If the Icelandic government decides to hold a second election for the Constitutional Convention, it is to be hoped that the powers-that-be go beyond simply tweaking the ballots and the voting booths. The first election had the lowest turnout of any election in Icelandic history, in large part because the confusion about what the Convention was, and what its goals were.
Icelanders’ confidence in their government was shaken profoundly by the collapse of its financial institutions in 2008. We have learned that our politicians, regulators, and other public figures were complicit in the gross negligence and outright fraud that has made our country the textbook example of financial malfeasance. It is evident that fundamental change is necessary, and that the individuals currently sitting in positions of authority are not necessarily the ones who should be charting our future.
Thus, the Convention was intended to be peopled by individuals not currently holding elective office. Unfortunately, in a country as small as Iceland (~320.000 inhabitants), there are few constitutional scholars. A few individuals—such as top vote-getter Þorvaldur Gylfason—were obviously well-suited for the challenge, but after them, there were no criteria for choosing one of the plethora of candidates over another. The media were overwhelmed by the sheer number of candidates, and for the most part abandoned any pretence of presenting a serious discussion of the candidates’ political philosophies. As a result, the election became something akin to a junior high popularity contest.
The political class and the media must educate the electorate about the importance of the Convention—what it is intended to do, and how it will affect their lives. It is essential that the voters (and the candidates) recognise that the primary function of a constitution is to determine how the government is to be constituted—a British-style parliamentary system, an American-style strong executive model, a direct-vote pure democracy (a monarchy, a dictatorship, or a military junta is quite unlikely in Iceland)—not to dictate about morals and values.
It is also possible that Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir is making this harder than it needs to be. George Washington once said that “whenever one person is found adequate to the discharge of a duty… it is worse executed by two persons, and scarcely done at all if three or more are employed therein.” The post-WWII Japanese constitution was drafted in less than two weeks by two lawyers. The important election is the vote ratifying the document created by the Convention, not the vote selecting the individuals to people it.