Constitutional Council

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Who Killed the Constitution?

While the constitutional reform process in Iceland received a considerable amount of attention in the foreign media the failure of the reform process has received hardly any mention. Adopting the new constitution required two votes in parliament with an election held in the interim.  However, the session came to an end without a vote on the constitution. Instead the parliamentary party leaders negotiated an agreement about a procedure for amending the constitution in a new session of parliament following the upcoming parliamentary election to be held on April 27.

Lawyers & Constitutions

Browsing the last 40 years of the European Journal of Political Research (don’t ask why!) I noticed this bit about political scientists, jurists, and constitution.  I’ve tried to make the same point here before but Maurice Duverger (1980) does it far more elegantly than I have:

It is not usual for political scientists to construct analytical models defined initially by constitutions. However, no-one would dream of  watching a game of football or of bridge without taking into account the rules of the game. They constitute a fundamental aspect of the players’ strategy and tactics, the framework of which they define.  Jurists have obscured this deep nature of constitutions by considering them as sacred texts, capable of only one interpretation, which would be “true”, while the others were “false”. What I mean of course is that each commentator believes his interpretation – which differs from that of his colleagues ~ to be the only true one. In actual fact, the interpretation of a constitution cannot be separated from the interrelationship of political forces to which it is applied. If the interrelationship varies, the structure and functioning of the form of government established by the constitution vary at the same time. 

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What was the Report about?

In previous posts I have criticized the lack of consultation with political scientists in the constitutional reform process. I have further documented my concerns in comments to the legislative committee (in Icelandic) in charge of dealing with the proposal. Others, including the President of Iceland in his New Year’s address, have echoed these concerns. Naturally, the president’s address drew far more attention to the issue than my comments.  As before several proponents of the proposed constitutions, including my former colleagues Thorvaldur Gylfason and Svanur Kristjansson, whose response has essentially been that the proposed constitution has been endorsed by the foremost experts on constitutions in a report on the proposal which can be found here. That struck me as strange and I re-read the report.

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Where things stand and how we got there

For those that haven’t been paying very close attention to the constitutional reform process here is a brief summary of the process so far and where things stand now. Continue reading

The Crowd-Sourced Constitution

A lot of the foreign press seemed obsessed with the proposal for a new constitution being crowd-sourced – and the council seemed more than happy to play along.   While it is probably true that the council paid more attention to comments submitted via facebook than, say, scholars of electoral systems, this video kinda says everything that needs to be said (around min. 11.40).

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The Constitutional Council & Political Science

Last Friday I gave a talk in a seminar series about the constitutional reform at the University of Iceland along with three faculty members at the university.  The four talks addressed the question whether the members of Althingi were bound by the results of the consultative referendum held on the proposal of the constitutional assembly.  Amendments to the constitution must be approved by Althingi twice with an election being held in between the two votes.  In short, I think it is fair to say that none of the speakers thought that Althingi should simply adopt the proposal without further scrutiny. Continue reading

The Human Rights Chapter

One aspect of the constitution that has been expanded substantially in the council’s proposal has to do with the rights of citizens. While noble in their aims, these proposals strike me as unnecessary at best and troublesome at worst. Why?


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Counselling the Council

The constitutional council claims to have  consulted a number of experts in coming up with its proposals.  I was curious to find out who these experts were since I had offered the council to help them find experts that might be able to provide useful advice – having spent years studying political institutions I have gotten to know a number of the leading scholars in the field, some of which have been involved in similar efforts at institutional reform and many of which would have been happy to give their advice if approached.  Needlessly to say, the constitutional council didn’t take me up on my offer.  The council’s website lists the experts who have been consulted.  I can’t say that I was surprised. Continue reading

Size of parliament

In an article on, Þorvaldur Gylfason, a member of the constitutional council, argues that the size of parliament should be reduce from 63 to 53 seats.  Þorvaldur, a former colleague at the University of Iceland, had actually asked me to put together a short summary about research on the size of legislature before the Supreme Court invalidated the outcome of the election to the Constitutional Assembly – at which point I put the matter aside and then, apparently, forgot about it.  Þorvaldur’s article was a timely reminder so here are my two cents.

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The President’s Veto

The ability of the Icelandic president to refer legislation to a referendum has been source of controversy every since the president used his veto for the first time in 2004 to veto a bill on the ownership of the media.  The episode lead to much debate that was primarily focused on whether the president’s actions were actually constitutional – a different clause in the constitution states that the president’s powers are exercised by the government’s ministers.  The debate was legalistic and basically focused on competing interpretations of the constitutions.  Regardless of what interpretation is ‘correct’, the episode highlights the limits of the legalistic discourse that has surrounded the Icelandic constitution – and still appears to surround the making of the new constitution. Continue reading

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