Well, it looks like we’ve once again made history: last month, we held elections for representatives comprising a constitutional assembly and ended up with the lowest voter turnout ever. By some counts, just about 37% of eligible voters actually turned in ballots.
Why anyone is surprised by this is a mystery to me. There has been decidedly low enthusiasm for the prospect for a long time now, as the Grapevine has reported. Foreign media showed greater interest than domestic media (and admittedly, our own coverage could have been much better), which was itself pretty entertaining—all those mildly condescending articles from US news sources that basically amounted to “look at how quaint those Icelanders are, letting commoners—peasants, if you will—actually write a new constitution,” when America’s constitutional assembly was comprised mostly of tobacco farmers and slave traders.
Political scientists are falling over themselves to explain why this election was a failure, and aren’t hesitating to blame the media. Poor coverage was definitely a part of this, but ultimately there were two main factors that I believe contributed to this.
First of all, there’s the system itself. Parliamentary elections have a process of elimination: primaries narrow down the number of available candidates, and districts narrow down the number of available candidates you can vote for. This makes it decidedly easier than wading though the platforms of some 500+ candidates in one go, and trying to narrow that down to 25. This probably had a greater effect than the oft-complained-about and inexplicable decision to assign each candidate a four-digit number to be entered, instead of just a list of names and checkboxes.
In fact, this experiment has important implications for Icelandic democracy as a whole. Many pundits in the past have expressed interest in the idea of “one country, one district”, and that primaries themselves should fall to the wayside. Here, we have an election that did those things, that is probably as close to direct democracy as Iceland can get, and it proved to be a dismal failure. The more cynical interpretation would be that people were given too many choices, and that even a country of about 310,000 people isn’t ready for direct democracy.
Well, maybe not. Maybe next time, instead of saying “anyone who can get X number of signatures by this date will be a candidate”, the cap could have been placed on a “top 100 candidates who received the most number of signatures” on top of the signature minimum. This would have had the effect of having a pool of candidates that the people as a whole were the most enthusiastic about from the very start, instead of creating an overwhelming pool of candidates who were, for the most part, complete unknowns. The fact that most of the people who won a seat are well-known public figures underlines this point.
This leads to the second reason why this failed. We all like the idea of direct democracy, but in the end, it’s just not how we’re brought up. We naturally gravitate towards well-known figures, and will choose famous people with vague platforms over unknowns with clear ones. Last spring’s city elections in Reykjavík are a great example of this: the Best Party wasn’t the only alternate party running, but none of these other parties had a famous comedian topping the list.
None of this is to say that we shouldn’t do this again, and that direct democracy just can’t work. On the contrary, I believe the failure of the elections for the constitutional assembly proves that we need to do this again, and more often. You cannot change a political system without changing the way people think about politics. If we want direct democracy, we’re going to have to keep moving towards it, until the idea is considered less a radical experiment and more simple common sense. Maybe then picking from 500 candidates from all over the country, some of them utterly unknown to us, will seem like the way elections should be.