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Democracy in Iceland: Balancing the Volcano

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Balancing the Volcano

Democracy in Iceland: Balancing the Volcano

31-10-2016

On Saturday, 29 October 2016, parliamentary elections were held in Iceland: The Independence Party emerged as the largest in the Althing, the Icelandic parliament, winning exactly one third of the 63 available seats. The Progressive Party, which had won most seats in 2013, lost more than half of them and was overtaken by the Left-Green Movement and the Pirate Party. 30 female Parliamentariany were elected, now giving Iceland the highest proportion of female MPs in Europe.

Bruno Kaufmann, board member of Democracy International and editor-in-chief of people2power.info reportss that the parliamentary elections of 29 October are an invitation for more (direct) democracy – and offers a good insight how the citizens of this island in the North Atalantic try to balance the repeated eruptions at home.

 

Iceland, long a favorite destination of tourists, has recently become a favored project area for political movements across the globe. It all started with big financial crash back in 2008, when the Icelandic banks, which at that time oversaw enormous but unsecured money worth 10 times the national income, failed and were put into receivership. As a result, a country of just 330´000 people, Iceland became a symbol for the collapse of unbridled capitalism – and, subsequently, a darling of the liberatarian left.  The outside interest was soon reinforced by an innovative and hurried process to rewrite the national constitution. (There were other forms of attention as well – an airline-unfriendly volcanic eruption and the country’s suprising soccer success at the 2016 European Championship in France.)

Icelandic reality is full of speedy and powerful developments, both in nature and society. And so Icelanders hold onto old traditions and structures and resist quick-fixes and are restrained embracing progressive reforms. And the fate of that new post-crash constitution – the so-called ”crowdsourced constitution” because part of its development occurred online, is is a good example of the Icelandic paradoxic of rapid change and resistance.

Towards a new constitution

As with other national constitutions, the current Icelandic one was never really the product of a proper ”constitution-making-process” but more the outcome of specific historic opportunities. Iceland was originally established under Danish rule and then – upon its independence in 1944 – ”republicanized,” with the term king was simply replaced by president.  The idea of a modern and true Icelandic constitution enjoyed a long winter sleep.

It was awakened by the financial crisis, and the rapid change from long-term Independence Party rule to the first left-wing government. In 2010, The Social Democratic Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir enabled (against the will of the right-wing opposition) an interesting constitutional process. First came a national deliberative exercise (1,000 Islanders were invited on a representative draw) to discuss the priorities of a new constitution. Then a Constitutional Assembly was elected—only to be invalidated by the Supreme Court, and later appointed into power by the leftist goverment.

This Assembly/Council got little time—just three months—to draft a new constitution, which later was dissected by several parlamentarian committees. This review process produced impatience, so the leftist government put a select number of issues out of the proposed constitution to a non-binding popular vote on October 20, 2012. This vote included six questions, including the status of the national Icelandic state church, the state control of natural resources, and the introduction of initiative and referendum rights. The voters answered all questions positively, with a turnout of 48,7. But back in parliament, the opposition filibustered the reforms and finally – at the elections in spring 2013 – won back ist majority for a government, which subsequently reversed all earlier decisions.

Panama Papers

It took another eruption – caused by the so called Panama Papers, which forced the resignation of conservative Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson – to trigger an early election on October 29 this year. The election came with expectations for radical change, propelled both by young domestic enthusiasts and international media, which with all the past decade’s news have gotten a taste of everything Icelandic (except maybe the whale meat). Media networks across the world were fascinated by surveys suggesting a possible takeover of the country of the Icelandic Pirate Party.

But once again the Icelandic reflex to counter sudden eruptions produced a very different outcome: while the Pirates did well in the poll (they than trippled their share of the votes) and now have 10 out of 63 MPs, there was no „takeover“ of the Icelandic ship. Instead, the longrunning governing Independence Party gained additional votes and now has  21 seats in the Allthingi, the Icelandic Parliament. Neither the previous right-wing coalition nor a pirate-driven opposition camp has a majority in the new house, where a new group (called „Regeneration“) of pro-European Union MPs hold the key to forming a government.

A dazzling history

The lessons drawn from this recent election are also found in Iceland’s dazzyling history. First, eruptions, volcanic and otherwise, have occurred regularly in Iceland. The largest of them all, the Laki eruption in 1783-84, is understood to be one of the triggering events for the French Revolution and the birth of modern representative democracy in Europe. Why? The eight-month eruption had such a devastating consequence in many parts of the world -- according to recent research the poisonous cloud killed more than six million people and contributed to an increase in poverty and famine especially in France). 

Second, Icelanders have learned to adapt quickly to new situations and hold tightly to their tradition of having a nationwide conversation about possible fixes. And third, this country in the Far North between Europe and America isn’t as radicalor progressive as visitors to its urban center in Reykjavik may believe. While the smallness of Iceland may be beneficial for political agenda setting, the opposite is the case when it comes to decision-making. This, in the end, makes true changes difficult – but not impossible.

Direct Democracy as a common denominator?

It will now be up to the new parliament, which is more diverse than ever before with a female share of almost 50 percent, to find a way forward. While the traditional left as well as newer parties like the Pirates and the Bright Future (originally established by former comedian turned mayor of Reykjavik Jon Gnarr) are all in for true constitutional reform, the newest kid on the block, the „Regeneration“-party demands a nationwide vote on European Union issues. So this question will come first – if if the EU membership negotiations Iceland started in 2010 should be concluded or not. The last government stopped the EU talks without such a vote (in spite of promising a voting before the 2013 election). So, a common denominator for a new government (excluding the former two coalition parties) may simply be to introduce more direct democracy in Iceland – something clearly supported by most Icelanders. But in order to avoid another counter-eruption at the next opportunity, it would be wise for any new leader to build the biggest possible agreement around these steps and eventually to display not just agenda-setting but also decision-making power. 

Article by Bruno Kaufmann, board member of Democracy International and editor-in-chief of people2power info, where this article was published first.

 

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