I have to admit that I didn’t follow the debate about the bill on the Constitutional Assembly to closely but I have to say that I’m a bit surprised that the method of electing the assembly didn’t generate a more heated debate. The members of the Constitutional Assembly were elected using a single national district. One of the bigger issues, e.g., singled out by the previous government, was a reform of the electoral system. Given that the current electoral system is characterized by a high degree of malapportionment (unequal representation per capita in geographic terms), is it surprising that the elected members tend to favor a single national district for the election of Althingi and the equal weight of votes regardless of geographic location?
It seems rather clear that the method of electing the Constitutional Assembly would favor underrepresented areas. Indeed, all but three of the members are from the southwest corner of Iceland (if I remember correctly), 21 are in favor of getting rid of malapportionment, and a majority wants to reduce the number of constituencies (12 want to make the country a single constituency). I think it is reasonable that this is a direct consequence of electing the Assembly from a single national district. What is surprising, however, is that this didn’t become a bigger issue. The law on the Constitutional Assembly was passed in Althingi 39-1, with 11 abstaining. The two parties that stand to lose from a reform are the Progressive Party and the Independence Party. All the present members of the Progressives voted for the bill while almost all of the Independence Party abstained. There are, of course, several possible, explanations for why there wasn’t more opposition or debate. First, those that stand to lose from a reform of the electoral system simply didn’t understand the implications of adopting the particular electoral institutions to elect the Assembly. That seems reasonable to me – politicians may well understand how institutions influence the representation of different policy preferences while they fail to realize the effect on ‘second-order’ preferences, i.e., how institutions shape preferences for institutions. Second, it may not have been politically sensible to oppose a legislation that overtly aims at promoting democratic decision making. Partisan motives might well have been seen as undermining the democratic process. Third, the MPs may naively have anticipated that the election would focus more on the experience and qualifications of the candidates and on broader democratic principles instead of candidates adopting fairly detailed proposals about changes to the constitution. Finally, it possible that the MPs may simply have viewed this as a fair way of electing the Constitutional Assembly.