment was passed with the slimmest of majorities in parliament, 25 votes out of 48, and would not have qualified as a change to the constitution under the rules it proposes.

It’s up to the next government to pass this amendment after the next election to finally ratify it as a constitutional amendment and then use it to do the reforms the constitution badly needs. They may or may not do this. It depends largely on the attitudes and priorities of whichever party ends up in government with the Independence Party (probably the Progressive Party) but the work of the constitutional council is now completely off the table.

Even if this amendment passes, Iceland’s crowd-sourced constitution is officially dead.

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10 Responses to Iceland’s ‘crowd-sourced’ constitution is dead

  1. Richard Allan says:

    Thank you for doing this. It’s a sad fact that whenever you acquire specialised knowledge of an issue, it only allows you to spot the blatant falsehoods that most media reporting on the issue tends to consist of.

  2. Jérôme Skalski says:

    It’s a pitty that you cannot read French ! It is also a pity that you can not distance yourself from your national perspective. The reason why “foreigners” have observed the constitutional process in Iceland so enthusiastically is related to the blocking of the institution in their respective countries – in France or Spain, for example, in Europe etc.. – In your comment you are reducing also an important thing, seems to me. You ignore the fact that without the mobilization of 2008-2009, Iceland had to cross the fog on the way to Hell. See Ireland ! See Cyprus today. The best things.The story, unfortunately, is never a path of rose. The class struggle is his ba-ba.

    http://www.franceculture.fr/oeuvre-la-revolution-des-casseroles-chronique-d-une-nouvelle-constitution-pour-l-islande-de-jerome-s

    • Baldur Bjarnason (@fakebaldur) says:

      It’s a pity you didn’t read the post or my earlier one on myths about Iceland.

      1. Iceland didn’t reject austerity, our government has been enacting austerity measures ever since the IMF took over in 2008. Massive cutbacks in healthcare, education, and the welfare system. All that and tax hikes.
      2. The pots and pans revolution failed. We are still beholden to the IMF, the biggest party in government was one of the collapse parties, and the next elections promise a major swing to the right.
      3. All the same roadblocks in the way of constitutional reform exist in Iceland as in other countries, that’s why we don’t have a new constitution.
      4. The reason why the collapse government resigned had more to do with the Prime Minister’s oesophagal cancer and the Foreign Minister’s brain tumour than it did with the pots and pans revolution. The idea that it was caused entirely by the pots and pans revolution is post-election spin.
      5. The parties that came into power after the pots and pans revolution are hardly “gauche réformatrices radicales”. One is a centre-right party that was also in power in the collapse government and is responsible for privatising a lot of government and local council institutions over the past couple of decades, the other is ostensibly left-wing but hasn’t enacted any left-wing policies to speak of. Their ‘reforms’ have consisted solely of cutbacks and an application to join the EU.

  3. Jérôme Skalski says:

    I read some of your articles. I think you do not measure things correctly. Once again compare – with Ireland for example – and you’ll understand. The fact is that you can criticize your government : its restraint against the wishes expressed during the pots and pans revolution, its contradictions – it is what I have done in my book. But still again, if you look at it closely you will see that the “canonball” has not gone far from Iceland. What is the unemployment rate in Iceland ? What about your school system? Your social property ? It is true that the crisis has revealed the non-social-democratic caracteristics of your social system or just its character apparent – compare with the other Nordic countries, Norway first. But is that surprising when you consider that the Independence Party has ruled Iceland for 70 years? Do you seriously this history of cancer of the esophagus? I read it in the press Icelandic. Is this a criterion of truth? The factors that have contributed to the compromise that you have known after 2008 include popular mobilization and electoral change. I know that they are not alone. Have you thought about the Russian proposal ? Have you analyzed the background geo-political ?
    Do you really believe in the staging of the tension between the british government and the government of Geir Haarde ? Look at the dates and get into details. It is certain that you have to continue the movement, in a sense “revolutionary”. You have to do what it takes to save the process. For us,we have to begin it .
    Don’t be so shy.

    “Você vale muito mais do que pensa. Seu trabalho e sua presença nesta Terra são importantes, mesmo que você não acredite.”

    Paolo Cohelo, Ser como um rio que flui

    The best things.

    • Baldur Bjarnason (@fakebaldur) says:

      I read some of your articles. I think you do not measure things correctly. Once again compare – with Ireland for example – and you’ll understand. The fact is that you can criticize your government : its restraint against the wishes expressed during the pots and pans revolution, its contradictions – it is what I have done in my book. But still again, if you look at it closely you will see that the “canonball” has not gone far from Iceland. What is the unemployment rate in Iceland ? What about your school system? Your social property ?

      The price we have paid for low unemployment in Iceland is a 40-50% cut in real income and an explosion in household debt. We are facing a mortgage crisis that will reach critical mass in a year or two, at which point everything will go kaplooey again. The school systems have been destroyed with austerity. The welfare system has largely been dismantled and the healthcare system is dysfunctional.

      I’m not saying these things were perfect before the crash but the current government’s repeated cutbacks have not helped.

      It is true that the crisis has revealed the non-social-democratic caracteristics of your social system or just its character apparent – compare with the other Nordic countries, Norway first. But is that surprising when you consider that the Independence Party has ruled Iceland for 70 years?

      We’ve never had a welfare system as good as Norway’s or the other Nordic countries but we had one that rivalled the rest of Europe. The Independence Party tried to slowly starve the healthcare system but the overall system was so popular that they didn’t dare attack it full force like the current government did under the orders of the IMF. There’s a reason why the outgoing government is the most unpopular one in Icelandic history.

      Do you seriously this history of cancer of the esophagus? I read it in the press Icelandic. Is this a criterion of truth? The factors that have contributed to the compromise that you have known after 2008 include popular mobilization and electoral change. I know that they are not alone. Have you thought about the Russian proposal ? Have you analyzed the background geo-political ?
      Do you really believe in the staging of the tension between the british government and the government of Geir Haarde ? Look at the dates and get into details. It is certain that you have to continue the movement, in a sense “revolutionary”. You have to do what it takes to save the process. For us,we have to begin it .
      Don’t be so shy.

      Now I know you’re crazy. There is no way that the PM’s cancer is a conspiracy. Geir H. Haarde’s cancer is on public record because of his trial. You’d know this if you read the Icelandic press and didn’t dismiss them as lies. It’s foreign media that is spinning fabrications about Iceland, when Icelandic media lies it’s through omission, not fabrication.

      And, yes, I have read everything about the 2008 crash, including the SIC report, which is only available in Icelandic. You, on the other hand, are just making shit up.

  4. Jérôme Skalski says:

    Words are important. I wrote: “A left with radical reform ambitions.” Weren’t they ? Being armed with “radical ambitions “is one thing, being “radical “in fact is another. So what I wrote, I maintain. See you.

    • Baldur Bjarnason (@fakebaldur) says:

      They weren’t. The Social Democratic Alliance (Samfylkingin) when founded was explicitly modelled after New Labour and Clinton’s Democratic party and have pursued similar policies whenever they have been in power. (Including, notably, a spate of privatisations when they ran Reykjavík.)

      The leader of the Left-Greens said before the last elections that his party was a ‘nordic conservative party’. That is, their goal was to preserve and protect the welfare system as it existed—they wanted to fight change, not promote it.

      Neither of these agendas or ambitions were anywhere near radical. So, what you wrote is wrong. The Greens did betray their voters by then legislating cutbacks on the welfare system, of course, but I doubt that’s what you meant when you said ‘radical’.

  5. Steve says:

    Baldur Bjarnason you are well spoken, and well read. I for one over here in Canada appreciate some REAL facts about the situation over there and the shenanigans that are going on. I for one can report that there have been little to NO reports about what is happening there here in Canada. To which I have my own suspicions why. I also appreciate your last post to the troll….including…

    And, yes, I have read everything about the 2008 crash, including the SIC report, which is only available in Icelandic. You, on the other hand, are just making shit up.

    Keep flying. We are listening. You can`t stop the signal.

  6. karricdesalle says:

    Baldur Bjarnason you are well spoken, and well read. I for one over here in Canada appreciate some REAL facts about the situation over there and the shenanigans that are going on. I for one can report that there have been little to NO reports about what is happening there here in Canada. To which I have my own suspicions why. I also appreciate your last post to the troll….including…

    And, yes, I have read everything about the 2008 crash, including the SIC report, which is only available in Icelandic. You, on the other hand, are just making shit up.

    Keep flying. We are listening. You can`t stop the signal.

  7. Tatu Virta says:

    I applaud your criticism on the use of the “crowd-source” term in this context. The news I’ve come across before about the project did seem to stress this fact to the point of being so vague and flamboyant in political analysis it made the whole thing seem more like a curiosity than actual journalism. You get “crowd-sourced” and “government” in the same article and that’s incentive enough to release it, I understand it, no matter how complicated the background. Responsible policy making procedures never makes for exciting bedtime stories.

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