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Constitutional Changes in Iceland

by JOSÉ M. TIRADO

To some, it may not look like much. But the people have spoken. On a cool, clear Sunday, Icelanders cast either the most important vote in their history, a shining example for the democracies of the world, or a sham pseudo-revolution designed by amateurs to upset a rickety apple-cart only now righting itself. Of course, this depended upon whom you asked. Average folks and foreign observers tend to give more weight to the former interpretation. And bankers, old politicians and minor-league oligarchs asserted the latter.

After the Pots and Pans Revolution, Icelanders demanded that some future safeguards be created to ensure another financial collapse is averted and that in the future, those responsible would be punished, or dissuaded from playing the high stakes poker with the entire nation’s economic resources, among other demands. The government, led by the dominant Independence Party, (Iceland’s “Republicans”, a center-right amalgam of nationalists, free marketers and high tech supporting banking interests combined with the old oligarchies, the “octopus” of fishing quota shipping families and their supporters) was forced to resign. A newer, Left-Green Alliance/Socialist Party government was elected. In addition, calls were made for a new constitution to replace the Dane-inspired one. After much discussion, a National Forum was held and a committee of 25 citizens was selected, taken from 1000 applicants ranging from plumbers to politicians, with the suggestions submitted to the Althingi, or Parliament. Saturday’s vote represents a crystallization of those suggestions into six main issues (translation courtesy of Paul Nikolov). The results are now in and they are fairly decisive, to say the least:

1.      Do you wish the Constitution Council’s proposals to form the basis of a new draft Constitution? YES: 66.1% NO: 33.9% 

Maybe the most essential of the proposals, the people chose to go with the new Constitution, one which will be more equitable, enshrining animal rights, protecting natural resources, and more open to popular amending. The Independence Party, has begun squawking about insufficient voters delegitimizing the vote, but the lopsided numbers will probably guarantee the new Constitution, with some minor amending by parliamentarians, will be voted on in the spring. And probably approved.

2. In the new Constitution, do you want natural resources that are not privately owned to be declared national property? YES: 81.2% NO: 18.8%   

Overwhelmingly, Icelanders have declared, hands down, their opposition to the “octopus” of families who already dominate the country’s main resource, fish, and stated that those remaining natural resources are the patrimony of all Icelanders. This is very significant, and there will be acrimonious opposition from those who will cling to their privileges, the “sea barons” especially. Again, the leader of the Independence Party is questioning the results, asserting that non-voters and the opposition votes be counted together in an effort to minimize the damage. My guess is the entrenched interests will not go quietly, but popular sentiment is unambiguous here.

3. Would you like to see provisions in the new Constitution on an established (national) church in Iceland? YES: 57.3% NO: 42.7% 

This refers to whether the Evangelical Lutheran Church should be identified as the State Church, as is at present, or should no church get official mention and thus, a formal “separation of church and state” be enacted. Apparently, Icelanders want to retain the cultural ties to the church, although the fact that nearly 43% do not, highlights the yearly diminishing influence of this rather moribund institution.

4. Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution authorizing the election of particular individuals to the Althingi more than is the case at present? YES: 76.4% NO: 23.6%

Simply put, this refers to election of individuals vs parties. Right now party lists are provided and the leaders are then voted in per the final percentage of the vote given to the respective party. Personally, I have mixed feelings about this issue as any move towards a more personality-centered electoral process may lead to US style theatrics. Apparently, however, Icelanders feel differently, hoping their more charismatic leaders from smaller parties, or those from no party at all, might have a better chance.

5. Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution giving equal weight to votes cast in all parts of the country?  YES: 55.6% NO: 44.4%

At present, a slightly higher weight is given to more remote, agricultural votes despite the fact that around 90% of the country’s population is located in one major (Reykjavík) and one smaller (Akureyri) urban area. This equalizes votes. Appropriately.

6. Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution stating that a certain proportion of the electorate is able to demand that issues are put to a referendum? YES: 70.5% NO: 29.5% 

This item ranks next in importance. In part because the people want make sure that before any changes are made to the already voted on changes they approved (one marvels at such electoral complexity within a country about the size of Kentucky with the population of Indianapolis, IN), that they have the right to vote on it all yet again, in a national referendum.

Taken at face value, these changes may not look too intimidating. But the response from some quarters has been furious and frantic; first, in dissuading voters from even participating, to now lamenting the possible collapse of Iceland into a quasi-socialist republic governed by amateurs and revolutionaries. This was the opinion of some of the Independence Party who is rapidly becoming Iceland’s own party of “no”. If democracy is a messy affair, then the Iceland example provides ample confirmation of this fact. Still, patience and determination have always proven allies to change, and the doggedness of Icelanders to tackle the entrenched interests who have dominated politics here since after the Second World War may just prove successful.

Rev. JOSÉ M. TIRADO is a poet, priest and writer finishing a PhD in psychology while living in Iceland. 

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