The Constitutional Experiment in Iceland: The Future that Failed?

With the return of the two political parties that hold the responsibility for the Icelandic economic collapse of 2009 back into political power, the bottom-up constitutional experiment that started in the crisis’ wake faces an uphill struggle. The general elections of yesterday, 27 April, have secured 51 percent of the Icelandic votes for the centre-right Independence Party and the Progressive Party, which will most likely form a coalition. In particular the first, but also the second party, have shown a strong aversion to the citizen-driven constitution-making process, also because they represent vested interests, not least those related to the fishery industry. But where the Independence Party has rejected the whole process of constitution-drafting, the Progressive Party appears not adverse to the change of at least some parts of the 1944 Constitution.

As I related in my post of 21 October, 2012, a national, advisory referendum confirmed a widespread support for the draft constitution, and in particular also for specific questions, such as the role of participatory democratic instruments or the declaration of natural resources as national property. While the turnout for the referendum was relatively high – almost 50 percent – the sceptical centre-right forces have argued that only a minority of 30 percent of the total Icelandic electorate expressed itself in favour of the new constitution. Their approach in the Icelandic Parliament (Althing) seems to have been largely one of ‘gerrymandering’ in order to hold up constitutional renewal. The outgoing Parliament and now former government headed by the socialist party have not been able to adopt the citizens’ constitution nor any of its parts. The only tangible step undertaken by the Parliament was the adoption of a new, additional amendment rule on 28 March, just before the end of its mandate. The new rule states that the constitutional change can be adopted by a favourable vote of two-thirds of the Parliament, followed by a popular referendum in which at least 40 percent needs to express itself in favour. This new way of changing the Icelandic Constitution is clearly constituting a high threshold, while the old rule (art. 79 of the 1944 Constitution) can also be seen as relatively difficult to initiate as it requires two consecutive parliamentary majorities in favour of change. One of the main reasons behind the new amendment rule is to ensure that a new document would be adopted with a clear majority consensus, in order to counter the sceptics’ critique that constitutional change is only desired by a minority.

The elections have not only entailed a clear return to political power of the centre-right parties, but also seen two newcomers, the Bright Future party and the Pirate Party, both of which are explicitly in favour of a new constitution. The latter has for instance called the citizens’ constitution a ‘shining example of direct democracy in action’. Their electoral weight – 8.4 and 5.1 percent of the votes respectively – makes them a visible force, but not powerful enough to strongly define the future of the citizens’ draft.

(with thanks to Baldvin Thor Bergsson)

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About blokkerpaul

I am a political sociologist. My work deals with processes of constitution-making (so far particularly focused on Central and Eastern Europe), constitutions and their symbolic dimensions, constitutional critique and different forms of constitutional justification, dissidence and democracy, civic participation in democracy, and the plurality of political cultures.
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