Revolution is in the air, my friends. We’ve heard much about the Middle East: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria and more. We’ve witnessed the recent Occupy Wall Street movement on the home front. All over the world, people are demonstrating, demanding answers and true freedom from unfair systems. But have you heard what the Icelanders have been up to? They haven’t made many headlines, but they’ve done something big. Something revolutionary. They’ve re-written their constitution. No, not the politicians, but the regular, common citizens have gotten together and created a whole new constitution.
A diverse council of 25 citizens took to the Internet in 2011 to invite the general public to share ideas that would be openly discussed and debated before becoming part of this crowdsourced constitution. As council member and lawyer Katrin Oddsdottir says, despite their initial uncertainty about the success of such an odd method, it proved to really work: “We learned that we can trust the people and all of a sudden there were thousands of people writing the constitution together. It was very beautiful.” A draft was submitted to the Icelandic parliament, the Althing, on July 29th, 2011 and it now awaits approval. This is a story of authentic public participation in political processes and of how the people took power into their own hands. Most of all, it’s a true story.
Frustrated Icelanders ready to take charge
It all began after the economic collapse of October 2008, when angry Icelanders took to the streets with pots and pans demanding then government’s resignation, in what has been since called the Kitchenware Revolution of 2009. They were protesting the government’s strategy of paying bank debts with public taxes to respond to the collapse. A public poll showed that the majority of people believed the elected parliament was more concerned about the interests of the banks rather than those of the people. And upon continued citizen pressure, parliamentary elections were held in April 2009 ousting the administration of the time and bringing in a new centre-left coalition government.
It did not, however, end there. People were determined to take charge of a systemic overhaul instead of leaving it solely to politicians. Many initiatives were taken on the grassroots level to connect the citizenry to political processes. Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Marques meets many of the people involved in various such groups to deliver a first-hand account of what has been happening in Iceland since the 2008 crash in his documentary Pots, Pans and Other Solutions (watch video below).
An official grassroots political party—The Citizens’ Movement (and later, The Movement)—was formed in March 2009 to run in elections that were to be held just a month later. They didn’t win, but did get four seats in the parliament. Members came from differing political views, and without any prior political experience. They decided to forego the traditional hierarchical model and worked by rotating responsibilities. They also agreed to exist as a party for no more than eight months or until their targets were met, and to dissolve if it was clear that nothing was being achieved.
Best Party was another such party founded in November of 2009. It ran and won the City Council elections of 2010 for the capital city of Reykjavik. It also consists of artists and workers from other fields that have no political background.
Many Icelanders recognized that to change the system, they had to get involved and find ways for the common person to get involved. Besides protesting, concrete ideas had to be voiced. And their voices had to reach the public officials. That was true democracy.
In February 2009, The Citizens Foundation was created by a team of Icelanders, aspiring to achieve this purpose. It’s a non-profit electronic democracy organization. They develop software called Open Active Democracy to provide a medium for citizens to express ideas, argue for or against others’ ideas and create personal lists of priorities that they think need addressing. Betri Reykjavik was the website created for Iceland, but the foundation provides these tools of online democracy throughout the world through its website. Betri Reykjavik proved to be successful with many people participating through forums and discussions. The new Reykjavik government was also able to learn what mattered to the people. Issues addressed here were “much closer to the people,” says Gunnar Grimsson, one of the people behind The Citizens Foundation.
One of the most important things the pots and pans protesters demanded was the creation of a new constitution. The old one had never really been theirs. It was the Danish constitution that they had inherited after becoming independent in 1945, with few insignificant adjustments. It was meant to be temporary, but remained unchanged for almost seventy years. Finally, pressured by the recent public upheaval, a Constitutional Council of 25 people of varying professions and views was formed. They worked from April to July 2011 on a new crowdsourced constitution. They talked with respect and discussed until everyone agreed on solutions, trying to not rule out the minority because as Oddsdottir says, “If you want a peaceful society, you have to be the change.” Many significant issues were addressed in this constitution including the long-standing battle over the private versus public ownership of natural resources, rights to information, media independence, transparency of political finances, and increased supervision of the financial sector. So what will be the fate of this new constitution? According to Oddsdottir, “If this is a better constitution, the people of Iceland will demand it, and if they demand it, they will get it.”
Rule of the people
The degree of this public participation is extraordinary, inevitably raising doubt about the success of such methods. How can so many different people with almost no political skill or experience participate meaningfully in decision-making processes? Here, Plato comes to mind on his view of democracy. He believed democracy could only be successful if every person in the citizenry was a philosopher. According to him, the best rulers are philosophers because they would have the knowledge and virtues needed to lead their people to what’s best for them.
But what happens when rulers don’t seem to be working for the common good? What the Icelanders have done may seem like a risky experiment, but maybe it’s time it should be tried. Member of Parliament from The Movement, Brigitta Jonsdottir says when people are directly involved in these processes, they feel a direct impact of what they do, “inspiring them to be more responsible civilians and…co-create their own realities.”
As these Icelandic initiatives have shown, when people get together and work solely for a peaceful society, they work for a common goal. And they try to work for lasting peace, instead of trying to put out the biggest fires here and now, as Oddsdottir says. They don’t do it for power or money; they do it for changes that will affect them all. They do it for the common good. And that very intention is what makes citizens deserving of an opportunity to participate in decision-making processes.
Of course, Iceland’s small population makes this easier than it would be in a country like the U.S., but there’s still much to be learned. The Icelanders have shown it’s possible to participate in political processes meaningfully. And as long as due processes are in place, it doesn’t have to be chaotic. They’ve shown it’s possible for the people to take back their power nonviolently and come together to harness it for a healthy society. It’s a story not just of revolution, but of a united people, cooperative efforts and the determination of the human spirit. A story that should be told and celebrated.
Pots, Pans and Other Solutions:
image: happyjed1 (CC BY)