What Iceland’s Crowdsourcing Constitutional Reform Teaches Us
by Won Jong-il (Korean news, writer)
In Korea, dictators and corrupt presidents such as Rhee Synghman, Chun Doo-hwan and Park Geun-hye have been brought down by people’s power. And while people’s anger towards these corrupt governments toppled the presidents, they failed to lay the plans for a better society. While Korea’s current constitution was created with the end of dictatorship in 1987, people didn’t directly participate in making it. Recently, after the 2016-2017 candlelight revolution that impeached President Park Geun-hye, we Koreans have been entrusted with the task of cleaning out deep-rooted corruption and injustices. In 2010, Iceland crowdsourced its constitution. As we ready to revise the 1987 constitution, we explore Iceland’s experiment with participatory democracy and learn how to fulfill the tasks of the candlelight revolution.
The 2008 financial collapse destabilized Iceland’s economy and delegitimized its government. As banks begin to bankrupt, foreign depositors who’d enjoyed high-interest rates began to withdraw their money from the banks. The Icelandic conservative government tried to use tax money to repay the foreign depositors. Icelanders protested the government’s decision by taking to the streets and banging on pots and pans.
This “Kitchenware revolution” led to the resignation of Prime Minister Haarde and his administration on Jan. 26, 2009. A new election was held and Johanna Sigurdardottir of the SDA(Social Democratic Alliance) became the new prime minister on Feb. 1st, 2009. Sigurdardottir formed a coalition government with the Left Green Movement (SDA-LGM).
The previous government’s failure to deal with the financial collapse revealed to the public two major constitutional shortfalls. First, it did not specifically define the responsibilities of the prime minister. This became a problem when the country attempted to prosecute the former prime minister for his non-performance during the financial crisis. Secondly, the old Constitution did not entrench the country’s moral values into its government structures and culture. This was a response to the unethical behavior of government regulators and politicians that ignored and indulged bankers’ malpractice. Eventually, the growing public sentiment for revision of the Constitution led the the new prime minister and her SDA-LGM coalition passed the “Act on a Constitutional Assembly” enacting a process to revise the Constitution.
The act stipulated that a Constitutional Committee appointed by Parliament would organize a “National Forum” where citizens could discuss recommendations and make proposals for a new constitution. Furthermore, a Constitutional Assembly made up of 25 elected members would draft the recommendations into a proposal, which would need to be approved by a national referendum and two votes in the Parliament. Central to this crowdsourced constitution was the National Forum modeled after the earlier 2009 National Assembly organized organized by the grassroots think tank Anthill.
The 2009 National Assembly had been an unofficial national conference to draw on the collective intelligence of the Icelandic citizens in defining Iceland’s most important values and producing a vision for the country’s future. 1,500 Icelandic citizens participated in the National Assembly: 1,200 were selected randomly; 300 represented key Icelandic interest groups and government officials.
The National Assembly processes were based on a “Handbook” by “Agora”, a member NGO of the Anthill. Its purpose was to maintain transparency and provide guidelines for similar future events. One of its guiding principles was that participants only had to represent themselves and their views. Furthermore, discussions were carried out by neutral facilitators that had to give all participants equal opportunity to express themselves. A process of discussion, voting, and consolidation of ideas was carried out to determine participants’ most important values.
Before and after the event, the Anthill utilized online social media to promote the National Assembly. Furthermore, Anthill even used postal mail for sending invitations to the National Assembly to ensure all citizens could participate including the elderly or those others who did not use the internet or social media.
The most popular value in the National Assembly was integrity, clearly a response to the corruption and mistrust of politicians following the economic crisis.
“Integrity” was the value with the most votes in the 2009 National Assembly. (Source: Icelandreview)
Crowdsourcing the Constitution
On Jun.16, 2010, the National Forum was officially organized by the Constitutional Committee, but was operated by the Anthill that provided the procedural model and handbook. Participants were selected with the assistance of polling company Gallup to select 1,000 citizens representative of the population in terms of gender, age, and geographic location.
Eight themes were discussed in the National Forum: sovereignty and independence; morality; human rights; justice, well-being, and equality; public ownership of natural resources including that of future generations ; separation of powers; responsibility and transparency; peace and international cooperation.
Less than a month after the successful conclusion of the National Forum, Constitutional Assembly  Elections were held on Nov. 27 of 2010 with a voter turnout of 36%. Out of 522 candidates, 25 members were elected. Following the election, three individuals, connected to the conservative Independence Party, successfully petitioned the Supreme Court to void the results of the elections arguing that it had violated electoral procedures.
However, Parliament insisted that despite these procedural problems, there had been no impropriety to invalidate the results of the vote. It, thus, established a Constitutional Council with the same 25 members (except for one that gave up her seat and was taken up by the person with the 26th highest votes) with basically the same role.
Assisted by legal experts, the Constitutional Council convened in 2011 between Apr. 6 and Jul. 29, 2011. It was broken into three working groups dealing with different set of issues from defining basic values to evaluating the role of the president, to ensuring the democratic participation of the public.
The Council made their own official website and utilized popular social media such as Youtube, Twitter, Facebook, and Flickr to ask for proposals. The Council’s Facebook page alone had over 3,000 suggestions. The council pulled the best proposals and worked the most popular of these into provisions such as one guaranteeing the protection of animals.
The Constitutional Council’s constitutional proposal examined the social and political debate in the aftermath of the financial collapse and identified the three main causes of the crisis as the moral vacuum in the government, the lack of accountability of the country’s executives, and the lack of outlets for direct democratic participation. Furthermore, the Council decided on adding a preamble to suggest the basic ideas that the constitution should contain. It expanded the right to life usually limited to people to also include all other creatures. It declares that “Iceland is a free and sovereign state with freedom, equality, democracy, and human rights as its cornerstones.” In addition, the government tasks are to: “strengthen the welfare of the country’s inhabitants, encourage their culture and respect the diversity of the life of the people, the country, and its biosphere.” Furthermore,the council provided specific provisions for strengthening direct democracy so that support from 10% of the electorate can initiate a national referendum on laws passed by parliament; 2%, can present an issue excluding the budget, taxes, citizenship to the parliament; and 10%, can present a bill to parliament.
The Constitutional Council unanimously approved the draft constitution. All that was left was a national referendum and two votes in the parliament.
The Ratification Process Fails
49% of the electorate overwhelmingly approved six questions in the nonbinding national referendum: 73% approved the draft constitution as the basis of a new Icelandic constitution; 67% approved the one man/one vote principle;  83% approved public ownership of natural resources; 78% approved more frequent parliament elections; 73% approved referendum powers for the people and 53% approved establishing the National Church of Iceland.
Despite the overwhelming support, the proposal was not put to a vote in parliament as required by the Constitution. The two votes necessary in parliament had become too politically costly to the SDA-LGM government whose attempts at repaying foreign debt and joining the EU had led to waning popularity: Ratification of the constitutional amendments would have required a parliament to ratify it, disband, and a newly elected parliament to ratify it. The waning popularity meant that the SDA-LGM could potentially lose their majority in the re-election, a fear later confirmed when they lost their majority in the following election. Thus, the SDA-LGMs ended their 4 year term without bringing the draft Constitution to a vote.
Instead the parliament passed a motion to alter the constitutional amendment process in the old constitution. If two-thirds of the parliament and 40% of the voters supported a constitutional amendment, then the amendment would be adopted. Removing the clause of dissolving parliament and re-running for election removed parliamentarians concerns of job security. Nonetheless, the conservative Independence party regained a majority in parliament and effectively stopped the constitutional reform process. Thus, despite a constitutional proposal that represented the will of the people, it failed to mobilize society sufficiently enough to overcome political inertia.
Three things can be learnt from the Iceland constitutional process. First, the process was led by the people. From the National Forum that created the framework and the guiding principles of the new constitution, to the election of a Constitutional Council that drafted the proposal, the process not only involved the public, it was led by it from beginning to end. Secondly, the Constitutional Council’s process for drafting a proposal was not only highly transparent, it also allowed space for greater public participation by continuously consulting with the greater public through the various social networking platforms and even postal mail. Ultimately, this participatory democratic process was reflected in its equally participatory democratic proposals such as people’s power to summon referendums to propose and repeal laws.
How do these lessons apply to Korea? After the National Assembly’s Special Committee on Constitutional Reform failed to present a draft proposal, Moon Jae-in appointed a committee to write a proposal based on public consultation. In that regard, while for the first time people participate in the process, they are not leading it. The specially appointed committee leads the process in consultation with civil society, academics, the political parties, and then finally consults with people’s opinions through four major regional focus groups  and a public opinion survey. Thus, we see a reversal of the process, where the focus groups — the equivalent of the National Forum — is consulted at the end of the process rather than the beginning. This process allows the omission of the more progressive democratic proposals as criticized by some civil society groups. 
Though the process is more than halfway over,  those appointed into the President’s special advisory committee for a People’s Constitution need greater engagement with the public at large. To achieve greater participation by people requires publicity that goes beyond press conferences or short newspaper articles and goes into billboards, ads on busses and public service announcements. Most people are unaware of the importance and need for their participation in this process or even the contents being discussed and how it impacts their lives. Since this process is more about people’s participation then people’s leadership, it demands greater mobilization of society. After all, overcoming the arch-conservative Liberty Korea Party that holds the votes necessary for ratification in the National Assembly and vehemently opposes the constitutional reforms, will require people’s power equal to the candlelight protests. For Iceland’s greatest lesson is the importance of mobilizing power to overcome the resistance by the status quo.
The [Icelandic] Constitutional Council – General Information
The Iceland Experiment (2009-2013): A Participatory Approach to Constitutional Reform
The main conclusions from the National Forum 2010
The Writing of the new Icelandic Constitution (audio)
Website for the Presidential Committee on People’s Participation in the Constitution(Korean)
- This refers to the nationalization of natural resources, not to the state. In that regard, the state cannot sell natural resources. It is based on the notion that Iceland’s natural resources belong to all future generations and thus should not be sold. (Interview with Constitutional Council Member Professor Thorvaldur Gylfason http://www.nordichorizons.org/the-writing-of-the-new.html )
- According to the Act on a Constitutional Assembly, the Constitutional Assembly has to comprehensively review the constitution, draw up the bills to revise the constitution and present the bills to parliament.
- The one person, one vote refers to the inequality between rural and urban areas: It takes many more people to elect a representative into parliament in densely populated urban areas then to do so in rural areas. (Interview with Constitutional Council Member Professor Thorvaldur Gylfason http://www.nordichorizons.org/the-writing-of-the-new.html )
- Each of the four regional focus groups is made up of 200 randomly picked men and women for those regions.
- While these civil society groups generally support the president’s efforts, they are also planning a parallel round table on Mar. 3rd as a means of pressuring the president to include the more progressive proposals.
- The process began on Feb. 13 and will end on Mar. 13.