The Battle For The Soul Of Iceland Starts Today

Today, the good people of Iceland go to the polls for what has been described as the most important vote in their history. They vote on whether or not to have a new Constitution. The stakes couldn’t be higher and the ramifications could spread far beyond Iceland’s shores.  Icelandic writer Hallgrímur Helgason explains the background.


This coming Saturday (today) a referendum will be held in Iceland. The people can say yes, we think we need a new constitution, or no, we think the old one is just fine. Once again Iceland is at a crossroads. A new constitution has been drafted and now it’s up to us to say if we think our country needs a fresh start.

With the big crash in October 2008, when all the Icelandic banks fell in the same week and the country found itself on the brink of national bankruptcy, people lost all faith in politicians, the whole political infrastructure, governmental institutions as well as bankers and businessmen. It was a total nervous breakdown of the Icelandic system. Iceland was in a state of shock.

First came sadness and mourning, then anger and fire, followed by a bloodless revolution and finally a leftist clean-up government, full of pride-swallowing compromises Obama-style. Slowly the land was brought back on its feet, but anger remained, though the loud swearing and bully-blogging now has mellowed into 24-hour whining on Facebook.

The guilty bankers and businessmen still go unpunished, hiding in luxury restaurants abroad, making jokes about the people, who still struggle at home, trying to repair the damage they left behind. The politicians, who steered us over the edge, with flawless inactivity, are mostly gone, though some linger on.

The man who was Minister of Business Affairs in 2008 still seeks re-election, to much sighing and eye-rolling, and the man who was head of the Central Bank (the world’s only one to go bankrupt) is now the editor of a big newspaper, and the fiercest critic of the people rebuilding his old bank and the economy. Sometimes life is just that simple.

But the political system has not changed and the Independence Party (the Fianna Fail of Iceland) still has not made their inevitable housecleaning. For a century it was the ruling force of Iceland. For the decades leading up to the crash it practically owned Iceland, from coast to courts, when it played out its free-market Thatcherian experiment that for a time was dubbed “The Icelandic Wirtschaftswunder” but eventually came to be known as one of the biggest economical bubbles in history. After the big crash, the Independence Party was forced out of government, and then suffered a heavy blow in the first post-crash elections in 2009. But according to the recent polls it’s gaining its former strength. We’re a bit afraid that this Fianna Fail will become our Gonna Fail.

Parliamentary elections are set for April 2013, and we know that if the Gonna Fail Guys will be back in charge, there won’t be any more housecleaning on the national level. No more thinking of a fresh start, to do things differently. We’ll go back to the old system of grown men in suits talking to grown men suits about grown men in suits. We’ll go back to the evil threesome of Money, Politics and Friends. That’s why, before this happens, we have to get a new constitution in place. We can’t afford to lose our country again. We want to build a decent and stable society, a society for all, a goodhearted meritocracy. And this will not be easy. This is quite a task. Since the Icelandic nation is so small, it only takes a handful of corrupt individuals to gain power. That’s why we’re in such a hurry. That’s why we need to put things straight. That’s why we have to vote yes on Saturday, yes to a new constitution. And that is also why the Gonna Fail Guys are voting no.

The old constitution dates from our Day of Independence in 1944, a “temporary” wartime thing, hurriedly drafted on the previous ones, dating from 1920 and 1874, the latter written by a Danish king for a Danish colony. Looking at those dates, a constitutional update is long overdue.

The new constitution is based on the outcome of a National Forum held in 2010 of one thousand citizens picked randomly from the national register. The people opposing it now claim those thousand people were “misled by the leftist government.”

The new constitution was written by a specific panel of 25 people picked in a referendum out of a pool of 500 people offering their services.

The people opposing a new constitution did not vote in that referendum. One even measured the thickness of the voting ballots and the height of the voting booths and managed to convince the Supreme Court of Iceland who annulled the referendum based on those charges. (!) So the promised Constitutional Assembly was turned into a Constitutional Council, but with a full mandate from the parliament. The opposition now calls its members “a bunch of leftist lunatics.” But let’s look at the main points of the constitution draft.

The new constitution states that a certain number of the population can call for a referendum on a certain issue. The opposition calls the referendum on Saturday “undemocratic.” The new constitution states that all our national resources shall be commonly owned by the Icelandic people.

And this is the main issue. Some privileged people might lose their privilege. For example, the present quota system in the fishing industry is totally feudal, with 20 sea barons “owning” the un-fished cod in the sea. They do so because “they always have” and because “they bought it from each other.” (Yes, some people have become rich by selling other people the right to fish “their” fish in the sea.) Of course, the sea barons fight the hardest against a new constitution, pouring their money into propaganda newspapers, websites and TV programs. Their lawyers and politicians now try their best to confuse people with lawspeak for lunatics: “What exactly does “commonly owned” mean?” The new constitution also states that in parliamentary elections all votes shall carry the same weight.

In the present system the votes of people living around the coastline carry more weight than people living in the city. The sea barons all live around the coastline.

The road leading up to the referendum on Saturday has been bumpy, to say the least. The opposition has been fierce and strong. Our system is still full of Gonna Fail Guys or people appointed by the Gonna Fail Guys. To give you an example: The Supreme Court that annulled the first referendum was all appointed by GFG. The main sponsors of the GFG are the sea barons. In parliament the GFG managed to delay the upcoming referendum by four months, by holding the parliament hostage for weeks by 24 hour filibustering.

So there is a battle going on. The battle of Iceland. A battle between the old castle, now out of power, but full of money, and the people in the square, the people who have some power for the time being, but are deadly afraid it won’t last more than this coming winter. To safeguard themselves they want to write a new set of rules before the Gonna Fail Game starts again. This is why the referendum on Saturday is quite important.

Hallgrímur Helgason is an Icelandic writer and artist. His best known books are ‘101 Reykjavik’ and ‘The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning. This article appeared in The Reyjavik Grapevine and in today’s edition of the Danish paper Politiken.

Comments (12)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. Andy Anderson says:

    I found this article very informative.
    There is little doubt that Iceland’s response to the banking crisis has been the most effective of all the countries hit by it,and was certainly much more effective than Britain’s response. It therefore surprises me that Iceland’s current Government are not very popular and confident of re-election.

  2. Well done Bella for a measured report on the situation in Iceland.

  3. Braco says:

    ‘Early results released shortly before midnight indicate that roughly two thirds, or 68.3 percent, of voters in today’s advisory referendum voted in favor of Iceland adopting the draft constitution prepared by the Constitutional Council. Turnout in Reykjavík South electoral district is estimated at 51.4 percent, RÚV reports.’

  4. picpac67 says:

    That’s good news, if true (a victory for the ‘yes’ vote). Good to see someone stating clearly how important a constitution is (contrary to Brian Wilson’s claim reported here recently) and how vital it is that a constitution is written by representatives of “the people” – not representatives of the power-hungry so-called ‘elites’. It’s time a strong movement for a constitutional assembly for Scotland was launched – otherwise independence will find the people at the mercy of the same kind of rogues unchecked political power breeds everywhere.

  5. Iceland is the best improved economy in Europe, with unemployment dropping to 4.5%, and have recouped the massive debt they were dropped into by their government and banks; all this in 4 years, and not by the E.U.’s ‘Austerity’ measures neither !

    Iceland did it ‘their way’, a mixture between ring-fenced financing ‘capital’ growth, and sensible public cuts. This is what can happen when a nation isn’t subject to the E.U’s horrendous way of Austerity !

    For all them in SNP, that think that sucking-up to every E.U. whim is the best way to get independence; think again !
    We can get independence for Scotland, without being completely subject to E.U. diktat.

  6. bellacaledonia says:

    Seems like there is a healthy Yes vote for rewriting the Icelandic Constitution. It should be stressed – the article didnt make it crystal clear – that the referendum is consultative and non-binding. But it’ll be problematic for Icelandic government to ignore it.

    There are BIG lessons here for Scotland on how to involve the people in the drafting of a Constitution.


    1. picpac67 says:

      Involving the people in drafting a constitution will be a big struggle. I can’t imagine any of the political parties – except the Greens – supporting it. The last thing they want is real democracy i.e. power-sharing, with the people having a deciding vote on major issues – as in Ireland, Switzerland and elsewhere – and able to share in setting the political agenda through rights of initiative and binding referendum. But that’s a goal worth fighting for.

  7. bellacaledonia says:

    From Hootsman:

    Interesting bit here: “80 per cent had voted to declare all non-privately owned natural resources as “national property.” Conservative opposition parties hate that bit!

    From the way I’ve read it this affects fishing and I guess sea beds too if say oil was found offshore……

  8. Bella, the Artic shelf has massive deposits of oil, (22%; (, and among other countries like Russia, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Faroes, and Iceland have a ‘share’ in this Artic-Shelf’ oil.

    Scotland has just as much oil left in our new deep-water fields off the west coast of Scotland, as we’ve already pulled out in the last 40 years from our east coast fields.

    Scotland, (according to the SNP), have £2 trillion left to pull up from our existing fields off the east coast of Scotland, and the new west coast fields will be worth as much as another £10 trillion.

    Vote ‘Yes’ for Scottish independence; you’d be crazy not to !

  9. Karen Marie says:

    I hope they don’t plan joining the EU, that would be economic suicide for them, with its centralist policies…

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.