A new constitution, via Facebook

Begun after the 2008 financial crisis and the subsequent fall of the government under popular pressure, Iceland’s citizen revolution continues. The most recent example is that all internet users are called upon to draft the country’s next constitution.

Published on 4 July 2011 at 14:33

During the financial crisis, Icelanders’ mistrust of the political world skyrocketed. The citizens are just as wary of political power as they are of banks. Confidence has fallen to a historic low. Last year, only 10.5% of Icelanders said they had “high confidence” in the Althing, the Icelandic Parliament. Many feel betrayed.

That’s why transparency must be the foundation of the new constitution being designed for the country. Since last April, the Althing’s Constitutional Council has published weekly accounts of the broad outline of its draft proposals on its internet site. Everybody is invited to share ideas on the site or through social networks.

The Constitutional Council is thus present on Facebook and Twitter and regularly posts videos on YouTube. Furthermore, its meetings are open to the public and broadcast live on its website and on Facebook. The idea of opening up to outside input, known as crowdsourcing, which consists of entrusting a task to a non-defined group of people, particularly on the internet, is gaining ground. Using it this way, however, is a first. On Facebook, the idea has garnered international enthusiasm.

Living in a country of only about 320,000 souls does have advantages in terms of flexibility. More than half of the inhabitants have a Facebook account – and those that don’t can participate in the debate on the Constitution Council’s website. The risk posed by this type of democratic project is that only an elite of passionate people will take part. But that’s how democracy functions; those that play truant carry no weight.

Icelanders are leaving their malfunctions behind them

At least, most people will have the chance to participate in the debate. According to Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development statistics, over 80% of Icelandic homes are equipped with broadband internet access. Furthermore, the final draft of the constitution must be approved by referendum before coming into force.

The new constitution has thus a better chance of responding to the citizens than the current constitution which was hastily stitched together. When Iceland proclaimed independence from Denmark in 1944, it, pretty much, kept the Danish Constitution.

This time the changes will be more far-reaching. In the proposed document there are strong measures to protect nature and the country’s common resources. The draft proposal emphasises the rights of future generations, which is undoubtedly a first in a constitution.

But this can also be seen as a response to the destruction of Iceland’s natural habitat by US aluminium producer, ALCOA. During the construction of the gigantic Kárahnjúkar hydroelectric complex in 2006 [destined to supply energy to ALCOA’s Fjardaal plant] a large section of wilderness was destroyed north of the Vatnajökull glacier. Before construction began, 50,000 Islanders demonstrated against the complex.

Since then, Icelanders have, unfortunately, not been lacking in reasons to protest. But we can also see the financial crisis as the opportunity to make a new start. Little by little, Icelanders are leaving their malfunctions behind them. What is being discussed today on Facebook is nothing less than a proposal for a new country: For a second chance.

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