From Iceland — Low Voter Turnout, Mixed Messages

Low Voter Turnout, Mixed Messages

Published December 14, 2010

Low Voter Turnout, Mixed Messages

On November 27, Icelanders partook in an unprecedented election when the nation voted representatives for a Constitutional Assembly that will convene in February. The assembly’s task is to rewrite the Icelandic Constitution, originally handed down to us by the Danish colonial masters in 1874—hence the statue of a Danish monarch with a piece of paper in front of the Prime Minister’s office. This assembly will present its resolutions to the Parliament at the end of its sessions, but it also has the power to force Alþingi’s hand by calling for a national referendum on its proposals.
The Constitutional Assembly consists of 25 representatives. The issues it will look most closely into are the system of government itself: the role of the president, the independence of the judiciary system and some aspects that are perceived to have failed before and during the collapse of the Icelandic economy in 2008—aspects such as the checks and balances between the different branches of government.
It will also debate whether the constitution should contain provisions about national resources— that are mainly fish and energy—and whether these should be stipulated as being the basic properties of the nation itself.
There are more subjects that will surely be discussed: The relation between the state and the Lutheran church, which now has the status of national church, whether to decide more things by referendum and whether to change the electoral system, which is seen by many as archaic, where votes in the countryside count for more than votes cast in Reykjavík and the towns in the southwest.
The Constitutional Assembly is a direct result of the collapse. After the events of October 2008— when the banks, the stock market and the currency crashed in the course of a week—there was talk of total system failure within the government. This is confirmed in a huge report published in April 2010 by the parliament appointed Special Investigation Commission; politicians and the civil service sector are seen to have failed through negligence, incompetence and nepotism.
There have even been calls for a second Icelandic republic to be founded on the ruins of the first one—so in a way the Constitutional Assembly is an attempt to take the democratic process out of the hands of the political class.
But it cannot be claimed that the elections brought out the nation en masse. The turnout was quite a disappointment. Only 36 percent of the population bothered to vote, in a country where most voters usually show up for elections.
Several explanations can be mentioned. The large right wing party, Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn, in government before and during the collapse, was opposed to the whole process and talked it down from the outset. Coverage was limited, partly because the media were overwhelmed by the number of candidates, 522 in all.
Some also felt that the process did not go far enough, that the powers of the assembly are too limited: its proposals will eventually have to be ratified— or rejected—by Alþingi. And of course a constitution is an abstraction; it does not immediately affect the lives of people, so perhaps many felt detached from the whole process.
Admittedly the mandate of the Constitutional Assembly is weakened by the low turnout. Of course it will still carry on, but its proposals can be easily put to doubt. Politicians might even be tempted to try to ignore it. This is also a question of how the assembly itself will fare. Politics are largely discredited in Iceland because of the crash, and because of incessant party bickering. Trust in the Parliament is almost non-existent. Will the Constitutional Assembly manage to rise above this, or will it descend into the same infighting, mirroring the general distrust. Then we might also see the outlines of political parties forming within the assembly, especially around the explosive question of national resources.
International media has described this as a unique experiment, but it might easily fail. All in all, five Parliament-appointed committees have failed to rewrite the constitution since Iceland became a republic in 1944. The first was convened as early as 1945. Many of them sat for years. The last one, in 2005, stranded on the role of the president. The Icelandic president has traditionally been a symbolic figurehead, but this has changed in the time of President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who enjoys playing an active role in politics, vetoing important bills and advocating views contrary to government policy. Presently the constitution can read in two ways, in favour of Ólafur Ragnar’s view of the active role of the president and of the president being subservient to government ministers.
A certain schadenfreude can be detected among those who oppose the Constitutional Assembly. There is also a distinct change in tone in the national discourse in the last months. The forces that were behind the collapse have started fighting back with more vigour. Politicians, some of whom were quite subdued after the crash, are much more cocky— back to their old ways. And politicians who most thought would have to leave the stage in shame are still around.
The daily newspaper Morgunblaðið is used by Davíð Oddsson, former Prime Minister and Central Bank governor, to try to restore his tattered reputation and to thrash those who think he might share some blame for the collapse. One of those who practically bankrupted the nation, financier Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson of Baugur fame, still owns his media empire.
The banksters, thought by most to be the chief culprits, have also started fighting back in a more aggressive manner, immediately answering everything that is said about them, intimidating journalists and threatening them with lawsuits.
As of yet really no one has accepted any responsibility for the crash, be they politicians or bankers. President Ólafur Ragnar, who was a shameless cheerleader for the financiers, has managed to undergo an amazing makeover, emerging as a folk hero who refuses to pay the debts incurred by the banks.
There is also a question of the general public and its stamina. After the rollercoaster ride of the last years, one senses a certain tiredness and resignation. The passion for change felt directly after the crash seems to be evaporating. Many people are in dire straits financially; they struggle to make ends meet. Lawyers who collect debts are prospering in this situation. Everybody still loathes the financiers, the banks and even the politicians, but people feel that they can’t really do anything about it—that the bad guys will have their debts written off in the end while the common people will have to pay.
The blogs, very lively after the crash, have become more nasty, repetitive and bad tempered. There is little analysis, but much bullying and paranoia. Political parties are back at their usual spinning. While some were voting for the Constitutional Assembly the media were focusing on the exploits of a prostitute from Guinea, now imprisoned in Iceland, and a sex scandal involving a preacher from a congregation in an outlying township of Reykjavík.
The intensity of the situation and the soul searching has taken its toll. I will again review my prognostication. In September I wrote that there was a chance of people descending into apathy. In October after demonstrations in front of Alþingi I wrote that maybe I was wrong.
Now I will write that maybe I was right the first time. There is not much revolutionary fervour left, the ‘Pots and Pans’ revolution seems to have run its course. But then I might be wrong. At least later this month we will have Christmas, a huge thing in Iceland, with the lights coming out in the dark of the Nordic winter. It is a time for cosying.
Merry Christmas.

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