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I Am Not Proud of the Constitutional Assembly (BJ)

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benedikt-dlAll around the world the media writes about how Iceland is going through an extraordinary election, choosing ordinary (yes you read it correctly, ordinary) people to the new constitutional assembly. As opposed to what? The Kennedys? The Queen of England?

I never knew that we had two types of people in Iceland. There are some that talk about the deep class separation all the time. Three years ago two Icelanders were said to be among the world’s richest men according to Forbes. Now one of them is officially bankrupt. Is he less or more ordinary now?

Two years ago we had the first Icelandic woman Prime minister. The entire outside world talked about was her sexual preference. Who cares? She was probably chosen because nobody thought she had done anything dishonest. She has fought for the poor and disabled. But is she an ordinary person? She comes from a political family and her father was a member of Althingi, Iceland’s Parliament.

Now the war cry is: Get new people to the table. But the leaders of government, Prime Minister Sigurdardóttir and Minister of Finance Sigfússon have been sitting in Althingi for 32 and 27 years, respectively.

The world press talks of the constitutional assembly as the average Joes. One of the candidates who were interviewed in the Washington Post is Thorvaldur Gylfason, a professor of economics at the University of Iceland. Gylfason is a very well known man, he writes weekly columns in Fréttabladid, Iceland’s biggest newspaper. His father was minister of education for fifteen years, and his brother was a minister and member of Althingi. I don’t know if he got elected, the results are not known when I am writing this, but is he an average Joe?

In an article in the Washington Post Gylfason drew parallels between Iceland and South Africa, saying that a country that has experienced shock needs a fresh start. “A country that has suffered a complete economic and moral collapse needs to start with a clean slate,” he said. “We need to ensure that the sort of malpractice and negligence that, among other things, led to the collapse of the Icelandic economy two years ago, cannot happen again.”

All this is true, but what does it have to do with the constitution?

It seems to me that we are beginning on the wrong end. First we should say what is wrong with the constitution. Then we should mend it. Or write a new one. But only after we know what is wrong.

Five hundred and twenty two people ran for the Constitutional assembly. They are not all average Joes. Many have university degrees, many are well known, some are lawyers, and others are quite clever people (some of the lawyers are fine too). But they don’t all share a common view on what is wrong with the constitution.

In the Washington Post article another candidate was interviewed: Thorsteinn Arnalds, an engineer, ran in hopes of keeping the existing constitution intact, arguing that change in a time of crisis is preposterous. “The constitution had nothing to do with the bank collapse, and it is not standing in the way of rebuilding,” he said. “Right now we need the basic social structures in place, not for them to be torn down.”

I did vote, unlike 63% of the people. After the election many have been telling us how stupid, ignorant and irresponsible the majority was to stay home. Why go when you have no faith in the process?

The election was not “an exercise in direct democracy born out of the outrage and soul-searching that followed the nation's economic meltdown.” It was a waste of time and money.

The Washington Post article says the Assembly will be “a source of huge pride for Icelanders who have seen their egos take a beating in recent years.” I know that some good people really think this will change something. But the truth is, that even if the constitution can be improved (it can be), the real problem in Iceland was people. People who thought it was most important to be on the Forbes list of rich and famous people.

I am not proud. We don’t need to waste a lot of money on a new constitution. We do need ministers who act responsibly in time of crisis. Not those who put their head in the sand as Fisheries Minister Jón Bjarnason, who prides himself of hindering the discussions with the EU. He was the one who famously talked about sticking one's head in the stone.

Maybe that would be a good idea.

Benedikt Jóhannesson - [email protected]

Views expressed here are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Iceland Review.