My tiny rock in the North Atlantic may've just given a new meaning to one of the fundamental principles of democracy: that all power originates from the people. And even if the Icelandic experiment may look inapplicable to most other places (for various reasons; size and homogeneity being cited most often), and even though the Icelandic model may not be a universal scenario for closing the widening gap between power elites and society at large... at least it does provide a curious, if not even exotic example.
We all know the background story already. In autumn'08 my little island nation became the ultimate example of financial collapse. The uncontrollably swollen banking sector (whose assets at the eve of the collapse amounted to 10 times the country's GDP) inevitably came crashing down like a house of cards, dragging the national currency and the entire economy along with it. When the crisis struck, it literally tore the very fabric of our society apart. And that was when the Icelanders realized they needed a new, clean start. And forging a new Constitution was going to be a good start, and an important part of the long treatment process of our society and economy that was so urgently needed. Since then, the country has firmly stepped back on its feet in quite a remarkable way, and adopted an extraordinary approach to doing politics. The one which was supposed to be the very essence of democracy.
The "unconventional" way of tackling the problems is simple: the Constitution will be largely written not by experts and politicians, but by ordinary people, who've been elected through a direct vote. The only condition for participation is that the candidates shouldn't be members of any political party. There were 522 applications, and a couple of years ago those were boiled down to 25 delegates who then sat around the table and harnessed their intellect, conscience and imagination, to shape the future outlook of their country.
One of them was Örn Bárður Jónsson, a Lutheran pastor from my region who's been preaching about faith and civic responsibility for many years, and who, because of his active involvement in various social problems, was nominated to the constitutional council. Beside him, there were a few lawyers and university teachers, also journalists, a farmer and a couple of students on the board. Various social network platforms like FB and Twitter were used to communicate the proceedings with the public, and give them full access to the whole process. The main purpose of all that was transparency, and full disclosure. The board actually consisted of three committees which convened regularly, made open meetings that were shown live on the Internet, etc. The whole thing was absolutely fascinating and gave a huge sense of empowerment.
A flood of proposals were received through the social networks, and many were discussed and some included in the draft Constitution, which was eventually approved on a unprecedented referendum last month. Nearly 2/3 of the Icelanders votes 'Yes', and the feeling was of pride and accomplishment from a job well done, and a tremendous work completed with our own hands. Now, in order to legally adopt the new document, first it'll have to pass through both the incumbent and the future Icelandic parliament (the next elections are in April 2013). And the prospects are looking good that it'll be done eventually. If anything, because the politicians would find it hard to ignore people's opinion like they had done before the crisis.
There are three major areas of improvement emphasis in the new text, compared to the old one. 1) Guaranteeing human rights, 2) A clearer separation of powers, and 3) Facilitating the use of the tools of direct democracy. For instance, 10% of the voters (about 25 thousand people) will be able to initiate a referendum from now on.
Meanwhile, the expert reading of the document reveals some weaknesses. Like some loopholes gaping at some places, which could become a reason for endless judicial arguments in the future. For example, there's an article saying that "people have the right to health care of the highest possible standard", which admittedly sounds too vague and gives a too broad basis for interpretation. If someone is sick, should the government compensate them for it, and what does "high health care standard" really mean? It's still not very clear. Another problem is that the power structure doesn't look precisely defined there, in a sense that it's not fully clear how the separate powers would interact between themselves. The President's relations with Parliament are also not very clear, and there's a possibility that the President could block any legislation by subjecting it to a referendum. The reason for all these inaccuracies is that the commission had very little time to do their job, less than three months. And let me remind you that those were people with zero experience in constitutional law, and it takes time to get accustomed with the specifics of that kind of stuff. But of course these rough areas would be clarified and adjusted in the subsequent parliamentary debates.
The whole idea that Iceland needs a new Constitution has been there ever since the founding of the Republic, because the current Constitution is a remnant of the time when we used to be under Danish rule. And the very writing of a new Constitution itself is associated with a desire for a fundamental change in society. And that's probably why the new version looks too similar to the old one at first sight.
Indeed, there's hardly anything particularly revolutionary in the new text, and certainly nothing that could shock anybody. Generally speaking, it's practically the old thing with some cosmetic changes (mostly in the judicial system and the voting process). But all in all, the main things (like the form of government) remain the same.
Actually most of my compatriots that I've talked with and who've supported the proposed project, haven't even read the text in its entirety. And I'd venture with a guess that many of them don't even know what exactly it is about. That's not so much a result of apathy or lack of information, but rather because the main driving factor is that today in Iceland politics and politicians are viewed as something very bad and dirty, and in this sense the project is mainly perceived as a symbolic blow on them and a counter-punch against the status quo.
Although Iceland is now firmly pointed as an example of a remarkable recovery (as expressed by IMF chairlady Christine Lagarde herself), the Icelanders in general are still feeling pretty much the same way about their politicians as the Greeks and Italians. Although Iceland has averted the fallout and has jumped off the bottom, and its economy is growing by an awesome 4% and the country is paying its debts well in advance, the anger directed at the political class persists, and the notion that the politicians had suffered a huge fail by allowing the economy to tank so badly, hasn't gone away at all.
We had a post here the other day about compulsory voting, voter apathy, and the risk of a dedicated, well organized fringe benefiting from all that and taking over a society. But what about a politically hyper-active society like Iceland, which still allowed the ascent of such parodies like the "Best Party" of comedy actor Jón Gnarr Kristinsson who won the local elections in Reykjavík in 2010? There was a huge voter turnout there, and still the protest vote was overwhelming. Jón Gnarr ran on a "platform" promising that he wouldn't keep any of his campaign promises, but meanwhile he vowed to bring a polar bear in the local zoo, and provide free towels at every hot-spring pool around town (and the hot-spring culture is a really big part of social life there, so that's no small thing for Icelanders).
There are two main outlets for these anti-politician moods. One is a demand for enhancing the element of direct voluntary democracy, which has been duly reflected in the draft Constitution. The other is the desire to include more experts in government, i.e. more technocracy at the expense of partisan politics. That's actually where the renewed drive for joining the EU has come from - apparently, people had decided that the politicians obviously can't rule properly, and it'd be best if the experts came from Brussels to "fix us". But now that they've realized the EU isn't doing very well in that respect either, people have quickly cooled off to that idea. The polls are very clear: in February, 2/3 of the Icelanders were already against EU entry, while the same share had been favorable to the idea back in 2009. That's a significant shift, and the reason is that the EU doesn't look like a very attractive destination, especially now.
At the end of the day, the Icelandic experiment is interesting even if only because it provides a new approach to doing politics. In principle, writing Constitutions has always been the job of political elites - party leaders, political visionaries and gurus of political science. But the Icelandic project to a great extent is being crafted by ordinary people. Yes, most of them do have high education and are well informed, and even then they've needed the counsel of experts, but in fact the job they've done so far hasn't been bad at all. And that's a good reason for contemplation. Perhaps that's the beginning of a new positive process that could include other parts of the world as well - one where power and politics gets a tad closer to those from whom it actually originates, and to whom it owes its legitimacy. We The People.