Show of Power: The Future of the Filibuster in Iceland - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Show of Power: The Future of the Filibuster in Iceland

Published June 7, 2019

Photo by
Art Bicnick

Last month saw one of the longest filibusters in Icelandic history. The Centre Party’s populist grandstanding over routine—and, for Iceland, irrelevant—European Union legislation has dominated the headlines for a rather dull run.

As a member of the European Economic Area, Iceland must adopt most EU regulation and legislation. The controversial “Third Energy Package” regulates cross border energy markets within the EU/EEA, but, as Iceland is not connected to mainland power grids, the law’s provisions are inconsequential. Not to be deterred by facts, the Centre Party blocked all parliamentary business under the false claim that the law would give control of Iceland’s energy to the EU. They dragged debate out for over a 134 hours; often only talking to each other in an otherwise empty chamber. This small minority has used their filibuster, Màlþóf in Icelandic, to delay debate and votes on dozens of bills. On Friday 31 May party leaders agreed to delay debate on the bill indefinitely. It is not clear when or if the bill will be brought to the floor again.

Slow Rolling Tradition

It is the second longest debate since the two houses of parliament combined in 1991. Only the debate surrounding the controversial IceSave deal lasted longer. Indeed, the debate has been dragged out longer than that about Iceand joining the EEA. While prolonging debate is a tactic that has been employed by all parties at one point or another, these filibusters a rare and tend to last about a day.

Conservative opposition parties twice protested the post-crisis left-wing government’s budgets by prolonging debate for nearly twenty hours. The leader of that government, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, famously gave a twelve-hour speech in 1998 to protest the government ending construction of new social housing. Once a point has been made abundantly clear ordinary business resumes.

Section 71 of the parliamentary law allows the speaker–in this case, Steingrímur J. Sigfússon— to limit or end debate. The same provision also permits nine MPs to propose a vote to end the debate, though this hasn’t happened in 70 years.

“Senators rarely make speeches in the style of ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’, rather, leadership counts how many votes they have before moving forward.”

Steingrímur J., was reluctant to call the Centre Party’s efforts a filibuster, but several days, members’ patience was wearing thin. Leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Logi Einarsson, told Vísir that MPs had discussed turning to Section 71 to end debate. However, he was cautious because it would set a new precedent and may be used by the Centre Party to elicit sympathy from the public. Logi and others are right to be cautious about changing the rules.

A World of Alternatives

Filibustering has become the norm in the United States Senate, where it was once a rarity. However, changing rules have created an environment where minority leaders are almost encouraged to stall. US Senators rarely make speeches in the style of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” rather leadership counts how many votes they have before moving forward. At least in Iceland MPs are still required stand at the podium and speak for many hours.

Fortunately, the US model of gridlock is not the only alternative. British parliament has a strongly majoritarian tradition. The government chooses what legislation comes to the floor and when votes will happen. It only needs a one vote majority to pass. However Ministers must face biting questions and jeering members on the opposition benches. In contrast, in Denmark a one-third minority of MPs can demand a referendum on most non-financial legislation. The Centre Party has just half of that representation in Icelandic parliament.

This provision has rarely been used because the country has a tradition of consensus politics. Unlike his predecessor the current Icelandic president is fiercely apolitical and unlikely to veto a bill that will pass with broad support in Alþingi and little public opposition. The proposed new constitution would have formalized the process and bypassed the president.
Alþingi is moving quickly to finish other business and get out in the long absent summer sun. The nonsense controversy waits for another day.

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