Interview with Slate.fr, a French news website

 

First thing, I'd be curious you explain me how come your idea to be a candidate for the council and to tell me about this experience and the "strategy" to be elected (from what they told me, it has been almost no media coverage, except some radio interviews during the last two weeks, so did you use social network and participate to small talks with other candidate?)

 

It does not happen every day that ordinary citizens are offered the opportunity to help rewrite their country‘s constitution. Like 521 other Icelanders, I decided to put my name forward, friends of mine collected fifty endorsements, the maximum allowed (30 was the minimum), and I then left the country for Africa and did not return back home until after the election. I did not spend a penny as there was no campaign. Like other candidates, I was interviewed for three or four minutes on state radio, in my case by phone from South Africa, and I posted a few short articles in internet media that accepted such contributions from candidates. Also, I opened a Facebook page where I posted a few short messages intended for my friends. The daily newspaper where I have published a weekly column since 2003 asked me put down my pen from the announcement of my candidacy until after the election. Many if not most other candidates kept an equally low profile before the election. Very few advertised or spent significant amounts of money promoting their candidacies. As I see it, this was the most civilized election in the history of the republic. The turnout was 37%, which is respectable in view of the fact that this was a special election as opposed to a general parliamentary election and strong political forces keen to preserve the status quo tried to denigrate the whole process and encouraged their supporters to boycott the election. The political parties did not field candidates.

Two years ago, a forum with 1000 persons picked in the population had been organized to discuss the expectations of the Icelandic people. Last year, the election of the constitutional council took place, offering the possibility to every single Icelandic to be elected as a member. It seems that the opinion of the people is very taken into account in the process currently running. How do you explain that?

 

Most new constitutions come into being following traumatic events such as wars and changes in political regime as, for example, in Eastern Europe in the 1990s. In Iceland, it took a phenomenal financial crash in 2008 to convince the Parliament that now is the time to revise the provisional constitution from 1944, a task that the politicians have failed to perform ever since. The Special Investigation Committee (SIC) recommended in its nine-volume report published in 2010 that the constitution be revised as a result of the crash. After all, when a country’s entire banking system collapses so spectacularly, triggering financial losses equivalent to seven times the country’s annual economic output, and its stock market is wiped out overnight, a reasonable thing to do is to check the constitutional foundation of the economic and political structure of the country. The Parliament took the SIC up on this, convened the National Forum and then held a national Constitutional Assembly election in which, unlike in parliamentary elections, individuals without a political party affiliation could stand on their own and in which the one-person-one-vote rule was respected. By contrast, in parliamentary elections in Iceland, voters in rural areas have always been significantly overrepresented and still are, with considerable consequences for national policy. For this reason, the Constitutional Assembly can be said to be more democratically representative than the Parliament.

From what I understood, the supreme court invalidate the process after the action of several politicians and change the "constitutional assembly" into a "constitutional council". Has it changed something effectively? Do you believe that a new vote should have been organized to straight up things and avoid any polemics?

 

Ultimately, the Supreme Court decision, scandalously ill-judged as it was – as will be made clear to foreign readers when an English translation of the decision as well as of an analytical critique of it by dr. Reynir Axelsson, a mathematics professor, will be made public shortly – will not have any influence, I think. It will certainly not have any material effect on the proposals forthcoming, nor do I think it will influence the reception of our proposals by the public. The Supreme Court’s decision further undermined the public’s confidence in the judicial system. According to opinion polls, fewer than ten percent of the people say they have confidence in the court system. So, one of the things we need to have in a new constitution is a new way of appointing judges. Also, we need a new electoral system respecting the one-person-one-vote rule. And, to give you a third example of the kind of changes that we plan to propose, we need stronger checks and balances between different branches of government to reduce the likelihood of a new crash.

The constitution was due to be changed since a very long time, and so it's finally happening. Do you think the crisis has accelerated the need for a change? And the transparency in political matters is something that is finally really taken into account in your opinion?

 

Without the crash, there would have been no new constitution. The greatest threat to the project, as I see it, is that the Parliament will, for self-serving reasons, decide to shelve our proposals, thus denying the electorate the opportunity to vote on the proposals in a national referendum.  Most of the Constitutional Assembly representatives are of the view that the Parliament should allow the people to vote on our proposals.

About the social networks. From what we can hear here and there, comments on facebook, twitter or the live webcast would be taken into account in the conversations of the members of the council. But if I can imagine a bunch of activists participating all day long via their computer, I guess it's not the case of the normal citizen who has a job, and finally rely on traditional media to be informed.

From that point, don't you think that presenting the work of the council like something very new in the world, because it would rely on social networks, is very exaggerated?

 

In the past, the framers of constitutions sometimes ensconced themselves in remote corners of their countries in order to avoid the pressures by interested parties. In Iceland, by contrast, we do our work in the heart of Reykjavík, in open meetings accessible to the public and the press, broadcast on the internet for all to see. That way we have been able to engage a significant number of ordinary people in conversation about the new constitution. We have received literally hundreds of helpful proposals from people from all walks of life who are invited to post their ideas on the Constitutional Assembly website. We receive emails and letters from many more. Further, individual representatives converse with their friends on Facebook. We regard constitution-making as conversation, one that needs to begin at the beginning of the writing process and not at the end just before the referendum. After all, what we hope to deliver is a new constitution of the people, by the people, and for the people.

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