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Iceland’s experiment with crowd-sourcing its constitution just died

Iceland's parliament, debates a bill to hold a referendum over repayment of US$5.7 billion demanded by Britain and the Netherlands for depositors' money lost in failed Icelandic banks in Reykjavik Friday Jan. 8, 2010 . The government was forced into organizing the nationwide vote after Iceland's President Olafur R. Grimsson refused to sign legislation on the repayment into law. (AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti
AP Photo/Brynjar Gauti
How many Icelandic parliamentarians does it take to change a constitution?
By Leo Mirani
IcelandPublished Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

When Iceland decided it needed a new constitution, it took the novel approach of giving all of Iceland’s people a say. Alas, that constitution is now dead—or at the very least in a long, deep coma.

The rise and fall of the world’s first crowd-sourced constitution begins in the wake Iceland’s 2008 bankruptcy, when its government decided that a new constitution was in order. (The old one is based on Denmark’s and the two countries share a somewhat tortured relationship.) And who would write it? The good people of Iceland, the government decided, as it faced widespread protests about the way the financial crisis was handled.

This effort saw 950 Icelanders chosen by lottery to offer their thoughts on how the process should work. An elected constitutional council then solicited feedback from citizens through social media. The council published a draft based on this feedback.

That draft was sent to Iceland’s parliament, called the Althing (which translates to exactly what it sounds like), where it was supposed to be passed, receive voter approval in a referendum, and, ultimately, be passed again by a newly formed parliament.

But one problem with being between constitutions is that you can change the process when you want to. With elections looming on Apr. 27, the Althing was dissolved yesterday without having approved the constitution—but not before lawmakers made a few tweaks to the agreed-upon system. Now, once the new parliament approves the constitution with a super-majority, it will be put out in a referendum and Iceland’s people will have to pass it with at least 40% of eligible voters approving it, implying an 80% voter turnout. The same parliament can then put the constitution into effect, without having to be dissolved.

Some members of the crowd that was supposed to source the constitution aren’t pleased with that. According to the blogger Baldur Bjarnason, all this dilly-dallying and manoeuvring is essentially a means of disregarding the draft constitution put forward by the council. He writes:

It’s up to the next government to pass this [process] amendment after the next election to finally ratify it as a constitutional amendment and then use it to do the reforms the constitution badly needs. They may or may not do this. It depends largely on the attitudes and priorities of whichever party ends up in government with the Independence Party (probably the Progressive Party) but the work of the constitutional council is now completely off the table.

Bjarnason is not the only one disappointed by parliament’s actions. Protesters gathered outside the parliament last night and according to News of Iceland, some parliamentarians aren’t happy about the result either. It quotes MP Birgitta Jonsdottir as saying “RIP our new constitution – written by the nation for the nation.” Other critics went further, calling it “a total betrayal.”

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