The Parliament that wouldn’t

Following four months of intense debates, Iceland’s Constitutional Council handed Alþingi its proposals for a new Constitution. That was July 29, 2011. Now the Council has been asked to reconvene for a four-day session of further deliberation. Unfortunately, the Icelandic parliament’s handling of the proposals has not done constitution reform much good, and furthermore, the planned road ahead seems ill advised.

The back story

Following the financial crisis in 2008 and the subsequent parliamentary elections in early 2009, the victorious left-wing government embarked on a journey to revise Iceland’s Constitution of 1944. A Constitutional Assembly of 25 people, voted for in a popular election held last year, were supposed to draft a proposal. I was one of the 525 candidates who ran and one of those lucky twenty-five to gain a seat after the original count. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court deemed the results invalid in early 2011, citing procedural problems.

Parliament, however, chose to bypass the ruling by changing the name from “Assembly” to “Council” and offering the same twenty-five people seats. This was, in my opinion, a bad decision. The right approach would have been to redo the election—not to rebrand the body in question. Those of us with seats had to decide either to take part in the process, which you could say was flawed, or to relinquish our seat to someone who has no problem with Supreme Court rulings being ignored. I chose the first option, along with the rest of the group with the exception of one person.

Bringing this all up again might seem pointless or even mean, but when it comes to constitutional reform, it doesn’t sit well with me that the ruling government write the rules, as the game unfolds, hoping that everything will somehow turn out fine.

Let’s call the Council!

The Constitutional Council, which formally ceased to exist six months ago, is being asked to convene on March 8 through 11 to discuss questions from the parliamentary committee responsible for constitutional affairs. Following this brief session, the Council can, from what I understand, make amendments to its own proposals, and the resulting document will then be put to a referendum by the end of June, on the same day as Icelanders vote for President.

I have serious reservations about this set-up. First of all, when parliament was voting to have the Council reconvene, there were no concrete proposals available with respect to what they thought needed changing, for either legal or political reasons. A few days later a short statement was made public to the media, including: “Take a better look at the chapter about the president.” Members of the Council have since then received a four-page letter from parliament. The letter is a fair enough memo, but it still includes no concrete proposals for what should be changed and how it should be done.

Parliament, which is solely responsible for amending the constitution, should have examined the proposals both from a legal and a political point of view. It seems that neither has been done. No thorough legal analysis of our document has been made on behalf of parliament, and it seems, as many MPs claim, that this step can wait until after the referendum. I firmly disagree. The idea of voting on a law before preparing it seems irresponsible to me.

If the goal of the March meeting of the Constitutional Council was solely to give our opinion on some ideas that parliament might have with regards to our proposals then that might be fine. However, that is not the case. The plan is to put our decisions directly to a referendum, without any further legal expert analysis, and without giving the Council resources needed to accommodate for such an analysis.

And I do have a problem with taking part in submitting something to a popular vote without it first being at least examined—if not approved—by parliament. It is parliament that has the power to amend the Constitution, and it cannot push that responsibility away, even if it wants to.