The Constitutional Council – General Information
The Constitutional Council hands over the bill for a new constitution
Reykjavik, 29 July 2011
The Constitutional Council presented the Speaker of Althingi, Mrs. Ásta Ragnheidur Jóhannesdottir, with the bill for a new constitution in Idnó, today (Download PDF version). The bill was unanimously approved by all delegates, at the last meeting of the Council, on Wednesday 27 July 2011. The bill assumes that from now on, changes to the constitution will be submitted to a vote by all who are eligible to vote in Iceland, for either approval or rejection. All delegates agree that the population should be given the chance to vote on the new constitution before Althingi’s final vote on it. In the case of ideas arising to make changes to the bill prepared by the Constitutional Council, the delegates of the Council declare themselves ready to revert to the matter before a national referendum is held.
The bill starts with a prologue and contains a total of 114 articles in 9 chapters. The bill’s prologue starts with the following words: „We, who inhabit Iceland, want to create a fair society, where everyone is equal. Our different origins enriches all of us as a whole and together we have the responsibility for the legacy of the generations, land and history, nature, language and culture.“
The main themes which the Constitutional Council has observed during its work have been these three: Distribution of power, transparency and responsibility. The Council has strived to increase the distribution of power with a clearer division between the three branches of power. Furthermore it provides for an increased public participation in decision-making, also leading to further distribution of power. The Council put much emphasis on a clear and intelligible presentation of the constitution, regarding the wording and overall structure, as well as making it clear who has power according to the constitution and as a consquence responsibility.
The Chapter on Human Rights has been revised and is now called Human Rights and Nature. The Principle of Equality is more detailed than in the present constitution and especially provides that all shall be granted the right to live with dignity. A provision is made that by law, all children shall be granted the protection and care required for their well-being. With the emphasis on increased transparency and duty of information of the government, it strives to better ensure civil rights against the authorities. The rights of media are put in the constitution and freedom of information is increased, it is especially provided that everyone is free to collect and distribute information and that public administration shall be transparent.
Other new items in the Chapter on Human Rights and Nature are articles on Icelandic nature and environment and an article on resources, which states that resources not under private ownership are owned collectively and eternally by the people of Iceland. A new article is introduced providing that authorities should inform the public about the state of the environment and nature and the effect of land development on it.
During the revision of the constitution, emphasis was put on the distribution of power and to increase the separation between the legislative power and the executive power. Many of the changes will improve the legislative work of the Parliament. A special emphasis was put on strengthening the Parliament’s role in supervision and financial management and the chapter on Althingi has many new items looking towards that. Furthermore, several articles call for a qualified majority of Members of Parliament, such as for the election of the Speaker of Althingi, intended to increase consultation between the majority and minority of the Members of Althingi. A new institution, Lögrétta (the Law Council), is established, with the role of examining whether laws are in accordance with the constitution or not.
The bill includes several new items intended to ensure the right of the public to a democratic participation in decision-making. According to the bill 10% of the electorate can demand a national referendum on laws passed by Althingi and 2% of the electorate can produce a legislative proposal to Althingi. With these changes, Iceland will be among the nations which best ensures the right of the public to participate in public decisions, or direct democracy.
The electoral system has undergone complete revision. All votes throughout the country are equal. A voter can select individual candidates across lists, but the legislator can stipulate that the vote is narrowed down to lists in one constituency or the national lists of the same political parties. Number of constituencies shall be from one to eight.
The President shall not stay in office for more than three terms according to the bill and no government Minister can hold the same office for more than 8 years. Furthermore, the Prime Minister is elected directly by Althingi, following parliamentary elections; a direct parliamentary democracy. A novelty is introduced, that with a vote of no-confidence of the Prime Minister, a suggestion of his successor must be included. Should a Member of Parliament be appointed government Minister, he shall withdraw from his seat in Parliament during his time in office as a government Minister, and be replaced by his substitute. Articles on Ministers and the Government are more detailed than in the current constitution. A provision is made that the Government has collective powers and responsibilities and makes decisions as such, in important and policy-making matters. Also, a provision is made about the duty of information and the duty of truth of Ministers to the Parliament and ensured that competence and objectivity shall prevail for official appointments.
A new chapter on the judiciary is submitted, with the Supreme Court defined as the highest court of the state. Further provisions are made in the bill about jurisdiction of courts, appointments of judges and their independence.
Emphasis is put on increased autonomy of local authorities. A principle of subsidiarity is presented, which means that those parts of public service which are considered best served locally, should be in the hands of local authorities or associations or organizations acting on their behalf. Local authorities and their associations/organizations shall be consulted during the preparation of laws concerning their affairs.
A special chapter on foreign affairs is presented. It states that it is allowed to sign international agreements, which includes a pooling of sovereignity to international organizations of which Iceland is a member, for the purpose of peace and economic co-operation. The pooling of sovereignity shall always be revocable. Should Althingi consent to the ratification of a treaty which entails a transfer of sovereignity, the decision shall always be put to a binding national referendum for passing or rejection. The decision of supporting actions involving the use of force, other than those which Iceland is obliged to according to international law, shall depend on the decision of Althingi.
The delegates of the Constitutional Council is a group of various people with diverse opinions, education and experience in life. Each and everyone has taken a stance to matters based on their own beliefs and opinions. During the process, the Council has consulted the Report of the Constitutional Committee, as well as the result of the National Forum 2010. The public has had wide access to the work of the Council, primarily by writing comments, totaling 3600, as well as sending their suggestions, numbering approximately 370, to the Council’s website. The idea that the public had their saying in the revision of the constitution has thus been preserved. In that way, the bill of the Council has little by little taken shape during discussion between the delegates themselves and with open exchange of opinion with the community. The Constitutional Council now presents the bill to the Parliament and to the people. Explanatory notes on the bill, reflecting the discussion within and outside of the Council, will be handed over to Althingi next week.
The Constitutional Council expects that the open discussion of recent months on constitutional matters will continue.
For further information, please contact Mrs. Berghildur Erla BERNHARDSDÓTTIR, the Constitutional Council’s Press Officer, at tel. (+354-) 694-5149.
The role of the Constitutional Council
The role of the Constitutional Council is to discuss the Constitutional Committee Report and prepare a bill about a revised constitution, taking into consideration the results of the National Forum 2010. The Constitutional Council decides which parts shall be revised and/or suggests new provisions or chapters be added to the current Constitution. The Constitutional Council has three to four months to complete its role and is comprised of 25 delegates.
When the Council has come to an agreement about a bill about a revised constitution the bill will be sent to Althingi for processing. The revised constitution does not come into force unless the requirements of the current Constitution are fulfilled and these requirements state that Althingi has the final word with voting between two discussions.
General meetings of the whole Constitutional Council are called Council Meetings. All members of the Council participate in those meetings. Council Meetings are open to the public and anyone can attend while there is enough room.
According to a parliamentary resolution about the Constitutional Council the Council shall discuss the following matters in particular:
- The foundation of the Icelandic Constitution and its basic concepts.
- The organisation of the legislative- and executive powers and their limits.
- The role and position of the President of the Republic.
- The independence of the courts and their supervision of other holders of state authority.
- Provisions about elections and the constituency system.
- Democratic public participation e.g. in the timing and arrangement of referendum, including a bill about constitutional laws.
- Transfer of state authority to international organisations and handling of foreign affairs.
- Environmental affairs, such as regarding ownership and utilisation of natural resources.
The Constitutional Council may decide to discuss more topics than those mentioned above.
A bill submitted to Althingi
Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir submitted a bill to the Parliament about an advisory Constitutional Assembly, on 4 November 2009, which would have the task to review the Constitution. In a statement accompanying the bill the reasons why ideas about a Constitutional Assembly had been revivified were said to be mainly due to the extensive social discourse about the need to review the basis of the Icelandic administration following the collapse of the banks and the economic meltdown of the Icelandic economy. Demands had risen about the need to review various ground rules of the Icelandic administrative infrastructure such as the organisation of the legislative- and executive powers and the separation between the two. Furthermore to look into the regulations about the responsibilities of the holders of the executive powers and their supervision of the authorities as well as the possibility of direct public participation in the decision-making, by using referendums. In this social discourse the focus had been on the Icelandic Constitution and the fact that an actual democratic discourse had never taken place in Iceland about how these topics should be handled by the Icelandic Parliament.
The foundation was still that of the Kingdom of Iceland from the year 1874 which in no way reflected the reality of Icelandic politics. Furthermore the bill showed that due to the fact that political parties had not succeeded in reaching an agreement about necessary amendments to the current constitution, there was a proposal that a special Constitutional Assembly be formed with elected representatives who would take on this important task.
There were some amendments to the bill made by Althingi before it became an Act in June 2010. The main change was that the Assembly itself was to take two to four months instead of 11 months and a Constitutional Committee was to prepare the specialized material for the Assembly. The Act also stated that a National Forum of one thousand people should be held in order to find out the nation’s viewpoints on the core values of the Icelandic Constitution. The Act received the support of 39 Members of the Parliament, 11 abstained, one voted against and 11 were absent.
Act on a Constitutional Assembly, committees and personnel
According to the Act on a Constitutional Assembly no. 90/2010 an advisory Constitutional Assembly was appointed to revise the Constitution of the Icelandic Republic. The Assembly was to be composed of 25 to 31 delegates to be elected in public elections. The elections were to be held no later than 30 November 2010, by secret ballot. In addition to the aforementioned, the Act stated that when the Constitutional Assembly had agreed on a bill about a Constitutional Law, it was to be submitted to the Parliament for processing. The Act stated that two committees should be appointed, a Preparation Committee and a Constitutional Committee. The Preparation Committee had the role of preparing and organizing the Assembly as well as the National Forum. The role of the Constitutional Committee was to prepare and organize the National Forum as well as process the results from the National Forum and collect available material and information relating to constitutional matters which could be useful to the Constitutional Assembly. The committee should also present ideas on amendments to the Constitution, to the Assembly. The following people were appointed by the Parliament to form the Constitutional Committee: Gudrun Petursdottir, Adalheidur Amundadottir, Agust Thor Arnason, Björg Thorarensen, Elly Katrin Gudmundsdottir, Njördur P. Njardvik and Skuli Magnusson. The committee hired Gudbjörg Eva Baldursdottir as an Assistant.
The following people formed the Preparation Committee: Thorsteinn Magnusson, Sigrun Benediktsdottir and Pall Thorhallsson. The Preparation Committee hired Thorsteinn Fr. Sigurdsson as General Manager of the Preparation Committee in August 2010. Berghildur Erla Bernhardsdottir was the Public Relations Manager of the National Forum and later the Constitutional Assembly. Agusta Karlsdottir started working in the office of the Constitutional Assembly in October and Finnur Magnusson was the Technical Manager of the National Forum and the Constitutional Assembly. In August an office was rented at Borgartun 24, Reykjavik for the employees of the Preparation Committee and the Constitutional Committee. Then a search started for convenient housing for the Assembly. Offices were found in the building at Ofanleiti 2, Reykjavik. The Assembly's office was moved there at the end of 2010. In the Assembly’s office all the preparations for the National Forum 2010 took place together with the preparations for the Constitutional Assembly.
The National Forum 2010
The National Forum was held in 6 November 2010 and was a great success. Around 950 people participated in the event, and some 200 worked behind the scenes to ensure a smooth execution. The format and the discussion process of the National Forum was partly based on the experience which was acquired during a similar gathering 2009. At the end of the Forum, participants were asked about their views of its organization and impact. A total of 93% felt that the results would be of use to the constitutional assembly . Ninety-seven percent were satisfied with the Forum organization, 95% felt that the forum was a success, and 75% felt that the actual execution of the forum was exemplary.
Elections for the Constitutional Assembly
The nomination deadline for candidacy for the Constitutional Assembly was 26 October 2010. There were a total of 522 candidates, 30% of which were women and 70% were men. About 9% of Icelandic citizens signed a commendatory letter for a candidate. The Ministry of Justice and Human Rights had introductions of the candidates for the Constitutional Assembly on the webpage: www.kosning.is The Ministry also published a brochure with information about the candidates and the elections which was distributed to all homes in the country. The candidates could also place introductions about themselves on the webpages: dv.is, svipan.is, wikipedia.com and on facebook.com/stjornlagathing.
RUV - The Icelandic National Broadcasting Service broadcasted over 50 radio shows where the candidates introduced themselves. The elections for the Constitutional Assembly took place on 27 November 2010. Various novelties, such as the STV election system were used for the first time in Iceland, the candidates were elected as individuals and the country was one constituency. The results of the elections were known on 30 November 2010 and 25 delegates were elected, 15 men and 10 women who received their credentials on 2 December 2010. A total of 83,531 people took part in the elections which was 35.95% participation.
Invalidation of the elections for the Constitutional Assembly
Three complaints were received by the Icelandic Supreme Court in December 2010 about the elections to the Constitutional Assembly.
Oral proceedings on the complaints were made in the Supreme Court on 12 January 2011. Two complainants pleaded their cases and the Chairman of the Parliamentary Elections Committee and the administrative director of the Ministry of Internal Affairs spoke on behalf of the authorities. The elected delegates were given an opportunity to express themselves, which two of them did. About two weeks later, on 25 January 2011 the Supreme Court determined to invalidate the elections. The Court ruled that a series of problems made the vote problematic, such as that the ballot papers were marked with series of numbers that could make them traceable. Furthermore, in some polling stations cardboard partition walls were used instead of traditional polling booths, making it possible to see the voter’s ballot paper by standing right behind him. The majority of the judges also ruled that it was against the law to prohibit voters to fold the ballot paper, but two of the six judges didn’t consider this particular matter problematic. The ballot boxes were not considered satisfactory as they could not be locked and they were easy to open up. Finally the counting of the votes had not been done openly. The Supreme Court also found it problematic that representatives of the delegates were not allowed to be present at the voting and the counting of the votes. The ruling took into consideration all the various issues that were problematic and in light of this, the elections were invalidated.
The appointment of the Parliamentary Committee
Following the invalidation of the elections for the Constitutional Assembly the Prime Minister, having consulted the leaders of the political parties of the Icelandic Parliament, appointed an advisory group pertaining to the ruling of the Supreme Court. The group was to analyse the situation created by the invalidation and make suggestions about how to continue the work of revising the Constitution. The advisory group turned in their results on 24 February 2011 suggesting that the Parliament appoint an advisory Constitutional Council by a parliamentary resolution. The delegates who received the greatest number of votes in the elections to the Constitutional Assembly would be offered a seat on the Council. Their task would be to take over and discuss the Constitutional Committee Report and make suggestions about changes to the Constitution of the Republic of Iceland. In this way the preparations that had already been made would not be wasted and the setback in the review process almost none. This opinion was supported by the representatives of four political parties: Samfylking (Social Democratic Alliance), Vinstri hreyfingin – grænt framboð (Left-Green Movement), Framsóknarflokkurinn (Progressive Party) and Hreyfingin (Movement). The representative of Sjálfstæðisflokkurinn (Independence Party) had a dissenting opinion.
Agreement on a parliamentary resolution
A parliamentary resolution based on a proposition to appoint a Constitutional Council was approved on 24 March with 30 votes, 21 were against and 7 abstained. Five Members of the Parliament were absent. In accordance with the resolution Althingi offered the 25 delegates whom the Parliamentary Elections Committee had assigned a seat in the elections for the Constitutional Assembly, a seat on the Council, or else the persons next in line according to the information about the results of the counting published by the Parliamentary Elections Committee. Their task would be to take over and discuss the Constitutional Committee Report and make recommendations about changes to the Constitution of the Republic of Iceland.
The Constitutional Council shall deliver their recommendations to Althingi in the form of a bill to the Constitutional Law at the end of June 2011 but may ask for an extension of one month. A total of 24 of the 25 who were elected for the Constitutional Assembly accepted the offer to take a seat in the Council. Iris Lind Saemundsdottir, who was the 26th in the elections for the Constitutional Assembly, also joined the Council instead of Inga Lind Karlsdottir who did not accept her seat.
The Constitutional Council formed on 6 April
The Constitutional Council was officially formed on 6 April. On the occasion the Constitutional Committee, which was appointed by Althingi, delivered their report. It contained well-grounded options for amendments to the Constitution. The Committee’s work took into account the main sentiments and opinions that came out of the National Forum in 2010 and these sentiments were intertwined in all the Committee’s discussions and recommendations.
The report is in two volumes, a total of 700 pages. It can be found here on the Council’s webpage. Salvör Nordal was appointed the Chairman of the Constitutional Council and Ari Teitsson Vice-chairman, at the second meeting of the Council which was held a day after it was formed.
Working procedures of the Constitutional Council
The Council soon agreed on a procedure for their work and the delegates divided themselves into three workgroups; A, B and C. The groups have a total of 14 topics to discuss, which is according to a parliamentary resolution about the Constitutional Council as well as propositions in the Constitutional Committee’s Report.
Group A is working on the following topics: Basic values, citizenship and national language, the structure of the Constitution and its division into chapters, natural resources and environmental issues and human rights, including the national church. The delegates in group A are: Silja Bara Omarsdottir, Chairman, Örn Bardur Jonsson, Vice-chairman, Arnfridur Gudmundsdottir, Dögg Hardardottir, Freyja Haraldsdottir, Illugi Jökulsson, Katrin Oddsdottir and Thorvaldur Gylfason. The Secretary of group A is Andres Ingi Jonsson.
Group B is working on the following topics: The foundation of the Icelandic Constitution, the role and position of the President of Iceland, the role and responsibilities of the Parliament, the government, the responsibilities of the President and the Ministers, the obligations of the executive power and the status of the municipalities. The delegates in group B are: Katrin Fjeldsted, Chairman, Vilhjalmur Thorsteinsson, Vice-chairman, Astros Gunnlaugsdottir, Eirikur Bergmann Einarsson, Erlingur Sigurdarson, Gisli Tryggvason, Petur Gunnlaugsson and Thorhildur Thorleifsdottir. The Secretary of group B is Gudbjörg Eva Baldursdottir.
Group C is working on the following topics: The Constitutional Council, democratic participation of the public (including amending the Constitution), the independence of the judicial courts and their supervision regarding other holders of the state authority, parliamentary elections, constituency system and Members of Parliament, international contracts and foreign affairs. The delegates in group C are: Pawel Bartoszek, Chairman, Iris Lind Saemundsdottir, Vice-chairman, Andres Magnusson, Ari Teitsson, Gudmundur Gunnarsson, Lydur Arnason, Omar Thorfinnur Ragnarsson and Thorkell Helgason. The Secretary of group C is Agnar Bragason.
The Constitutional Council divides its time into two periods. The first period is discussion time when the groups work their way through the topics in the Constitution. At the end of the period the topics are joined in a draft proposition for the Constitution. The Constitutional Council discusses the draft in two sessions and completes its work by forming a proposition for the Constitution which will be submitted to Althingi. In accordance with the parliamentary resolution about the Constitutional Council the proposition shall be submitted before the end of June or July if the deadline is extended by one month.
Working on the topics
On Mondays and Tuesdays the groups work separately on their topics and recommendations for amendments to the Constitution. Before the recommendations are introduced at a weekly open Council meeting (on Thursdays), they are presented to the delegates of the other groups (on Wednesday meetings) who can then give their comments. When a group is ready with recommendations it introduces them at an open Council meeting where all the delegates are present. At that point the recommendations are also put on the Council’s webpage, into the progress document for presentation where the public can give their comments to the recommendations.
Finally a special committee takes the recommendations and the comments from other delegates and the public. The next step is submitting the recommendations to the Council meeting for processing. If the meeting accepts them they are placed in the Constitutional Council’s process document and again the public is given an opportunity to comment on the recommendations. Although a text has been placed in the process document it can be taken up again and changed during the preparation process. In this way the public can follow the Council’s preparation process in making a recommendation for a new constitution. The process document will not be final until a final draft proposition has been made. All recommendations can be amended, even those that have been placed in the progress document.
The public’s participation in the work process
The Constitutional Council is eager to make sure the public can be up to date while the work is in progress. It's possible to see the developments in the text of a prospective proposition and make comments. Furthermore, the Constitutional Council has made it possible for the public to send messages and already numerous messages have been sent to the Council. All messages are published on the Council’s website under the sender’s name (anonymous messages are not accepted) and the public can read and comment on each of them which has already created a lively discussion on the website.
In this way the Constitutional Council emphasises an open communication with the Icelandic nation and has given the people an opportunity to participate in the formation of a new Constitution of the Republic of Iceland. The Council’s work can also be seen on the major communicative media such as Facebook, Youtube and Flickr. Every day short interviews with delegates are put on Youtube and Facebook. On Thursdays at 13:00 there is live broadcast from the Constitutional Council meetings on the webpage and on Facebook. There are also schedules for all meetings, all minutes from meetings of groups, the Board and the Council as well as the Council’s work procedures. The webpage also has regular news from the Council’s work as well as a weekly newsletter. Advertisements are published in the media encouraging the public to keep track of what is going on and to make comments.
The Constitutional Council has completed its task, handed the parliament (Althing) the proposal for a new constitution and closed its office. If any further information is needed please send email to: email@example.com.