The Prime Minister has introduced a bill of constitutional legislation to the Althingi, amending Iceland’s constitution, together with a bill amending electoral legislation to allow voting for individual candidates. Both actions were on the task list of the government and comprise part of the democratic reform measures promised. The government has placed major emphasis on reforms to increase democracy, as is clearly demonstrated in these two bills.
The constitutional bill provides for a new clause to be added to the constitution, prohibiting the permanent disposition by the state of natural resources owned by the nation. It would also add a new clause facilitating amendments to the constitution and ensuring that the general public can influence such changes through a referendum, rather than dissolving parliament and holding new elections. An amendment is to be added to the constitution making it mandatory to hold a referendum on specific issues if 15% of registered voters so demand. In addition, the bill would enshrine in the constitution a clause providing for the convening of a special constitutional congress. Earlier in the week the bill providing for election of individual candidates in national elections, rather than only lists of each party’s candidates, was introduced.
Natural resources to become national assets
The draft constitutional legislation proposes to add specific clauses on natural resources and environmental issues to the constitution. These would state unequivocally that the state may not permanently relinquish natural resources owned by the nation and place natural resources in the wider context of environmental issues. The constitutional clause making natural resources a national asset will not jeopardise the rights of parties holding harvest rights under the fisheries management regime. The new constitutional clauses will affirm that vessel operators or other parties enjoying such authorisations will never acquire direct and permanent rights of ownership to fishing resources, and also confirms that the legislative authority can, by virtue of its responsibility for natural resources on behalf of the nation, alter the arrangements of the fisheries management regime.
The bill would add provisions to the constitution making it mandatory to hold a referendum on specific issues if 15% of registered voters so demand. The authorisation to hold a referendum will thereby be enshrined in the constitution in general terms, with the detailed implementation to be subsequently provided for in specific legislation, dealing with questions such as the form such a demand is to take, how voters’ signatures are to be collected, how issues are to be presented and how referenda are to be held.
A new provision would also be introduced facilitating amendments to the constitution and ensuring the general public is given a voice in such amendments. The key aspect here is the holding of a referendum specifically to adopt amendments to the constitution rather than the current practice of dissolving the Althingi following the adoption of amendments, holding national elections and having the newly elected Althingi adopt the legislation once more without amendments. The change gives the nation the opportunity to express its opinion directly concerning constitutional amendments which is a normal and conventional arrangement in a democracy.
Constitutional congress without politicians
The bill also includes provisions for a constitutional congress to be added to the constitution. Such provisions will provide the authority or basis for convening a constitutional congress, while the details of the tasks and organisation of the congress will be determined with normal legislation to this effect. According to the current draft legislation on a constitutional congress, which is an accompanying document to the bill on the constitution, election to the constitutional congress is to take place this autumn. There will be 41 representatives, elected as individual candidates. They may not be parliamentarians or their alternates, and must stand for election as independent citizens These 41 nationally elected representatives will comprise the congress which is to draft a new constitution. When and if the constitutional congress has approved a new constitution, a referendum shall be held on its adoption. At least 25% of registered voters must approve the new constitution for it to enter into force.
Voting for individual candidates possible in the upcoming election
The Prime Minister also introduced a bill amending electoral legislation to introduce voting for individual candidates. The bill would allow individual groups proposing candidates to choose whether they ranked their lists of candidates, as has been practiced in recent decades, or offered a list of unranked candidates. If those groups proposing candidates decided on an unranked list of candidates, the eventual ranking of candidates would be up to those who voted for the list, each of whom can rank the candidates on his/her ballot. If this bill is adopted by the Althingi voting for individual candidates will be possible in the upcoming elections.