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.

In my talk I focused on the lack of attention to the lessons the political science literature has to offer – an issue that I have mentioned before – and almost complete unawareness of the fact that changes in political institutions often have more wide ranging effects than those that they are intended to promote.  For example, the council’s proposal to increase the personal voting only considers the obvious direct effects, e.g., increased choice for voters and an ability to hold individual MPs accountable, but completely fails to consider the possibility that such systems also create strong incentives for MPs to cultivate a personal vote with the possibility of increasing the importance of pork-barrel politics, patronage, and corruption.  In short, it is as if the council doesn’t know the political science literature at all or even what political scientists do.

To make my case I went through the sources listed on the council’s website as well as the list of specialists the council’s committees met with.  Starting with the literature on the website 56% of the sources were written by lawyers and legal scholars while 5.2% was written by political scientists.  The remainder of the sources consisted of newspaper articles, legislative proposals, constitutions, and reports.  I didn’t check thoroughly who the reports were written but my impression was that they were mostly written by legal scholars – but even if we assume they were all written by political scientist they only account for 8% of the sources.  The total number of sources was 135.  Interestingly only 6.7% were not written by Icelanders and if I exclude constitutions from other countries that number drops down to 2.2%.  None of those were peer-reviewed studies.

Turning to the memos and the specialist the council’s committees called for.  Out of the 13 memos, none were written by political scientists.  Out of the 12 specialists that the committees met with, one was a political scientists.

During the discussions following the talks, it was brought to my attention that the sources on the website were actually selected by the constitutional committee, which was in charge of organizing the whole process of constitutional reform – so it is not entirely fair to criticize the council for the sources listed on its website (although given the emphasis on ‘crowd sourcing’ ideas perhaps it would have made sense to provide the crowds with some information that the council considered relevant).  In any case, the council’s proposal for a new constitution includes a substantial discussion of the proposed changes.   So, naturally, I went through the references and coded them in a similar way.  This time I was a bit more thorough and looked up the authors of the reports and to give each source equal weight I coded a source as 1/3 legal scholars if one of three authors was a legal scholar, and so on.

The results are fairly similar.  Of the sources that had authors (i.e., excluding legislative proposals, constitutions, etc) legal scholars and lawyers accounted for 73.3% while political scientists accounted for a mere 18.5%.  Twenty percentage of the sources were of non-Icelandic origin.  None of the foreign political science sources are peer-reviews (as far as I can tell).  A total of 105 sources were listed and 24 of those were legislative proposals, international treaties, laws and regulations.  The list of sources and my coding is available here on google drive.  If you spot any mistakes, please let me know.

In short, there is no evidence that the constitutional council has given any serious consideration to how the political institutions it proposes might actually work in reality.  I do sympathize with the council in that it only had four months to come up with a proposal and I do believe that its members put in a lot of work during that time.  Still, the fact that council has almost completely ignored the work of political scientists – the very people that actually study these issues – is puzzling and the only explanation that I can think of is that its members were simply unaware of what political science is (which, admittedly, is a bit odd given that there were three political scientists on the council).

Perhaps not surprisingly, some (not all) members of the constitutional council weren’t exactly thrilled by the critique and responded with accusations of rudeness, disregard for democratic principles and the process of reform, ‘university prostitution’ (háskólavændi – used to describe commissioned reports from university faculty), working against constitutional reform, and for joining the debate too late.  Personally, I rather like democracy and I would like to see the constitution amended.  I also did offer to help the council find non-Icelandic political scientists to consult with very early on in the process.  What is perhaps most stunning about the whole process is that there has been no serious discussion leading up to the referendum or after about the effects of the proposed changes.  Ironically, after the process of reform had been set up as to be free from party politics, the lines have essentially been drawn along party lines with supporters of the government parties favoring the proposal and the supporters of the opposition, well, opposing it (though I would really like to have some survey data to back this assertion up – surely we can find some lawyers to do a survey for us!).  In my view, the constitutional council is largely responsible for this outcome – by failing to build consensus around its proposals and by failing to go beyond naive assertions about the proposed changes.  The council would have done itself (and Icelandic citizens) a favor by drawing lessons from the political science literature (and elsewhere), by relying on some actual research, and by consulting foreign scholars.