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Thursday, February 3

The New Constitution

There has been a considerable amount of turmoil in Iceland as of late.
I went to bed with sweet dreams of re-invented democracy and new constitutions in my head and awoke to an entirely new horizon.

Many people I speak to here in Toronto are immediately engaged with what is happening in Iceland. This is particularly true when we talk about the new constitution. I've been trying to think of how to break this down as simply as possible.

The Decision 
A decision was made post-crisis to re-write the Icelandic Constitution by using a direct personal election. Now it is argued that the constitution is not directly related to the economic collapse. Although many also see it as a beacon of hope and change for Iceland's future. Which if looked in that way, can be directly connected to actions being taken to ensure a crisis like the one in 2008 will not happen again. " The flaws in the government flow from the Constitution upon which it is based"- Bjarni Brynjolfsson.
 (History Note: The current constitution was actually written by Denmark and used even after Iceland gained its independence)
To begin this process an event referred to as the "National Gathering" took place, 1,000 citizens were chosen at random to compile a document that will be used as a reference in writing the new constitution. The assembly drafted an outline to be submitted to the elected authors of the upcoming shiny new constitution, crafting an image of the future of Iceland, according to it's people.

The Candidates 
 Lawyers, students, farmers, journalists, and teachers ran for a position on the constitutional assembly (Members of Parliament are not allowed to run). 526 candidates and only 25 seats open. I was in Iceland during this period of time. We were lucky enough to attend one of the meetings intended to coach those interested through the campaigning process and offer advice to the candidates running on how to properly represent yourself to the public. One of the organizers Thorglis said "It's a tricky thing to teach people how to be politicians overnight".  At this event dozens took the microphone, giving short speeches addressing their  interest in the constitution and a bit on their own personal background. The event was filmed and made available to anyone that wasn't living in Reykjavik and wanted to hear the various  candidates platforms.
             There was a cap put on how much could be spent per campaign, that number still worked out to much more money than the average citizen's budget allowed. Because of this, social networks such as Facebook became paramount in campaigning.

                                    The Election  
  The election was held on November 27, 2010. Each candidate had a number assigned to them, because there were so many in the running, voters needed to have a "rough draft" of the numbers associated with the candidates they wanted to vote for.

                                   The Results

                    The results were impressively fairly balanced between men and women. The line-up of the chosen candidates covers all sorts of backgrounds (i.e. physician, filmmaker, lawyer, student, radio personality, farmer)
                                      Things were about to get started, the process was to begin in February of 2011 and estimated to take between 2-4 months.
The elected 25 would spend this time in Reykjavik with the heavy duty of re-writing their nations constitution.

The Back-Lash

Then 3 lawsuits were handed into the courts. The claimants stated that the electoral process was not up to the standards needed to ensure fairness and voter confidentiality. (It may be worth mentioning that one of the claimants was an individual that ran in the election but did not win)
Why you may ask?

Here are the main issues the plaintiffs had with the election:
1) Due to the ballots being hand-written, a number of ballots were illegible and therefore not counted.
2) The box in which the ballots were placed did not have a lock and the forms were not folded, therefore exposing the voters choices.
3) The order in which each person voted, depended on when they showed up, therefore it was suggested in the law suite that one could trace back a voters ballot.

The Verdict

On January 25th the Supreme Court ruled the November 2010 constitutional election illegal due to its  deficiencies in execution.
Did your heart just sink too?

The Prime Minster Jóhanna Si gurðardóttir said that "The Constitutional Assembly was the nation’s tool to forge a new constitution and we cannot take the assembly away from the nation,”

               A Constitutional Assembly can be a badly needed champion for the people.  "margt smatt gerir eitt stort" ("many small things make one large thing")- Eyglo Svala Arnarsdottir.  "It can eliminate the effect of money from the political process and let political parties fulfill their proper role of advocating ideologies.  It can look beyond the clamour of those who proclaim the benefits of divisive, confrontational party politics and recommend a process that puts public interest above private interest."    Fred Gohlke, Carteret, NJ, USA

               I am considering the recent protest in Egypt, where its people gathered courage from watching Tunisia dramatically change their own political landscape. With smaller nations such as Iceland and Tunisia ushering in proof that we can change our situations and and are never powerless, I see that we stand a real chance at change within our own difficulties. I am not going to see this as a defeat for Iceland but rather a chance to re-claim how much they really want the constitutional reform. I look forward to reporting back to you when the assembly reconvenes.


  1. Good Morning, Wilma

    Eyglo Svala Arnarsdottir of Iceland Review sent me a link to your blog entry discussing Iceland's Constitutional Assembly. I was flattered that you saw fit to mention my comment on that matter. Like you, I had high hopes the Icelandic people would be allowed to devise a more democratic Constitution with changes that would point the way for the gradual evolution of democracy. I have not given up hope that it will occur.

    I wonder if your "sweet dreams of re-invented democracy" would include an electoral method that:

    1) Embraces the participation of every member of the electorate, to the full extent of each individual's desire and ability.

    2) Lets the people seek out, from among themselves, the best advocates of the common interest and elevate them to positions of political leadership.

    3) Eliminates money, and the influence of money, from the electoral process.

    4) Lets ad hoc interest groups form to persuade the people of the value of their perspective and raise the best advocates of that view as high as the strength of their support allows.

    If so, perhaps you would like the concept of Practical Democracy. It is described in Participedia, a website devoted to increasing public participation in government:

    The Practical Democracy link is listed alphabetically on Participedia's main page, under 'Recently Edited Method Entries'. If you read the Practical Democracy description, I recommend reading the subsections for Group Size, Support For A More Democratic Political Process, and Addressing the Paradox of Mass Democracy, for greater understanding of the process.

    There are among us capable, principled individuals who would be excellent spokesmen for the common interest. What we lack is a means of finding them and raising them to positions of political leadership. Practical Democracy addresses that shortcoming. However, no concept, even one as simple and straightforward as Practical Democracy, has value until it has been carefully examined. If you, or any thoughtful person, would like to help improve our electoral processes, I will be happy to discuss the matter for as long as I'm able.


    Fred Gohlke

  2. Fred;
    Thanks so much for posting your thoughts on this. "Practical Democracy" sounds exactly right. I grew up in a political household with a father who was a politician and he often would say to me the same that you just stated .."There are among us capable, principled individuals who would be excellent spokesmen for the common interest. What we lack is a means of finding them and raising them to positions of political leadership"
    I have never seen this as an end to that thought but rather a challenge to awake those whom know they are capable, compassionate, community focused individuals, to stand up and not let the horizon of red tape get in the way of representing their voice.
    Good to hear your thoughts Fred.