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.
The original legislative proposal for a constitutional assembly assumed the assembly would have 11 months to draft amendments to the constitution. Althingi, however, substantially amended the bill to add another two steps to the process and shorten the time allotted to the constitutional assembly to four months. The adopted legislation required parliament to elect a seven member constitutional committee charged with organizing a national forum and to summarize its findings, with preparing suggestions of amendments, and with preparing a database on constitutional matters.
The National Forum was held in 2010 and consisted of 950 randomly selected participants. The 950 participants were assigned to 129 (I think) tables where first they discussed the values that they wanted the constitution to reflect and subsequently the content of the constitution. The participants then voted for the statements or ideas that they thought were i) most important and ii) most novel. Finally, the table jointly wrote a sentence or a paragraph about what it considered most important in its discussion.
The results of the National Forum were summarized as word clouds, ‘mindmaps’, and the text and votes from the tables were available as text files. The word clouds are predictably uninformative and uninteresting – it is not terribly surprising that terms such as equality, democracy, Iceland, natural resources, etc. pop out. The ‘mindmaps’ are, from what I can tell, an attempt to group the statements on the basis of common themes, which is fine but nowhere is there any description of the methods use to group the statements/ideas – basically, I have no idea how this was done, who did this, or whether the people that did this had any common guidelines. So there is no way to verify whether this was done ‘correctly’ or to evaluate whether this is a reasonable summary of the data. In addition, if one wanted to do any analysis it is severely hampered by the fact that basic information such as the number of participants on each table and details about the voting rules. Of course, these complaints presume that this is actually data worth analyzing. That is not at all clear. What does one get if a bunch of people are thrown into a room and told to discuss the constitution? Well, for the most part you get a laundry list, in this case of 3306 items, of demands about behavior, policies, and institutions. Politicians should be honest, taxes should be lower, more referenda. That not to say that there is anything wrong with these opinions but, at best, the can be considered as pointing to what people consider problematic. To argue that these discussion represent solutions to complex problems is probably taking things a step too far. Overall, to me the National Forum was a wasted opportunity for the simple reason it is not clear that we learned anything from it that we didn’t know before.
The next step was the election of 25 members to the constitutional assembly, which I have posted on before. In short, the election was invalidated by the supreme court because of administrative issues. The government responded by simply appointing a 25 member constitutional council consisting of the 25 ‘winners’ of the election to the constitutional council. The constitutional council produces a draft of a new constitution, which was then put to a consultative referendum on October 20th. Or rather, the question was whether the council’s proposal should form the basis for Althingi’s as well as five other, equally unclear, questions about natural resources, the state church, personal voting, the equal weight of votes, and referenda. Turnout was close to 50% and about 64% were in favor of using the council’s proposal as a blueprint for Althingi’s proposal.
Following the referendum, a four member committee of specialists, was charged with examining the proposal with respect to any legalistic issues. The committee made 75 changes to the proposal and subsequently the legislation was introduced in Althingi. The committee noted that a comprehensive analysis of the effects of the proposals had not been conducted but that was outside of the committee’s charge. For the ‘new constitution’ to be adopted Althingi must approve the proposal twice with an election held in the interim. The prime minister has, however, suggested that another non-binding referendum will be held on the proposal to coincide with the legislative election.
So now it is up to Althingi to decide what it wants to do with the proposal. I am hoping that the members of Althingi know a little bit more about what political scientists do than the members of the constitutional council and recognize the importance of looking seriously into what we might expect from the proposed changes. Frankly, I’m not terribly hopeful that the proposal will receive any serious scrutiny. But I’m happy to be proven wrong.