Ordinary Citizens will draft new Icelandic constitution

In Iceland the new constitution will really be the voice of the people. There are elections being held to choose 31 people who will forge a new charter. This exercise in direct democracy is in part a result of the outrage at government that followed after the nation’s economic crash.

The citizens will form a Constitutional Assembly which will convene early next year. The process is a source of pride for Icelanders. Berghildur Bergthorsdottir who is entrusted with organizing the assembly said:"This is the first time in the history of the world that a nation’s constitution is reviewed in such a way, by direct democratic process," Iceland’s present constitution is simply an adaptation of the Danish constitution aand was created in 1944 after Iceland gained independence from Denmark. A review of the constitution has been on the agenda ever since. As if often the case with respect to changing constitutions it takes ages for anything to be done. The economic meltdown convinced many that not only regulatory changes were needed but changes also in government structures.

After the economic collapse in 2008 citizens gathered outside the parliament banging pots and pans to show their fury. Many believe a tighter constitutional framework including a more precise division of powers was needed to minimize or even prevent the damage.

The prime minister Johanna Sigurdardottir said:"It is very important for ordinary citizens, who have no direct interest in maintaining the status quo, to take part in a constitutional review," We are hoping this new constitution will be a new social covenant leading to reconstruction and reconciliation, and for that to happen, the entire nation needs to be involved."

Iceland has a population of just 320,000. In the past it has been rated as among the best places to live in the world in spite of its harsh climate. It went from economic miracle however to economic basket case during the recent economic global meltdown.

During the financial bubble preceding the bust Iceland fell prey to an invasion of financial Vikings although many were Icelanders! Icelandic investors called Viking raiders snapped up properties globally mostly on borrowed funds from foreign banks!

In October 2008 Icelandic banks collapsed.. Iceland currency also collapsed along with them. Unemployment soared along with the cost of living as prices of imports soared. Costs of the money borrowed in foreign funds soared as the Icelandic krona plunged in value.

Icelanders were furious at those responsible for the crash and the destruction of their standard of living. Misdeeds and incompetence were exposed both in the public and private domains. Although their country had been near the top of the anti-corruption index turned out all of a sudden to be steeped in corruption.After a parliamentary investigation a 2,000-page report showed that the foundations of Icelandic society were decayed and that sweeping changes in the social framework was needed. The prime minister hopes that the new constitution will help restore confidence in government again.

The new constitutional assembly will be made up of 25 to 31 delegates chosen from the 31 people elected.It will be made up of regular citizens elected by direct personal voting. Anyone is eligible to stand for election, with the exceptions of the president, lawmakers and the committee appointed to organize the assembly. The new assembly will draft the new constitution next year.

A lot of the ground work has already been done through another exercise in participatory democracy. One thousand randomly chosen Icelanders between the ages of 18 and 89 offered their views of what should be in the constitution. 523 people are running to be elected to the group of 31 that will form the constitutional assembly, They represent all walks of life from: truck drivers, university professors, lawyers (of course) journalists and even computer geeks. Each person is given equal time on Icelandic radio to present their opinions as to why they should be elected. Those chosen will receive a salary the same as that of Icelandic parliamentarians while working on the constitution. Icelandic employers will be legally required to grant leave to employees elected to the assembly.

As one would expect not everyone cheers on this democratic exercise. Some see the whole process as a frivolous and expensive exercise in populism. One candidate is even running on a campaign to keep the present constitution arguing that a time of crisis is the worst time to change the constitution. He argues that the constitution had absolutely nothing to do with the bank collapse and does not stand in the way of rebuilding either. Whatever the case Icelanders have shown themselves to be pioneers in experimenting with new forms of democratic processes.