Icelandic voters approve constitutional changes

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  By a Newsnet reporter

Icelandic voters have given their backing to proposals for a new constitution in a referendum held on Saturday.  A total of 66.3% supported and 33.7% opposed the new draft constitution which was drawn up  by the Stjórnlagaþing (Icelandic Constitutional Assembly), a body consisting of 25 ordinary citizens set up by the Alþingi (Icelandic Parliament) in the wake of public anger over the government’s handling of the banking crisis.

Almost 237,000 people were eligible to vote on the six proposals put forward by the constitutional committee — which also used input from citizens via social networking websites such as Facebook and Twitter, prompting the media to dub the new basic law as the world’s first “crowdsourced constitution”.

Turnout for the referendum was low.  Only 48.9% of those registered to vote cast their ballot on Saturday, however in Iceland’s parliamentary elections turnout is generally over 80%.

Speaking to the state broadcaster Ríkisútvarpið (RÚV), Prime Minister Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir hailed the result from Saturday’s referendum as “a huge victory for the democratic process.”  Ms Sigurdardóttir was elected Prime Minister in 2009 as head of a Social Democrat and Left-Green coalition, in the first national elections after the financial crash.  

The previous Prime Minister, Geir Haarde of the centre-right Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (Independence Party), was accused of criminal negligence for his role in the Icelandic financial crisis, but after a trial earlier this year was found guilty only of the most minor of the charges of which he was accused.

The Constitutional Assembly which drew up the new constitution was set up in order that Iceland could avoid a repetition of the mistakes which led to the collapse of the country’s major banks and a severe devaluation of its currency.

In an interview with RÚV, Ms Sigurdardóttir said, “I am very happy with the result and the turnout. I expected the turnout to be less, so that is beyond expectation.  Now it is up to us, the politicians, to finish this process. I am very proud of my nation that gave parliament this conclusion.”

Six questions were listed on the ballot, 82.5% of voters gave their support to a new constitutional clause ruling that all Icelandic natural resources which are not privately owned should be declared national property.  Iceland possesses vast resources of geothermal energy and rich fishing grounds.  The fishing industry accounts for 7% of the Icelandic economy.

The six questions and results for/against are as follows:

  • 1. Do you wish the Constitution Council’s proposals to form the basis of a new draft Constitution? Y 66.3% N 33.7%
  • 2. In the new Constitution, do you want natural resources that are not privately owned to be declared national property? Y 82.5% N 17.5%
  • 3. Would you like to see provisions in the new Constitution on an established (national) church in Iceland?  Y 57.5% N 42.5%
  • 4. Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution authorising the election of particular individuals to the Althingi more than is the case at present? Y 77.9% N 22.1%
  • 5. Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution giving equal weight to votes cast in all parts of the country? Y 63.2% N 36.8%
  • 6. Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution stating that a certain proportion of the electorate is able to demand that issues are put to a referendum?  Y 72.2% N 27.8%

The current constitution dates from 1944 when the North Atlantic nation became independent from Denmark.  The changes to the constitution are expected to be approved by the current Icelandic parliament, but in order to come into effect constitutional changes must be approved by two Icelandic parliaments.  The constitutional changes will again be put before the Alþingi after the parliamentary elections due in April 2013.