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Iceland’s Revolt Wants to Go Viral

Iceland has suffered much like other nations during the global financial crisis, but the Icelanders’ struggle to overcome the disaster has taken on historic dimensions that are relevant to all countries. As the economic collapse began in the fall of 2008, legions of stunned and outraged Icelanders, including a poet and activist named Birgitta Jónsdóttir, started meeting in spontaneous protests and forums. The protests in the capital steadily became larger and more coordinated with kindred groups across the country. Three years before revolutions in the Arab world and mass-protests elsewhere, Birgitta Jónsdóttir and her fellow citizens began to ‘Occupy’ Iceland. The demonstrations were dubbed the ‘Kitchenware Revolution’ because people in the capital banged pots and pans in support of protesters surrounding the Parliament building. Any opposition movement would have been happy with the initial results of the mass-mobilization: the protests essentially blocked the opening of the Parliament in January of 2009, the Prime Minister resigned, his government fell, the Minister of Business Affairs dismissed the head of the Icelandic Financial Supervisory Authority just before submitting his own resignation, a new coalition government was formed, and the new government quickly announced intentions to convene a Constitutional Parliament in order to amend the Constitution. Nevertheless, all of these dramatic events proved to be just the tip of the iceberg. The turmoil has set in motion a period of profound democratic reform in Iceland, and many Icelanders now wish to share their new liberties and innovations with people around the world.

A protracted resistance against an incompetent government and a corrupt financial sector soon evolved into a much broader political awakening. From the beginning of the meltdown, citizens felt betrayed by virtually every social, political, and financial institution they had trusted. In the depths of the crisis, a population that was totally unfamiliar with high unemployment was facing a rate of nearly 10%. Although the mass-demonstrations subsided after the fall of the old government, the dissidents continued to pressure the new government to make deep changes. The previous government had formed a Special Investigative Commission (SIC) to investigate the causes of the financial collapse. The new government supported the SIC in its probe of officials at the highest levels; its findings eventually led to the official condemnation and prosecution of numerous people, including the former Prime Minister. More importantly, however, the new government eventually adopted the public demand that an entirely new Constitution be drafted. In order to drive their agenda forward, the activists decided to give themselves a voice in the new government.

With a shoestring budget, the protesters ran a campaign to elect activists to serve as spokespeople for grassroots movements in the national Parliament. Calling themselves the ‘Citizens Movement,’ four candidates were elected in the spring of 2009. Three members of the original group, including Birgitta Jónsdóttir, eventually broke away to form a separate group, which simply called itself ‘the Movement.’ The activist-politicians announced at the outset that their group would not function as a conventional political party. It would serve, rather, as a nonpartisan parliamentary group, or caucus, with which all Members of Parliament could freely engage. As part of their unique mission, they decided that their political intervention would only continue until the articles of their agenda had been achieved. The body would dissolve itself upon the attainment of its goals. Likewise, if it became clear that it would not be possible to obtain their legislative objectives, the Movement would cease to operate. Almost four years have passed. This spring, new elections will mark the end of the activists’ term in office, and the fate of their agenda remains to be determined.

The road to constitutional reform has been long and full of obstacles from the right-wing Independence Party, which led the previous government. In a recent interview conducted via Skype, MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir provided an insider’s account of the good, the bad, and the ugly concerning the evolution of the current draft of the new Constitution of Iceland. According to the MP, the drafting of a new Constitution “for the people, by the people” of Iceland was one of the four major demands of the “soft, non-violent revolution.” In fact, she says the call was so prevalent that almost every political party initially expressed support. She and her fellow parliamentarians in the Movement were committed to ensuring that the process of re-writing the Constitution would be legitimately democratic and inclusive. She said, “One of the main reasons I am in the Parliament is to give the people the tools so that they can have more responsibility in our democracy.” She has been pleased by the results. Measures have been taken, in spite of repeated opposition from some quarters, to incorporate the direct and substantive participation of ordinary citizens at multiple stages in the process of writing and passing the document. The process, she said, has been “quite beautiful and very much in the spirit of what I hope to see.”

The ongoing process of writing a new Constitution, which started in 2009, has taken much longer than expected. The saga is full of the kind of partisan, judicial wrangling that has plagued numerous elections in the United States in recent years. First, the Parliament formed a parliamentary committee of constitutional experts to review a range of recommendations for reform. The next step was to convene a National Assembly. Around 1,000 citizens were randomly selected from among the population to meet in a stadium for the purpose of discussing what should be in the new Constitution. The conclusions drawn from these dialogues were collected into a database. The next stage of the process was to conduct the election of 25 citizens to serve in a Constitutional Parliament, or Constitutional Assembly. The body was to be charged with drafting the new Constitution, using the findings of the National Assembly as its guideline.

The election of the Constitutional Assembly took place, and all citizens were eligible to run; however, the results were challenged on procedural grounds, with the Independence Party leading the dispute. The accuracy of the results was not in question. MP Jónsdóttir said a special body that included many judges of Iceland’s Supreme Court upheld the utterly unprecedented challenge, thereby invalidating the election. A parliamentary committee on which she served had to address the ruling. As the objections to the election were strictly procedural, the Parliament voted to circumvent the election’s nullification by simply appointing the winners to serve on a Constitutional Council. The new Council would perform the same function as the unrealized Constitutional Assembly.

Following these delays, the Constitutional Council got to work. The open and inclusive nature of the meetings of the Constitutional Council received a lot of international attention and admiration. The body’s meetings were open to the public. Not only were the meetings publicly broadcast. The meetings also received public comments through regular mail, email, and comments on social media accounts. Birgitta Jónsdóttir noted: “No other constitution has been as able to [do] crowd-sourcing as this. Even if it was not 100% crowd-sourcing, it…had [people] deciding which amendments or ideas would be processed.” Through the work of other activists, including colleagues of the Movement, the City of Reykjavík’s government has moved even closer to a more rigorous implementation of crowd-sourcing through its use of an interactive website called ‘Better Reykjavík,’ which is a project of the Citizens Foundation. National and international equivalents of that website are already in development. No one can deny that Iceland’s citizens are gaining rare access and input in the composition of their laws.

Another by-product of the overall reform movement is the expansion of older forms of direct democracy. Once the draft of the new Constitution had been published and submitted to Parliament, six of its proposals were presented to the people in a national referendum. One of the questions even pertained to the future use of national referendums. Before the crisis, Iceland had not held a national referendum since its independence in 1944. Since 2010, three have been held, including two relating to major economic policies. All six proposals in the constitutional referendum were approved by a majority of respondents. Although many found the response unequivocal, members of the Independence Party asserted the results were not truly representative of the majority of citizens. Nevertheless, the draft will now be debated in the legislature.

MP Birgitta Jónsdóttir is very proud of her country’s proposed charter. In her opinion, one of the text’s many virtues is its human language that is very simple for people to understand. She says some of its most beautiful articles relate to freedom of information, access to the internet, and national ownership and guardianship of natural resources. Recalling her experience reading the draft of the new Constitution in the Parliament, she said, “It was so moving. It’s so beautiful to belong to a nation that has this sort of social agreement.”

The freedoms of information, expression, and speech are especially dear to her. She was the main sponsor of a proposal for a parliamentary resolution to pursue a legislative project called the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative (IMMI). Today, she chairs an international organization, the International Modern Media Institute, that evolved out of the IMMI. According to the Institute’s website, the IMMI aims to amend 13 laws to give Iceland the world’s best freedoms of speech and standards of transparency. MP Jónsdóttir hopes her country can become a safe haven for investigative journalists, activists, and whistleblowers from around the globe.

The new Constitution remains imperiled. Jónsdóttir observes: “Now the entire academia and the president…are basically trying to ruin the process.” If the new Constitution is blocked despite the national referendum, she believes there could be another revolution. The articles in the draft that affirm permanent national ownership of natural resources are especially significant for the future of the Icelandic economy. She warned, “this is critical because we are not out of the hands of the IMF or…the financial world.” Therefore, over the next month, she and her fellow citizens will “have to use every available tool, resource, and wit to outsmart the old powers that are trying to destroy this process.”

The stakes remain high in Iceland, as they are high for all the nations that are still reeling from the global financial crisis. Icelanders have every right to say their country has become a historic experiment in modern democracy. They are extending the oldest and most inherently democratic civil liberties to modern communications, and they are exercising democratic rights through new media. In a process marked by an extraordinary degree of participation by common citizens, a new Constitution has been drafted and approved by a national referendum. The draft will now go through the legislature. If it passes, many of the most important articles in the Movement’s agenda will have been accomplished. If it fails, the loss will clearly demonstrate that the Movement’s aims could not be completed within the time frame its members envisioned. Regardless of the outcome, Birgitta Jónsdóttir said the Movement will cease operations. Yet, their work will surely continue. For her part, MP Jónsdóttir will run for re-election as a member of the Icelandic Pirate Party, which she helped to found last fall. Like all Pirate Parties, they are reclaiming rights that are being seized by corporations and governments, such as rights to online privacy and access to the public domain. Given her passionate advocacy of civil liberties, participation in the international movement of Pirate Parties seems like a natural progression of her work. She insists that, contrary to popular belief, Iceland’s struggle to avert financial and political disaster is far from finished. In fact, given the popular democratic ambitions of its people, the modern political transformation of this ancient island nation appears to have just begun.

Andrew Sullivan lives in Middlebury, Vermont. You can follow him on Twitter @absullivan1. He can be reached at absullivan@gmail.com.

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