Iceland’s Citizen Constitution: the Window Remains Wide Open

Historical evidence suggests that, with few exceptions, it takes a crisis to write or revise a country’s constitution. Iceland fits the pattern. The Icelandic Parliament, one of the world’s oldest (est. 930), had for decades on end promised an overhaul of the provisional constitution from 1944 when Iceland unilaterally declared independence from Nazi-occupied Denmark, but Parliament failed to deliver. One reason for the failure was the perceived lack of urgency. This changed when Iceland’s financial system collapsed in 2008, a collapse that was in several dimensions among the largest that the world has ever seen. People took to the streets banging their pots and pans and demanding, among other things, a new constitution. Terrified, the politicians had to face the fact that the game was up, and they gave in, promising a new constitution to be drafted by a directly elected Constituent Assembly rather than by MPs and their lawyers.

Briefly, here is what happened. Parliament organized a National Assembly comprising 950 Icelanders selected at random from the National Register, thus giving every Icelander an equal opportunity to get involved. The National Assembly called for a new constitution with certain key provisions, including equal voting rights (i.e., equal apportionment of seats in Parliament) and national ownership of natural resources. A 25-member Constituent Assembly was elected directly by the people and given four months to draft a new constitution. Before the four months were up, the Constituent Assembly completed and passed unanimously a partly crowd-sourced constitutional bill in full accord with the conclusions of the National Assembly. The crowd-sourcing involved open access of the public to the Constituent Assembly’s work, including its interactive website ...

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