30 November 2010

Iceland - writing a new constitution the right way?

One could make a good argument that a constitution should be written by the people it will govern. And this, in essence, is what Iceland is doing. To help with a fresh start after their country's economic collapse, Icelanders are writing a new constitution which they hope will, according to Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir, lead to "reconstruction and reconciliation." The new constitution will replace the one adapted from the Danish constitution when Iceland gained its independence in 1944.

Not all the people will participate of course. It would be difficult to get all 319,000 Icelanders around a table. Instead, they have elected 31 citizens to a Constitutional Assembly to do the job. Anyone except the president, MPs and the committee appointed to organize the assembly, was eligible to run. Candidates from truck drivers to IT experts and university professors, 523 in all, were given equal airtime on Icelandic radio to make their pitch.

Berghildur Bergthorsdottir, who is entrusted with organizing the assembly, claims "This is the first time in the history of the world that a nation's constitution is reviewed in such a way, by direct democratic process." That may be, but the method of choosing the assembly is nonetheless flawed. If the people are to be represented, they should be represented accurately, and that demands certain criteria.

First, they must be chosen by random selection. Electing an assembly is no better than electing a legislature, i.e. you might as well let your legislators do the work.
And second, once chosen for the assembly, attendance must be mandatory, as with jury duty. If it is voluntary, as is the case if it is elected, the process runs a high risk of being skewed toward those who have more time on their hands or more interest in the process.

Only with such constraints can Icelanders be assured their assembly truly represents the population, that it is the people in microcosm, so to speak.

In the end, what matters of course is whether or not the Icelandic people believe the process was legitimate. If they do, my quibbles will hardly matter. After all, as owners of what is probably the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world, they ought to have a pretty good feel for such things.

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