July 5, 2016    5 minute read

A Brief Lesson In Democracy From Iceland

Small Country, Big Heart    July 5, 2016    5 minute read

A Brief Lesson In Democracy From Iceland

The dream is over. In the last days, Iceland was in all the papers for its unbelievable path in the Euro 2016: a country with 323,000 inhabitants, which defeated the English national team, forcing Her Majesty’s subjects into a second ‘Brexit’ in just a few days. This is a beautiful story of football: the Icelandic team, coached by a part-time dentist, has beaten the Three Lions’ team, whose manager Roy Hodgson had a £3.5m a year contract. The Viking team inspired an entire nation. In fact, the audience share for its matches was almost at 100% of the country’s population.

But Iceland was also all over the news a few months ago when the Prime Minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, trapped by Panama Papers’ scandal, resigned after the population protests.

Maybe a less known piece of information is that on June 25th this northern island elected a new president: Gudni Johannesson, professor of history and an independent candidate, who took over the role from Olafur Grimsson, the president since 1996.

But how many know what happened in recent years?




The 2008 financial crisis really afflicted Iceland and its banks: it was a dramatic economic event that involved the default of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks. Relative to the size of the country’s economy, the Icelandic systemic banking collapse was the largest in its history. It was in the wake of the financial crisis that the Icelandic revolution, also known as the Kitchenware Revolution, happened: starting from the bottom, people asked for the resignation of the government, led by the centre-right Independence Party who had provoked the crisis with the privatisation of the banks. Eventually, the government resigned, there was an election in April 2009 and the Independence Party lost power. The new governing parties, the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement, decided that the population should be involved in creating a new constitution and started the debate. In the meantime, many think-tanks were started from there, and a National Forum was born, which was the origin of the 2011 Constitutional Assembly. 1,200 people chosen randomly and 300 belonging to companies and institutions formed this assembly: it was a cross section of the Icelandic society. Also, the new government contributed to this process by holding a national election to choose 25 delegates who would review the constitution. The majority of them had never been in contact with politics.

No Easy Journey

In the middle of this democratic revolution, the Supreme Court declared the election null and void but the Parliament reacted by nominating the 25 representatives. This decision reduced the credibility of the Constitutional Council and pushed the opposition to modify the Constitution of 1944: not only the Independence Party but also the Progressives and some members of the government majority. The Constitutional Council continued working and within four months approved unanimously a bill containing all the conclusions of the national assembly. The bill also included tips from the citizens, who could make their voice heard loud by commenting on the council’s interactive website. The Parliament decided to convoke a referendum over the bill: the democratic revolution continued with an instrument of direct democracy. But the opposition tried to obstruct this change by stalling so the initial date, which coincided with the presidential election in June 2012, was delayed.

Finally, the referendum took place on October 20th 2012. It was the first time in Icelandic history that the Constitution of 1944, inherited by the Independence from the Nazi-German Denmark, risked such a huge change.

The referendum put six questions to the public:

  1. Do you wish the Constitution Council’s proposals to form the basis of a new draft Constitution?
  2. In the new Constitution, do you want natural resources that are not privately owned to be declared national property?
  3. Would you like to see provisions in the new Constitution on an established (national) church in Iceland?
  4. Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution authorising the election of particular individuals to the Parliament more than is the case at present?
  5. Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution giving equal weight to votes cast in all parts of the country?
  6. Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution stating that a certain proportion of the electorate can demand that issues are put to a referendum?

No less than 67% of the electorate declared their support for the bill as well as for its key individual provisions, but the voter turnout was only 49%, also because of the delay caused by the opposition. However, the bill was ready for the final approval by the Parliament and the victory seemed certain: in fact, 32 Members of Parliament out of 63 declared in public that they supported the bill. But the fifth question of the referendum meant all the rural members of Parliament risked never being elected again and so the bill was delayed one more time.

The April 2013 election produced a government contrary to the referendum: it was a coalition of the Independence Party and the Progressives, so the referendum approval was put ‘on ice’.

Is this the end of a beautiful history of democracy?

No, as Thorvaldur Gylfason, Professor of Economics at the University of Iceland and one of the 25 representatives in the Constitutional Council, remembered:

As always, however, there will be a new parliament after this one. One day, most probably, the constitutional bill approved by the people of Iceland in the 2012 referendum or a similar one will become the law of the land. Stay tuned.

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