|Voting for Constitutional Assembly. Photo: Jon Svavarsson|
By ALDA SIGMUNDSDOTTIR
Iceland's getting a new constitution — and it's really going to be the voice of the people.
The sparsely-populated volcanic island is holding an unusual election Saturday to select ordinary citizens to cobble together a new charter, an exercise in direct democracy born out of the outrage and soul-searching that followed the nation's economic meltdown.
Hundreds of people are vying for the chance to be among up to 31 people who will form the Constitutional Assembly slated to convene early next year — a source of huge pride for Icelanders who have seen their egos take a beating in recent years.
"This is the first time in the history of the world that a nation's constitution is reviewed in such a way, by direct democratic process," says Berghildur Erla Bergthorsdottir, spokeswoman for the committee entrusted with organizing the Constitutional Assembly.
Iceland has never written its own constitution. After gaining independence from Denmark in 1944, it took the Danish constitution, amended a few clauses to state that it was now an independent republic, and substituted the word 'president' for 'king.' A comprehensive review of the constitution has been on the agenda ever since.
Pressure mounted for action after the nation's economic collapse in 2008, an event punctuated by ordinary citizens gathering outside the Althingi, the parliament, banging pots, pans and barrels — a loud, clanging expression of fury. The meltdown was seen not only as a failure of the economy but of the system of government and regulatory agencies. Many came to believe a tighter constitutional framework — including a clearer division of powers — might have been able to minimize that damage, or even prevent it.
"It is very important for ordinary citizens, who have no direct interest in maintaining the status quo, to take part in a constitutional review," said Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir. "We are hoping this new constitution will be a new social covenant leading to reconstruction and reconciliation, and for that to happen, the entire nation needs to be involved."
The election marks yet another twist in the fortunes of this Nordic nation of just 320,000 that went from economic marvel to fiscal basket-case almost overnight. The rugged island settled by Vikings was transformed from a country of fisherman to hub of international finance with dizzying speed. Icelandic investors — dubbed 'Viking raiders' — snapped up assets around the world for a decade, mostly on borrowed funds. News story continues here.....