Why was the turnout so poor in Iceland’s Constitutional Assembly election?

Ask IR

Why was the turnout so poor in Iceland’s Constitutional Assembly election?

Q: In light of the low turnout of 36 percent in Iceland’s Constitutional Assembly election on Saturday, here are three brief questions:

1) Considering that the large public protests about Iceland’s financial mismanagement earlier in the year led to the idea of a citizen rewrite of the constitution, what in your judgment is the chief reason for the low voter turnout?

Possibly too many candidates (some 500+) and not enough time for voters to sort through candidates’ positions? Or mostly just widespread voter cynicism? Or a combination of these and other reasons?

2) As someone who ran for the CA, how likely do you think it is that the Althingi, citing a less-than-majority voter turnout, might now tamper with or even reject any resulting document submitted to it by the CA?

3) If you had it to do over, what changes, if any, would you recommend to the entire CA process?

Jim A., Missoula, MT, USA


A: Here is a bit of background: The mass protests in October didn’t lead to the Constitutional Assembly. It was actually first mentioned by the Progressive Party, one of the opposition parties in the Icelandic parliament, Althingi.

The Progressive Party made the Constitutional Assembly a condition for supporting the minority Social Democrat-Left-Green coalition which replaced the Independence Party-Social Democrat coalition in early 2009.

During the series of protests which took place following the banking collapse in October 2008, a new government was among the demands. So one could say that these protests indirectly led to the Constitutional Assembly.

In the parliamentary election in spring 2009 the Social Democrat-Left Green coalition was supported by the majority of the electorate and no longer needed the Progressive Party’s support. In June 2010 legislation on the Constitutional Assembly was passed.

As for your questions:

1) A number of reasons for the poor turnout have been mentioned.

Political scientist Gunnar Helgi Kristinsson mentioned that the election system had been too complicated, that voters had to prepare more thoroughly than usual, that campaigns were rarely visible and lacked focus, that voters didn’t see the purpose of the Constitutional Assembly and that they were suffering from election fatigue with two other elections already having taken place this year.

Other factors that have been mentioned is that voters considered the Constitutional Assembly a waste of money in light of the current economic situation and that they were making a statement by staying at home, others didn’t have faith in the process.

Some claimed to have lost faith in changes and said didn’t feel they had to respect democracy when parliamentarians don’t, reasoning that the constitutional bill would probably be rejected by parliament anyway.

Others argue the timing was poor, the number of candidates overwhelming and that the whole idea was just too much of a novelty. Others still would have liked to hear more about the execution of the campaign issues, such as the separation of state and church.

Outside the capital region, many people considered this a Reykjavík election.

Then there are those speculating that the Constitutional Assembly was talked down by those who have certain interests to protect, those who want to use a poor turnout against the government because they would like to take its place, for example.

And by those who currently control the natural resources because they don’t want them to go into public ownership, as many candidates were campaigning for.

2) I thought so at first but now I believe the Althingi might actually pass the constitutional draft straight on to a national referendum.

Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir has announced that she doesn’t want Althingi to tamper much with the result and as the head of government and with a backing of the majority of MPs in parliament, her words have considerable weight.

The winner of the election, Thorvaldur Gylfason, has pointed out that the Althingi is in fact unfit to make any statements on the constitutional draft as it will likely include a provision on cutting the number of MPs by approximately half, so it would be working against their personal interests.

I also believe that although the majority of voters stayed at home during the election, once the assembly starts working they will realize its significance and there would be an outrage if its conclusions would simply by disregarded by the parliament.

However, the Althingi can also serve as a safety net if the constitutional draft is poorly made and the Constitutional Assembly members are in disagreement on how to proceed.

How seriously the parliament, and the public, will take its conclusions depends on how efficiently and in how much solidarity the assembly’s members will work.

3) This whole process has been a valuable experience for Iceland.

I would probably have a higher threshold for candidates, for example that they had to deliver a list of around 1,000 supporters instead of only 30.

Better and more positive coverage in the media and more apparent discussions in society would have been necessary and it should have started much sooner than only two weeks before the election.

Candidates should have joined forces in that regard immediately after the candidacies were announced.

Also it would have made matters easier if electronic voting had been an option.

You can also take a look at the anti-Constitutional Assembly columns written by Benedikt and Bjarni this week.