Iceland's grassroots constitution on thin ice

Many in Iceland are hoping parliament will pass a constitution written in an unprecedented grassroots initiative, spurred by the onset of the financial crisis. But politics as usual may get in the document's way.

Time is running out, acknowledges parliamentarian Birgitta Jonsdottir with a sigh. She's hoping that the Icelandic parliament, the "Althing," will approve the new constitution. That's one of the last things left to do in this session before a general election in April. However, she's worried that critics will block it.
The new document has a number of unique features, including the fact that it was drawn up in a process in which every citizen had a chance to participate. The draft represents the first time that a country has tried to write a new constitution in a grassroots fashion. The financial crisis that began five years ago set the unusual project in motion.
Jonsdottir is a member of the Icelandic opposition party The Movement and she is well-known as a Wikileaks activist. She says people had lost all trust in politics as they watched their country slip into a deep crisis. The three largest banks went bankrupt, and many people lost their savings. Tensions ran high as demonstrations rocked the country.
Birgitta Jonsdottir (c) HALLDOR KOLBEINS/AFP/Getty Images)Birgitta Jonsdottir worries the constitution will not pass
In the end, however, the chaos was replaced by citizens' desire to give the country a new start.


Copied from Denmark
The island's residents have been dissatisfied with their old constitution for years. When Iceland gained independence in 1944, it took on Denmark's constitution almost as it was. Many joke that the only change was crossing out the word "king.". In the past, politicians have attempted in vain to agree to wide-ranging changes.

But a group of activists saw a chance in 2009 to take a new approach to the document. With support from the former government, a coalition between the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement, 1,000 citizens were invited to represent all of Iceland in a brainstorming process. Statistical variation in the selection process aimed to ensure that people from various regions, men and women, old and young were all represented.

"Their job was to think about who we are and what we want," says Silja Omarsdottir. Omarsdottir, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Iceland, was one of 25 Icelandic citizens selected from over 500 volunteers to write the constitution. In a lecture available as a video online, she explains how the process unfolded. The topics of nationhood, natural resources and health care were of particular concern, as were upholding the values Iceland's people said they hold.

"Responsibility, equality, democracy, honesty, respect, human rights, justice and freedom are the values that we want to build on," she explains in the video.
Each Monday and Tuesday, three committees discussed the texts. On Wednesdays, the members of the 25-member constitutional council got together to talk things out. On Thursday, the committee published the latest version of the document on its website. Criticism and comments on individual passages were collected and incorporated in a way with which all 25 members were in agreement. Around 3,000 responses came in from various channels, Omarsdottir says, and around the same amount also came in from abroad.

Into the politicians' hands

The final draft was ready after around four months and was sent to parliament on July 29, 2011. A non-binding referendum in October 2012 saw two-thirds of voters approve the document. Further discussions followed, above all centered on how to handle the country's natural resources. The draft stipulates that resources not yet privatized should remain in the hands of the state, which could have consequences for the fishing industry, among others.

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Friday, 14 August 2020

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