On Icelandic Constitution and Direct Democracy, Interview with Katrín Oddsdóttir

in Politics by

­­European Strategist’s editor Alice Máselníková interviews Katrín Oddsdótir about the socio-political situation in Iceland following the draft of new constitution in 2011, direct democracy, and the power of the people.

Katrín Oddsdóttir is a lawyer, activist and human rights worker. She was member of Iceland’s 2011 Constitutional Council, together with 24 other citizens of Iceland that drafted the new Icelandic Constitution, an occurrence highly unprecedented in modern European politics.

Following the 2008 financial crisis, when literally all of the country’s major banks collapsed, something unusual happened in Iceland: instead of falling into despair and political numbness, the nation unified and rose together to claim their rights for better society. Iceland, the most scarcely populated country in Europe (3.21people/km2 with the European average 116people/km2)[i] gathered its citizens for what is today known as the Pots and Pans revolution. Every week demonstrations were held on the square in front of the Althing (Alþingi in Icelandic, the Parliament House) with thousands of people bringing in their crockery, making their voice heard as loud as possible.

What did the people want? They wanted change, it is as simple as that. Icelanders were fed up with being stamped on by the government supporting the privatisation of banks and market and feeding off the international fishing quotas. The main demands that resulted from Pots and Pans revolution were for the government to resign and for the general director of the Central Bank to resign (who was, coincidentally, the former prime minister and leader of the conservative party). In consequence, another demand that would lead for what was hoped to be the biggest change in the political atmosphere came up, which was to form and implement a new constitution.

The government resigned in early 2009 and the general director of the Central Bank was forced to resign not long after, as well as the head of the Financial Supervisory Authority. In the spring of the same year, the old government was replaced by a coalition of the Social Democratic Alliance and the Left-Green Movement. The newly formed government promised for the constitution to be rewritten and set off to do so in several steps. The emphasis was on the fact that the constitution should come from the people rather than from politicians. After all, the total revision of Iceland’s constitution had been an unreached goal since the establishment of Iceland’s republic in 1944.

The process was addressed in three steps, first of which was the call of the National Assembly in 2010, where one thousand people randomly selected from the public gathered to discuss what they would like to see in the new constitution. What followed was the appointment of a Constitutional Committee consisting of seven members who gathered all relevant information on ‘constitution making.’ Finally, in November 2010, a Constitutional Assembly of twenty-five citizens of Iceland was elected by direct public vote out of 523 candidates. This should have been the last step before the Assembly would gather and start working on the new constitution. However, the legitimacy of the Assembly was questioned and pronounced invalid by the Supreme Court, after a complaint was raised from the candidates who did not get elected regarding a technical aspect of the elections (e.g. referring to unsuitable size of the voting booths). Since such complaint still could not invalidate the actual legitimate result of the election for the Assembly, the Althingi decided to instead appoint the Assembly members to a Constitutional Council. All elected member apart from one decided to take part of the Council. The two bodies were basically identical, operating on very similar principles.

What makes the new Icelandic constitution special, as compared to other constitutional drafts from around the world, was the unique inclusive approach it used. An example of democratic attitude, it allowed citizens to take direct action in shaping their country’s future. The process was fully transparent with each step being shared on the social media and openly discussed with the public. The constitution was continuously adjusted, taking into consideration public suggestions and improvements of articles. After its publication, the new constitution was attacked and criticised by the Independent Party and the Progressive Party as well as certain members of the academia, who again proclaimed the process and the outcome had been faulty, referring back to the original complaint, and thus inadmissible. A national referendum was held, asking for the public’s opinion on whether the draft of the new constitution should be the basis for Iceland’s new constitution. With around 50% turnout, two thirds of the voters voted for substituting the old constitution with the new one.

Until today, the referendum result has been ignored by the parliament and the constitution has not been implemented. Ignoring a national referendum is something as unprecedented in a modern democratic country, as it is to allow the public to take part in drafting a constitution. Seeing no tangible result of the constitutional process, Icelanders have once again started to unite and act. Civil organisations, such as Better Reykjavik, have been working locally with the capital’s public places and community centres. Since March 2015, The Pirate Party have been polling as the most popular party in Iceland, with the support of over 30% of the voters for six months subsequently, currently measuring with more support than both of the parties who form the current majority combined. In March, Iceland also announced that it has [unofficially] withdrawn the application to European Union (in a letter from the prime minister).

Katrín, you were part of the 2011 Constitutional Council. What made you step forward as candidate and were you engaged in politics prior to those events? What did you take away from the experience and are you involved in the current political situation in any active way?

I have always had a rather sceptical feeling toward politics in general. Most of the political parties are, in my opinion, silly and out-dated in regards to their methodology. So no, I am not a member of any political party at the moment and I actually have not been a member of a political party since I was a teenager and supported an all-female party called the Women’s Alliance, which made great changes in Icelandic political landscape at the time. I was not a member of any party before taking part in the constitution drafting. I just never wanted to be part of this whole system and that has not changed.

The reason why I was elected probably started with the speech I gave in 2008 at one of the protests of the Pots and Pans revolution. It somehow touched a lot of people and became very talked about at the time. It was radical but it seems to have captured the spirit of a large part of the population. I was a law student at the time. Other reason was that I was radical, and angry, and I wanted to make a change without taking part in the silly game of conventional politics where you tend to end up compromising your beliefs. I thought that by being part of the constitution process I could really make a difference without becoming numb within the political system. And I think people could sense this will from the speech I gave at the protests and therefore voted for me.

The most valuable lessons I take away from this experience is the wisdom of the crowd is enormous and that people with different opinions can reach a unified conclusion through using consensus methodology, rather than overriding the will of the minority through the power of voting.

The process since the start of drafting the constitution has been problematic, not only in terms of strong political opposition, but also in terms of low polling participation of the public. Why do you think the public election for the Assembly had such a small turnout (37%) as well as for the 2012 referendum on the acceptance of the constitution (49%)?

I think the main reasons for this were the complexity of the questions posed for the public and the very low media coverage we got. There was virtually no information available on the different candidates nor were there any debates between them and the public. This might be due to the fact that so many people came forth and wanted to become part of rewriting our constitution, which in my opinion is beautiful. However, it meant that it was hard to communicate the emphasis of all those hundreds of people to the voters who had never been faced with similar elections throughout Iceland’s history. This is the main problem for public engagement. People are misinformed or they do not get enough information on what the government and the institutions are doing. You cannot change things, if you do not know how they work.

I have the feeling that part of the reason why the turnout for the national referendum on the new constitution was only 49% was that many people who were conventionally supposed to be against those changes, for example due to their alliance with the conservative political parties, simply chose to allow the other voters to have a stronger saying in this by not voting. This is of course only a theory and cannot be proven but it is clear that the turnout was a huge blow for those political powers that have ruled Iceland for decades. Also, I point out that on a global level it is not considered so bad to have half of the population show up for election on a single issue elections thought by many to be of rather complex nature. Again, similar elections have never been held in Iceland before, and therefore we have no way of knowing what a good turnout is in such situation. Compared to conventional general election this is, however, clearly a low turnout for Iceland.

The constitution has not been implemented until today, despite the fact that 66% of Icelanders voted (in national referendum) in favour of it replacing the current constitution. What exactly is preventing this from happening? What steps should, could or are being taken in order for the constitution to go through and can you see this happening in the foreseeable future?

Basically, the parliament has been preventing this from happening. The whole situation is frozen, they have been trying to put it to sleep and make the process as slow as possible. Of course, as the constitution takes some power away from the parliament itself, not everyone is willing to give up on such power. It is quite sad to see the decision of a national referendum ignored by the democratically selected parliament. It undermines democracy itself. In order to change the current constitution of Iceland the parliament has to approve of the changes then call for general elections and the new parliament also has to approve. It is therefore quite hard to change. In 2011 the minority threatened to use filibustering to block the changes of the constitution from being elected on by the parliament. The majority had the chance to act on that threat with specific means but they did not dear to, for some reason, and therefore this big and important issue was left unresolved and without a vote in the parliament. That is in my opinion disgraceful, because we are talking about the social contract of a nation, the foundation for all other legislation. If you cannot take drastic means in order to get the democratic will to change such a document, then when should you?

Regarding the public mood, I think something is happening in Iceland again, you can feel that change is coming. We stirred the awareness of the people during the constitution making, and before, and they now know that things can change, even if it a slow and sometimes not fully successful process. The Pirate Party has been gaining huge popularity and they are honestly wanting to tackle things differently, placing strong emphasis on the constitution from the Constitution Council being implemented. They are the only political party that has done so and I believe some of their large support, which the polls are currently showing, is due to that firm stand.

The discussion regarding the Icelandic constitution has disappeared from the European media recently – can you familiarize our readers with the current situation in Iceland, four years after the new constitution was drafted? What would you say is the explanation for right wing parties being elected back to power in 2013, despite what had happened just a couple of years before?

People were disappointed with the left wing government that took force after the crash. It faced enormous assignments, namely restoring Iceland’s economy and helping out the tens of thousands of households who had defaulted due to the crash. It was never going to be a thankful job. They were punished but I have the feeling that retrospect this government will not be considered to have done a bad job.

The Progressive Party made an election promise to lower the housing debts of people who had seen their loans surge due to the financial crash and a lot of people bought into that, and were in a way bought by that promise. Now, even when these debts have been lowered, those voters still seem very unhappy with the current government. So maybe this is also just this sort of pendulum effect, where people go from one extreme to the other, seeking finally to find balance in the middle somewhere. In my opinion, the big issue is that the current party political system is completely outdated and people want a different sort of politics. Only around 10% of the population of Iceland trust the Parliament today, for example, which is completely unacceptable for a democratic society.

You were giving a speech at Beyond the Obvious conference organised by Culture Action Europe in October that was attended by professionals from a range of culture sectors. What relationship do you see between the socio-political situation and the state of arts & culture in Iceland? Has there been any reaction from Icelandic artists?

Politics is really a sort of day by day thing, you know. We need philosophers and we need artists to make a point of what we are coming from, and where we are going to. Icelandic artists have had great input in all spheres of social and cultural life during this process. They criticize more openly now than before the crash.

But also what I think was really interesting was that the general public somehow opened up a bit artistically during those times. Everyone has an inner artist in them, and also an inner politician. We are complex animals: we can create and we can reason what we need. I think what is beautiful is that thanks to this people allowed themselves to be a bit more poetic about their existence. It helped us form those big questions and sort of mark the path that we took. We were not trying to be just practical and pragmatic, but also tried to think a little bit more creatively and beautifully.

How do you think organisations such as Better Reykjavik/Better Neighbourhood can influence the political course of a country? Do you think arts can have impact on the political direction of a country?

Yes, definitely, as I was saying. People are stronger believers in direct democracy and decision-making through direct democracy today than they were before the crisis by far. Now I think you could go off down the street in Iceland and ask people and large majority of them would want more access to decision making. We agree as group that this way of making decisions is outdated. Look at, for example, asylum matters. No one knew in 2013 that in 2015 we would have the biggest global refugee crisis that the world has seen. We would probably have done things differently, if we knew this would become one of the most important political debates in Iceland.

This is an example of how outdated this system really is; you cannot make decisions on what is going to happen four years from now. It’s the same way I am not going to get a tattoo on my face of the band that I am listening to today. That is the conservative nature of the human being, that everything that is uncertain is very bad. People get afraid.

One of the key beliefs behind us in European Strategists is that we believe that people and communities should aim to retake the control over their destiny. We prefer communitarianism and principles of solidarity to egoistic individualism. How important do you think direct democracy and how can it be targeted in day to day life?

 I am a strong believer in direct democracy however, I do not think that direct democracy works for everything, you see, in some cases it works to let the public decide, in others you have to engage the serious politics (and politicians]; you have to mix it.

 How could smaller countries have equal position within a larger political complex, such as European Union presents? Do they stand a chance on large political European scale?

 They cannot! If you asked: ‘Could European countries work together?’ I would say yes, but not in the direction EU is going in today.

 Thank you, Katrín, is there anything else you would like to add?

Yes, I think we should trust the people more. I would say: Believe in the wisdom of crowds.


[i] Statistics Iceland, accessed November 2015 (http://www.statice.is/?PageID=1390)

Alice Maselnikova is Czech artist, curator, and art coordinator based in Stockholm. Fond of (in alphabetical order): art, books, cheese, chess, jazz, nudes, philosophy, politics, whisky, wine and writing. She holds a BA (Hons) degree in Art, Philosophy, and Contemporary Practices and is taking an MA in Curating Art at Stockholm University. Most recently she was awarded the Transfer North Critical Curatorial Writing Residency 2016-17 and is focusing her research on curatorial practices in the rural context of north-west Russia.

Leave a Reply