Alda – Association for Sustainability and Democracy handed the following proposals over The Constitutional Council in May 2011. Each proposal is followed by a summary and precedent if available and applicable. There are twelve proposals, and they regard the presidency, election-system, judges, citizen assemblies, corporations, constitutional changes, referendums, direct democracy and more.
Althingi will elect a president and vice-president from any of the ministers, once a year. No one can serve as president more than one year in a row. The president directs meetings of the government and acts as the representative of Iceland at ceremonies. He has the same power and responsibilities as a minister normally has.
Alda´s main goal is the diffusion of power and direct democracy. To preserve the role of the presidency in it´s current format would go against that goal as great powers are in the hands of a single individual. Alda proposes a similar structure as exists in Switzerland That structure minimizes the power of the president and he is only responsible of directing meetings of the government and acts as figurative representative of the country. The president has no more power than a normal minister has. In this proposal, Althingi will elect the president once a year and therefore the president’s obligations will be spread upon different individals each year. His power to call for national elections on certain bills is moved to the members of the public and members of parliament. Here one can read the constitution of Switzerland in English.
In Althingi 42 nationally elected MPs have their seats, in addition to 21 randomly selected MPs from every icelandic citizen of the age 18 to 70. Nationally elected MPs are selected in elections with secret ballot and the results are final. Half of the nationally elected MPs shall be elected from party-lists and the other half as individuals directly, not as a part of any political party. Although, voters can select candidates from more than one party-list. When the elections are over, random candidates are selected. The difference in number of MPs among the sexes can only be one; one in the MPs elected by party-list, one in MPs elected as persons, and one in the randomly elected MPs. The election term for MP´s are four years.
Equal rights for everyone is one of the most important democratic principles. It is important that as many individuals and groups participate as possible in the decision-making process. Therefore, Alda believes it is important that the proportion of MP´s of each sex is in accordance with the proportion as it is in amongst the general public and therefore the difference in number of MP´s among the sexes can only be one individual. It is also important that persons from minority groups will be guaranteed to be MP´s. These minority groups are groups such as homosexuals and bi-sexuals, people with disabilities and people with low salaries. Research has shown that some social groups have proportionally fewer representatives in public decision making than others. It is necessary, in a democratic society, that all groups are represented and part of the decision making process. Therefore, the state is obligated to create regulation which, e.g., guarantees the rights of people with other than heterosexual male or female gender.
Alda proposes that Althingi will operate in one house (unicameral). It is also possible to have Althingi to operate in two divisions. In the lower one, only nationally elected MP´s would have their seats, but in the upper only randomly selected MP´s. Research has shown that there is difference in what interests representatives protect, depending on how they were elected. Those chosen randomly generally see themselves representing the general public while those elected from party-lists see themselves as representatives of their political party’s voters. For this reason, it might be a good idea to have MP´s of the upper house elected randomly which will protect everyone’s interests. One should not draw the conclusion here that any one type of representative, political-party, individual or randomly selected, is better than another, but rather that every system has it’s own benefits and drawbacks.
Law and regulation should specify what qualifications one needs to fulfill, in order to be appointed judge. Randomly selected group of supreme court judges decide who of the applicants are qualified, in accordance of those rules. Then a random applicant from those who are deemed qualified is chosen. The proportion between the sexes shall be equal if possible.
It is important that those who exercise the power of the justice system are chosen according to their abilities, without the executive branch of government and lawmakers interfering. In the light of this, Alda proposes that a randomly chosen group of supreme court judges is given the task of evaluating if each applicant is qualified to be appointed as supreme court judge according to predetermined criteria. Then a random applicant is chosen from the group of those judged to be qualified. This way, no interference from the executive branch of government is possible. The proportion of women and men among judges shall be equal, but there may be one judge of either sex more than of the other. In some cases the choice of judge can only be between applicants of either sex where the proportion between the sexes was excessive for some reason.
The legislative power is permitted to hand it’s power partially to citizen’s assemblies, in which MPs do not have any power. Representatives in these assemblies shall be selected in elections or randomly selected. One third of MP´s can demand citizen’s assembly to be held on important issues, or 8 percent of the electorate.
In real democracies, the citizen’s right to take part in decision making should be guaranteed. Currently, the participation on behalf of the general public is more or less reduced to voting every four years. In many countries citizen’s assemblies are held where decision making is moved into a transparent democratic process, and the public participates. Here are two examples:
a. Big part of financial planning of the Brazilian city Porto Alegre (up to about 20%) has been allocated through a process where about 8% of the city’s population participate each year. Around 1,4 million people live in the city and this arrangement been used since the late 1980′s with good results. Research indicates that the democratization has resulted in:
- Corruption largely dissapears, since the process is open and transparent.
- A shift in spending towards the poorest regions.
- Thickening of civil society, citizens united in organizations devoted in deciding prioritization of projects within areas of the city.
b. In British Columbia, Canada, the task of proposing changes to the voting legislature was moved to a citizen assembly. A special assembly of 160 randomly selected citizens (equal number of each sex and two representing indiginous groups) assembled and drafted a proposal which then was put for a referendum.
No provisions are in the Icelandic constitution that enable the government to delegate it’s power to democratically chosen citizen’s assemblies. It is imperative that such provisions are part of the constitution, so that citizens can be part of the democratic decision making process (such as randomly selected assemblies). Alda proposes that citizen assemblies can be summoned when controversial and/or important issues need to be decided upon, issues that need more involvement from the public than Althingi is able to generate. Part of the process is meetings and discussion panels around the country, with discussions and information provided by the media. Representatives should be chosen so that they represent different groups of the population and long time is given to finish the process. It is also proposed that assemblies would be summoned in cases involving only local communities.
Corporations, organizations and institutions should be governed by those who work for them: Each employee should have one vote. The employees run the workplace together, decide it’s mission and organization.
Corporations and institutions are generally undemocratic, and for that reason, for the greatest part of our lives, as employees, we are governed by single individuals or a group of few. Far too many decisions and too many large institutions are undemocratic. It is prudent to delegate decision-making directly to the public, to democratizise the workplace. Research shows that democratic corporations are at least as efficient and profitable as capitalistic corporations, but socially are more successful. In order to label “democratic” countries as such, it is necessary to democratisize the economic sector.
An example of such corporations is the Mondragón corporation, currently the seventh largest corporation in Spain, and also the magazine New Internationalist which as been run as a cooperative since 1970.
Alda proposes that all corporations with more than five staff members should be run cooperatively. In those corporations, all staff members have their part in decision making and management of the corporation. Each employee should have only one vote, regardless of position or other factors. Corporations with fewer staff would be able to govern themselves in their own way, which is often important for start-ups. It is important that corporations should not be given the change to evade from this rule, by example, hiring all staff as contractors (or through staff-renting agencies).
More information on cooperatives and be found at the International Co-operative Alliance.
Constituencies should be decided by the number of inhabitants and geographical size. They cannot be more than 21, but are otherwise demarked by law.
Alda underlines that each vote should have same voting-power if possible. Alda also stresses it’s view that the voices of different groups should be heard in Althingi and that includes the voices of those living in different areas of the country. Therefore Alda proposes that constituencies should be preserved in the constitution, but it’s structure changed so that voting-power of each vote is to be kept as equal as possible. This should be aimed at, without creating large constituencies such as the Suðurkjördæmi is now.
Two factors are to limit the size of constituencies: It’s physical size should not exceed some specified limit, and the number of inhabitants in each should be limited also. This might lead to Reykjavík being split into more than two constituencies. The total number of constituencies should not exceed 21 though.
A Constitutional Assembly should be held once every twenty years. Also, the majority of MP´s and 16% of voters can demand the Assembly to be held. Elected MP´s cannot be elected to the Assembly.
The Icelandic constitution is the foundational document of Icelandic legislations and the structure of governance. In light of that, Alda would like to stress that the constitution should change as the Icelandic society changes. Therefore Alda proposes that Althingi power to change the constitution is removew and transferred to an Constitutional Assembly, every fifth parliamentary term. The assembly should have the purpose of reviewing the constitution and make necessary changes to it. The Assembly should be organized as a Citizen Assembly, it’s members to be democratically elected/selected representatives of the public. Althingi and the public would be able to activate the process and for an assembly to be held, just as other assemblies. However, as the constitution is a fundamental part of the structure of governance, Alda proposes that it be more difficult, than for other Citizen Assemblies, to call for an irregular Constitutional Assembly and therefore a higher number of MP´s and a larger share of the public be needed to have it held.
a. By collecting signatures, members of the public can force a binding, referendum to be held on:
- Removal of specific laws or provisions thereof.
- A bill, they them self have drafted
- Proposal on changing the constitution, on other issues than human rights.
b. The signature collection is valid if 8% of voters sign and if the collection (the act it self) is legal.
c. Simple majority of votes decides.
d. Law should be set regarding local governments, so that inhabitants are able to force referendums on local issues .
e. One third of MP´s can force referendums.
Democracy is based upon the principle that the general public, or it´s representatives, control and govern the state. Therefore it is imperative that processes be available which make it possible for the general public to directly influence the legislation. Referendums are a viable type of such processes. Through referendums the power of the legislative and/or executive branch of the state is transferred to the general public and allow for greater part in the governance of the state.
It is not anticipated that when the general public has the possibility of calling for referendums that such will be held extremely often on most issues. Where such options are available they create a pressure for governments and representatives to reach a conclusion that safeguard the broad general interests and act in a tempered and respectful manner. Minorities could raise issues through appealing to the general publics sense of justice. Issues that political parties are likely to neglect coult be forced and lastly referendums are a way to finalize hotly debated issues.
All referendums should be final, that is the decision reached in the referendum must be binding. The general public is the ruling party in a democracy and advisory referendums are a misunderstanding of who holds the power and who not. Binding referendums are also encourage participation while advisory referendums might discourage participation due to a lack of trust between the public and it´s representatives.
Detailed discussion listed proposals above
a. The provision assumes that legislation or regulation be passed, regarding signature-collection, explicating the exact requirements such signature-collecting should fulfill, and who should decide if they fulfill the requirements. Regarding such collections, it should be mentioned that it is ill-advced to require more than 8% of voters signatures. Examples can be found where the proportion needed has been set lower or higher, as is discussed below. Provisions which require more signatures when forcing a referendum on constitutional changes (a.3 above) should not be needed. Law can be set, e.g. generally requiring that signatures need to have some demographic distribution.
b. Generally speaking, it is quite democratic that those who care about an issue, determine it’s course, but not those who do not care enough to vote. The most important factor being that participation is unrestricted. The provision does not require further explaining.
c. The rights of those living in the communities to have democratic influence should be guaranteed.
d. Minority of parliament should be able to have the nation decide on the issue, securing that the majority cannot push through controversial bills.
Switzerland was the first country to establish national elections initiated by the public, establishing them in 1891. Many states of United States of America followed suit during the same period. The purpose of both was to inhibit the influence of money and/or other powers in the society through it’s representative system.
National referendum-systems are currently established in 37 countries, mostly in Europe and South-America. Some countries have do not have such referendums established nation-wide, but only on some smaller scale. This applies to the United States and Germany. In about half of US states, the public can force public referendums. The same applies about Germany. The federal states which joined with West-Germany in 1990 established the same system.
It is fairly common that national referendums, initiated by the public, are established in countries that are newly-free and countries which have recently been through period of mayhem due to tyranny and corrupted politics. Germany and Italy are obvious examples of the latter. Of newly-free countries, examples include Croatia, Hungary, Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania. In the well established democratic country of Switzerland, the public can initiate national referendums on constitutional change.
Most countries which allow it’s voters calling for national referendums, have a similar option is available in local municipalities. Not allowing some specific issues to be addressed in national referendums is generally not democratic, except for human rights. Such restrictions are known in some countries. If such exclusion-option is to be specified in the constitution, it should be specified in much detail, so that those with power cannot choose when the exclusion applies or not.
Requirements on the number of signatures, to force national referendums, should be kept moderate. In countries where 15% of voters’ signatures are required to force national referendums, the option is not effective. In Belarus, the requirement is 33% of voters signature. In Switzerland, around two percent of voters can force national elections on the constitution. In Italy, 1% can force national elections on abolishing specific legislation. Requiring high percentage of signatures, usually only serves the interests of powerful political groups and powerful special-interest groups. In many countries, minimum requirements regarding participation of voters in elections are set, especially on changing the constitution. In Latvia and Lithuania about half of voters’ signatures are required to change the constitution, but 25% in Hungary. In Switzerland, such changes are made through national elections, where simple majority is needed. The same applies in Italy, except that 50% of voters need to take part in the refrendum.
Such requirements have the negative side-effect that election campaigns can develop into encouraging voters to avoid participating. This goes against one of the main goals of national refrendums, which is to encourage people to take part in governing their society.
National referendums initiated by the public are almost without exception legally binding.
The meetings of Althingi and all meetings on behalf of the state shall be audible and available to the public. All information collected regarding meetings shall be easily available to the public as shall be all data created during meetings. All data created by the state or any of it’s institutions shall be available and no rules shall be set which allow any exceptions to be set from that rule, except those protecting the privacy of individuals. The public shall be allowed to speak in Althingi regularly, once a week for example.
One of the basic principles of democracy is transparency in decision making, that anyone is able to make their own decisions based on their own observations. Any limitation on the availability of information restricts this process.
Any society which claims to be democratic, must allow for open and transparent decision making process where access to meetings and information regarding the decisions made in the public interest are easily available to everyone. It is hard to see how the interest of the public is better guaranteed in closed and non-transparent process – it is much more likely to serve the interests of someone else.
Alda proposes that all meetings held by the state shall be open to the public and that all data regarding decision making, made in the public interest, be available to the public. The data is to be made easily available, so that the public can have an overview of all the data available and find relevant information. Limitations can be set on availability of information, but only in regard to the privacy of the individual and open police investigations.
Alda proposes that the public can have their say and also put forward their proposals directly to their representatives. Althingi must give the public the chance to exercise this right, for example by reserving speaking time in Althingi for the public.
Ministers shall be elected in elections held the same time as elections to Althingi are held. Each voter can cast a vote on one of four candidates for each ministry, two females and two males, which are pre-selected by a committee. Seven persons sit on each committee, all randomly selected from the electorate. Ministries should be obligated to provide this committee all the information and assistance it needs.
The number of ministers of each sex should be equal. If the number is unequal adjustment must be made by randomly selecting which person of the sex, with the lower number of votes, serves in what ministry. The same person cannot be a candidate for MP on Althingi and also be a candidate for ministry at the same time. Ministers do not have the right to put forth bills in Althingi.
Currently the executive and law-making branches of government are intertwined. The public has no say on who serves as ministers. The current situation combines these powers and are controlled by a small group of people serving the interests of political parties rather than the interests of the public. Alda proposes radical changes to the executive and legislative branch election-systems, whereby only one-third of all MPs are selected from political parties. Alda´s main goal is to seperate the powers of the executive and legislative branches, which calls for changes to be made on how ministers are appointed.
Alda propses that voters choose their candidate for each ministry from a group of two females and two males. This is done in the interest that the public has more to say on who serve as a ministers. The randomly selected committee decides its own guidelines on how to choose a candidate for ministry, however if special requirements are set, such as education and experience, this should be announced when the committee advertises for possible candidates. The committees meetings shall be open to everyone and all data which the committee creates or collects be made public, so that the public can observe and influence the decision. Alda proposes that the executive branch be separated from the legislative branch.
Alda underlines that gender equality is one of the foundations of democracy. In accordance with this, the number of ministers of men and women should be equal, or at maximum, with a difference of only one. To remove all possibility of bias, random selection should be used if the need arises to select a new minister to ensure gender equality.
Political party finances
a. Any political organiziation, which, directly or indirectly, takes part in elections for Althingi or local governments, may receive payments from everyone except legal entities and organizations up to a certain total limit. The state is allowed to support political organizations, by means other than monetary.
b. Political candidates in elections for Althingi, and to local governments, shall be allowed to receive monetary support from others than legal entities and organizations. There shall be set a limit on how much they can spend in political campaigning.
c. Information regarding all financial donations to political organizations in elections for Althingi or local governments shall be publicly available. A designated government agency shall monitor financial donations as these.
a. The provision states that political organizations can only receive financial support from individuals and from the state. By stating that the provision also includes organizations taking part directly and indirectly, care is taken to ensure that there is no separation between some political organization and/or any entity related to that organization, taking part in the election. Government support by other means than monetary, ensures that the state can support political organizations in their democratic mission. Such support is more likely to encourage equality among political parties, which financial support probably wouldn’t do. The provision needs no further explanation. By having a limit on how much any political organization can receive donations, limitations are set on financial power of political parties, to constrain the flow of money to political roganizations. This also means that legislators need to decide which amount is needed in political campaigning. Some limit on how much an individual can donate to a political organization is important, so that one organization cannot be run by one or few wealthy individuals.
b. The provision is intended to constrain the financial needs of candidates and make sure that they won’t be dependent on specific corporations or organizations.
c. The provision assumes that the public can get information on financial donations to candidates and political organizations, whenever it is requested.
The instructions of The European Commission for Democracy through Law (often named The Venice Commission) states that there may be reason to put an end to financial donations to political organizations from corporations. One must assume that Iceland is one of the countries where such matters must be considered.
Volume eight of Report of the Special Investigation Commission (Skýrsla Rannsóknarnefndar Alþingis), bears the title Ethics and practices in relation to the fall of the Icelandic banks in 2008. In chapter II.3 Relations between politics and business: “One obvious tool of business to influence politics, is direct financial contribution, both to political organizations and individual politicians.” In the chapter’s concluding passage, conclusions are drawn on what must be learned from the crisis in Iceland, the report’s authors wrote: “Something must be done in order to sever ties between finance and politics. It is unacceptable that those who should be protecting the public interest are really protecting the interest of private corporations, as was the case in the period leading to the crash.”
During the 8th to the 15th of September 2010, Capacent Gallup surveyed the public’s opinion on donations from corporations and individuals to politicians and political organizations. A large majority – 68% – of the public was opposed to corporations donating to political figures and political organizations. 79% was opposed to the same parties receiving donations from individuals without the name of the contributor be made public.
Icelandic political parties have been described as “empty shells”. The meaning is that they are controlled by a small group of people and that democratic activity within the parties is next to nothing. This is further reinforced by that the political parties have nothing to do with general members of the parties. The parties, the old conventional ones, are self-sufficient, having guaranteed funds from the public’s tax money and donations from business.
That political organizations decide the rules by with they should operate when it comes to their own financing, is inappropriate and unacceptable, and disqualifies them from setting such rules.
From the reasons stated above, the constitution should have clear provisions, which guarantee that Althingi will pass democratic rules on finance of political organizations and individual candidates in general elections.
There are two dominating views in Europe on the financing of political organizations. One is that the political parties are like any other organization. They should therefore depend on donations from their members to run the day-to-day operation, but the state should assist them in running their campaigns. The other is that the parties are so important in society that the state should finance them. This is common in Europe, but not universal. For instance, in France, donations from corporations to political parties was banned in 1995, after the practice began to be in suspect and opposed by the public.
The latter one is dominating in Iceland, and has not been prosperous for the country nor it’s people, as the Report of the Special Investigation Commission states. The political parties have received increasingly more financial support from the state, but have also received great sums of money from corporations and other legal entities.
The political parties also see themselves as part of the country’s power-structure. For example, it is not at all considered dubious to set laws that require the state to pay MP´s which are leaders of political parties, 50% more salaries. It is hardly a matter for Althingi to consider, what roles MP´s choose in political parties which they themselves choose to join.
Circumstances in Iceland need to be considered, and experience be taken into account, such as the authors of Report of the Special Investigation Commission recommend. Some radical changes must be made regarding the financial demands of the political parties. At the same time, something radical must be done regarding their democratic role in society. Only then can they function according to democratic principles.
Access to media
a. Candidates in elections for Althingi, shall be given equal, well-specified and wide-ranging access to radio, television, and other currently influential media, to promote their policies.
b. Candidates in elections for Althingi and for local governments, shall be allowed to spend only a specific maximum sum during a designated interval before elections, on advertisements.
a. Radio and television are the most influencial types of media today. Specifying in the provision also the currently most influencial media, guarantees that lawmakers can react to changes in media and evaluate the situation. Wide-ranging access may require lawmakers to obligate other media than state-owned to fulfill democratic demands. Election campagains in the country’s city and largest towns have similar characteristics of those for Althingi, and therefore some rules must apply to them.
b. The provision is set to limit the financial needs of political parties and candidates, and also encourage that political goals are not disturbed excessively by the influence of money. The provision does not need further explaining.
Advertisements in television and radio are expensive. Money and power should not decide results of elections, if they are to be called democratic. Equality is a fundamental issue here. Also, must the most influential media should not be dependent on specific political organizations buying advertisements from them. This is generally agreed up on in democratic socities and also by scholars.
Iceland is very different from other European countries in this regard, since political organizations are allowed to advertise without any limitations at all. This has led to anti-democratic discrimination and also further fueled abnormal financial needs of political parties.
The old conventional political parties have received increasingly more support from the state, and also taken excessive loans to fund political campaigns Generally they have made themselves dependent upon capital, with disastrous consequences. This must change.
Because of all this, new political parties face huge challenges. One can say, without any reservation, that new parties are systematically excluded.
Ruling political organizations are, due to the nature of the issue, not qualified to set rules and laws which the provisions cover.
For the reasons outlined above, the constitution must specify that laws must be set, which guarantee democratic laws which regulate political promotion in the most influencial media.
The United States and few other states allow political organizations to buy advertisments in radio and television, during campagains. Such advertisements are usually not allowed, or limited by regulation. Denmark, Sweden and Norway are examples of countries which ban such advertisements altogether. Political advertisements in radio and television can truly distort the purpose of elections, and also distort democracy. On the other hand, one can criticize how little this type of media is used to influence democratic participiation. They can easily be used to influence the public, to take part in democracy and elections. The media can help informing the public on issues, if done correctly.
In Britain paid political advertisements in radio and television are illegal. However, the political parties are devoted some specific amount of time in radio and television, to promote their political policies and viewpoints. This is similar for example in Ireland and France. In Portugal all radio and television stations are obligated to give political organizations designated airtime to promote their issues and policies. In 2002 in Italy, similar rules were set. In Greece, political parties may spend at maximum some specific amount in advertisements, which also cannot exceed 20% of total spending in the campagain. By surveying laws and regulation in Europe regarding political advertisment, one can reach the following conclusion: Iceland is left behind with other states in the region when it comes to this fundamental part of democracy.