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Power to the People

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The financial crisis that hit Iceland in 2008 revealed many weaknesses inherent in Iceland's system of governance. The professional political class that had arisen since Iceland's independence from Denmark in 1944 had become intolerably entwined with its dominant business class, and had acquiesced to (and sometimes actively participated in) the massive fraud that nearly bankrupted the nation.

One fortunate consequence of this most unfortunate revelation has been a movement to draft a new Constitution. National elections to select the twenty-five members of a Constitutional committee will take place later this month, and the committee will commence its work early next year.

Iceland's current Constitution is essentially a word-for-word translation of the pre-WWII Danish Constitution. It reflects the concerns faced by a 19th century nation making the transition from an absolute monarchy to a liberal democracy. Although it may have sufficed at that time for that nation, it has failed to address the disastrous problems of 21st century Iceland.

The new Constitution must reflect Iceland's unique history, as well as its democratic values. One way to accomplish these goals is to reinstitute Iceland's greatest political achievement--the Alþingi.

Today, Iceland's legislature is referred to as the Alþingi, but in reality the Alþingi--as it was originally conceived in 930 AD--was a much different institution, in which the legislature (or Lögrétta) was only one part. Until Iceland submitted to the authority of the Norwegian king by the terms of the "Old Covenant" (Gamli sáttmáli) in 1262, Alþingi was a general assembly at which the country's chieftains (goðar) met to decide on legislation and dispense justice. Alþingi also performed a judicial function and heard legal disputes, and assumed the function of hearing cases left unsettled by the other courts.

All of these functions have now been delegated to separate institutions. In Iceland's parliamentary system, few of the members of any of these institutions are directly elected by the people. Each is staffed by career professionals primarily interested in retaining their jobs. Each is concerned with only a portion of the nation's affairs.

In each of the past two years, Iceland has convoked a national assembly of 1,000 randomly selected Icelandic citizens -- in 2009 via grassroots efforts of private citizens -- to discuss the nation's values and future following the bank collapse of 2008. This year's national assembly, held on November 6, was called for in legislation passed by Parliament about a Constitutional Convention. The purpose of that meeting, attended by 950 people, aged 18-91 from all over the country, was to call for ideas that would reflect the emphasis and the will of the general public when it came to the nation's Constitution.

The meeting was considered to be a huge success. In groups, participants discussed the values that they wanted the Constitution to be built on; those were then broken down into eight categories and discussed in terms of the contents Constitution contents. Participants voted on the categories they considered of most importance and on categories that they believed were "new." Each discussion table then composed a paragraph that summarized their central ideas and conclusions. Participants then had an opportunity to forward personal messages to the constitutional convention, Alþingi, media and others.

What I propose is that we create in our new Constitution a similar institution, with real powers to oversee the actions taken by our government. As things stand now, there is no practical recourse to actions taken by the legislative, executive, and judicial branches that are not in the interest of the people as a whole. Particular segments of society, most notably those who have received the benefit of goods designated as belonging to the public--such as fish quota owners and aluminum companies, have been able to exert undue influence behind closed doors.

In a nutshell, the function of the new Assembly (or Þjóðfundur) would be to review all of the government's actions (legislative enactments, regulations, treaties, court orders, contracts, executive appointments, etc.), identify those that it deems not to be in the nation's interest (f.ex. aluminum or energy contracts, privatization schemes -- such as the disastrous fishing and bank robberies), and submit those to national referendum. It would also suggest an agenda for the next legislative session.

This National Assembly would -- like the last two previous assemblies -- be randomly selected from National Registry's pool of eligible voters after the close of the legislative session and meet within two weeks after the session's end. It would convene for a period of say, two weeks (attendance mandatory, like jury duty), review legislative output and vote on each product. If the National Assembly vetoes something, it goes to a national referendum.

The first couple of Assemblies might be hectic, but over time there would be stability. We already have had two meetings of this kind with very good results. This way we get the best of both worlds - we'll have a professional class of people with, supposedly, the technical knowledge to create legislation, and we will have the population as a whole represented. Along with this, I suggest we decrease the number of our needlessly numerous MPs from 63 to, say, 37.

To the best of my knowledge, this form of participatory democracy has not been attempted on a national scale in the modern era, but I believe it is the appropriate form of government for Iceland. Given Iceland's size, this annual people's congress would represent a very significant percentage of the nation's voting age population, yet would still be a manageable group. Because it would act on a specific annual schedule, there is little danger that its decisions would create uncertainty in the application of laws. Because it would consist of a large cross-section of the population as a whole, there is little danger of corruption or undue influence over its deliberations.

In the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln referred to "government of the people, by the people, for the people." Although the parliamentary government under which Iceland has functioned for the past 66 years is a better government than the ones that preceded it, it still fails to meet Lincoln's standard. Too often, it has made decisions that are contrary to the nation's welfare, that have benefitted only a few at the expense of the many. Only by creating a new structure of government under which the people themselves literally have the final say in all matters will we be able to free ourselves from the nepotism, cronyism, and political patronage that have plagued our nation in recent years.