It is the lazy conceit of the political class that “representative democracy” is the most reliable way of carrying out the public will. Just as George W. Bush showed how the accountability mechanisms of state power are often more notional than real, the government of Iceland has now exposed its disdain for public opinion on matters of democratic empowerment. A recent blog post by Thorvaldur Gylfason gets right to the point: “Putsch: Iceland’s crowd-sourced constitution killed by parliament.” Gylfason is an economics professor blogging at the German blog Verfassungsblog (“on matters constitutional”).
Iceland’s constitutional drama got its start following the 2008 crash. As viewers of the film Inside Job will recall, the financial collapse was devastating to Iceland, which had set itself up as an offshore financial center. After citizen protesters banged pots and pans in the street, demanding a new government, a new post-crash government eventually chose 950 random citizens to give their thoughts on a new constitution. An elected constitutional council used social media to solicit the views of the public.
This open, thoughtful process was later invalidated by the country’s Supreme Court, which was dominated by justices belonging to the discredited political party responsible for the financial crash. In response, the Icelandic parliament established a new constitutional council to draft a constitution. That four-month process in 2011 yielded some remarkable reform proposals, as Gylfason writes:
The constitutional bill stipulates, among other things: (a) electoral reform securing ‘one person, one vote’; (b) national ownership of natural resources; (c) direct democracy through national referenda; (d) freedom of information; and (e) environmental protection plus a number of new provisions designed to superimpose a layer of checks and balances on the existing system of semi-presidential parliamentary form of government. The preamble sets the tone: “We, the people of Iceland, wish to create a just society where everyone has a seat at the same table.” The people were invited to contribute to the drafting through the Constitutional Council’s interactive website. Foreign experts on constitutions, e.g. Prof. Jon Elster of Columbia University and Prof. Tom Ginsburg of the University of Chicago, have publicly praised the bill and the democratic way in which it was drafted.