Icelandic dinosaurs, elections and the fate of their crowd-sourced constitution … and a link to equal marriage

Slugger should take a look at Iceland more often. An article in yesterday’s Guardian described intriguing democratic and constitutional processes.

Flag of IcelandAbout a third of the North Atlantic island’s population live in the capital city of Reykjavík, another third live in the greater Reykjavík area. Apparently two thirds of the island’s population are on Facebook:

Iceland can be a petri dish for democratic ideas, according to the mayor [Jón Gnarr who formed the Best party] … “Reykjavík and Iceland are perfect places to experiment with democracy.”

Iceland goes to the polls on Saturday to elect a new parliament. The number of parties standing for the 63 seats has doubled, up to 15 from 7 at the last election. There’s a fascinating multi-seat constituency system along with levelling seats that can float around constituencies between elections, never mind their use of d’Hondt and the Borda method.

In the run -up to this election, according to the Guardian:

So many new parties have been formed that a law was passed to change the format of the ballot paper, while in the background the future of the country’s constitution – widely proclaimed as the first crowd-sourced constitution in history – hangs by a thread.

A crowd-sourced what?

A row still rages over the country’s constitution, which was created after its economic collapse. When 950 Icelanders, randomly chosen from the national register, gathered for one day in 2010 to decide its founding principles it was hailed as the world’s first “crowd-sourced” constitution. A 25-member constitutional council drew up the constitution in four months – despite Iceland’s supreme court judging the election of the council void.

The draft was not without controversy: it stipulated that Iceland’s remaining unprivatised natural resources should remain in the hands of the state, a move unlikely to be supported by Iceland’s powerful fishing industry, and called for freedom of information and greater accountability for politicians.

Despite the fact that two-thirds of voters approved the document in a non-binding referendum in October 2012, the bill did not make it through parliament before it broke for elections, and several politicians told the Guardian it was unlikely to proceed in its current form.

Some politicians feel that “the constitution had been rushed and created without experts”. Any change to the constitution “must be approved by two successive parliaments”.

… but outgoing prime minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir passed an amendment on her final day which means the constitution could be approved if it gains the support of two-thirds of parliament and 40% of the electorate in a further referendum. It is, campaigners say, a mammoth task.

Thorvaldur Gylfason is professor of economics at the University of Iceland and a member of the constitutional committee:

If the bill is killed, as many in parliament seem to hope – if the window of opportunity that opened up after the crash is closed – then it will open a wound deeper than any in history since Iceland joined Nato in 1949 … We want the world to know about this … A parliament ignores the will of its people at its peril.

The Guardian article finishes:

But whatever the fate of the constitution, the mayor of Reykjavík is confident that the march of direct democracy in Iceland will not easily be halted. “Best party is like the first little mammal in the land of the dinosaurs,” he said. “The dinosaurs don’t know that their time is over yet. And the little guy, who is mostly in his hole for the moment, he’s the future.

Imagine a constitutional convention on these islands?

Green MLA Steven Agnew has been calling for public involvement in reviewing and improving the structures of governance in Northern Ireland.

There’s the well-established Convention of the Constitution “to ensure that it is fully equipped for the 21st Century and making recommendations to the Oireachtas on future amendments to be put to the people in referendums”. The public membership element involved randomly surveying households within particular geographical strata to find volunteers.

The Constitutional Convention will feature in Monday’s political news when MLAs debate Sinn Fein’s Private Members’ Motion (and Alliance’s amendment) on marriage equality in the NI Assembly:

That this Assembly recognises the importance of the Constitutional Convention; notes the participation of parties from the Assembly; welcomes the 79 per cent majority vote at the Constitutional Convention in favour of marriage equality; and calls on the Executive to bring forward the necessary legislation to allow for same sex marriage.

Earlier in April, the convention voted 79% in favour of recommending that the Irish Constitution be changed to allow for civil marriage for same-sex couples. They also voted (78% in favour) that “the State shall enact laws providing for same-sex marriage” rather than the weaker “the State may enact”.

A BBC online report details how local politicians voted at the convention:

The convention is made up of 100 members. They include chairman Tom Arnold, 29 members of the Irish parliament, four members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and 66 citizens.

Ninety six members voted. The chairman does not vote and three members, Stewart Dickson, Alliance, Alban Maginness, SDLP, and one citizen member, did not attend. The fourth member from the Northern Ireland Assembly, Steven Agnew, Green Party, attended and voted in favour of changing the constitution.

Sinn Fein president, Gerry Adams, and Northern Ireland deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, did not attend the vote in person but nominated Kathryn Reilly and Caitriona Ruane to vote on their behalf.

Whatever happened to the Civic Forum?

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