If you think that Europe’ s far north is populated by quiet and submissive citizens living under polar lights, then think again! The Arctic region is full of volcanic people power energy. Let me take you on tour of a remote region and begin in central Reykjavik where the democratic heart beats fast.
It is 4.30 am in the morning. Sunday, October 29. Thousands of people of all walks of life around me on Austurstraeti in the Icelandic capital: they are shouting, they are laughing, dancing and celebrating.
This is not just another legendary party night in Reykjavik 101 (named after the postal code of the central district of the city of 150,000 people). It’s election night and fairly regular occurrence. “It has become an annual thing, at least,” says Friðbjörg. The 32-year-old teacher and mother of three children adds: “We love it to show our politicians, what we want.”
Almost 82% of eligible Icelanders turned out last Saturday to elect yet another national parliamentexternal link, the third in four years. On other occasions, the people of Iceland recently also elected presidents, municipal councils and a constitutional convention. The latter produced a new constitutionexternal link to replace the old one, which dates back to colonial times, when the Danes were king here.
The constitutional conventionexternal link was prepared by a representative group of 1,000 Icelandic citizens, who defined a priority list of reformsexternal link. In a next step, a 25-member strong council drafted a forward-looking document.
Against the backdrop of the profound crisis following the crash of Iceland’s banks a decade ago, the 25 members proposed a massive democratic upgrade, giving the people a direct say in the agenda-setting and decision-making of this nation in the middle of the Northern Atlantic Ocean.
“God Bless Iceland”
“We did a great job, raised awareness around the world, but have achieved very little at home”, says Salvör Nordal, I meet an early morning in Kaffitar – a famous coffeeshop on Bankastræti.
Nordal, who taught ethics at the University of Iceland before being elected president of the constitutional council, is now the national ombudsman for childrenexternal link.
The constitutional amendment wanted to replace the powerful plebiscitary prerogatives of the head of state with a certain number of citizens. “We as citizens should have the right to make proposals through initiatives and control the lawmakers with referendums,” says Nordal. In a 2012 popular voteexternal link more than 70% of the Icelanders approved these proposals.
However, no such rights have been implemented until today. The national parliament has simply overlooked the will of the people.
Under the current constitution two subsequent parliaments must ratify such changes. This is a déjà vu of what happened in the second half of the 00s, when Iceland frantically expanded online banks around the world and at some point had a banking sector equivalent ten times the national income.
Swiss-Swedish author and journalist Bruno Kaufmann has set off on a world tour to explore the state of democracy visiting more than 20 countries on 4 continents until May 2018.
swissinfo.ch will publish a weekly Notebook and multimedia reports by Kaufmann over the next few months as part of its coverage of direct democracy issues.
Kaufmann's democracy world tour is mainly sponsored by the Swiss Democracy Foundationexternal link, where he is the director of international cooperation. The Swiss Democracy Foundation hosts various projects and platforms linked to participatory and direct democracy across the globe, including Democracy Internationalexternal link, the Direct Democracy Navigatorexternal link and the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europeexternal link.end of infobox
Most leaders joined that ride of the fearless economic Vikings. On October 8, 2008, the ruling conservative government in an emotional nationwide address accepted the economic disaster by declaring “God Bless Iceland”.
But this wasn’t to the liking of average Icelanders. They took to the streets of their towns and villages and peacefully and emphatically requested the government and parliament to step down. They also urged the president not to support a bail-out deal with creditors in the Netherlands and Britain, using public money to pay for failed private banks. As a result, two national ballotsexternal link were held on the so-called Icesave-deal, which would have put the country under foreign financial pressure for decades.
“We managed to transform the popular rage into constructive people power,” says Magnus Arni Skulasson, a co-founder of InDefence, a campaign group which fought the Icesave-deals and won the two popular votes
Having served as an advisor for parliament and government, Skulasson now runs his own political consultancy. “The democratic momentum has not gone, but we need more patient commitment to introduce reforms like the initiative and referendum rights at the local and national level step by step,” he says.
Time, patience, commitment
This is something I have noticed many times in recent years. Engaged and highly motivated citizens around the world, propelled into super-activity by blatant injustice and obvious wrongdoings of their leaders, succeed in bringing down a government or parliament. But then they go home and let others, who are much less interested in change, carry out the reforms.
From the people power revolution in the Philippines in the late 1980s to the Catalan autonomists in our days, we have seen many disappointed democracy fighters. Too often their strong commitments were kidnapped by radical forces and power-grabbing political parties.
The possible consequences: frustrated citizens and the election of populist leaders with little interest in democratic reform.
In Iceland, continuous elections have basically changed the full parliament (of 63 members) in the last decade, but not the manner of decision-making.
But this is exactly what has happened in other parts of the Arctic region on my latest stop of the #ddworldtour.
“Welcome to Barentsburg, this is Russia,” says Andrej Nimkov. He meets me in one of the planet’s most northern towns at the 78 degrees parallel. It’s raining and the scenery is somewhat unreal.
“We believe in communism,” says a big banner on a massive concrete building. In front of it is a statue of none other than Vladimir Iljitsch Lenin. The Russian revolutionary figure is mostly folklore for tourist.
While Barentsburg remains a company-town run by the Russian coal mining company Arktikugol, the archipelago of more than 60’000 km2 but only 3,000 people has seen a remarkable democratic awakeningexternal link recently. It is an international territory under Norwegian administration and (alongside the Åland Islands) one of the few remaining achievements of the League of Nations, which was established after the First World War as a global predecessor of the United Nations.
In Longyearbyenexternal link, the capital city of Svalbard, Mayor Arild Olsen confirms: “We can become a laboratory of the future, based on the preferences and wishes of our citizens.”
Finnish direct democracy platform
It is during my third and final stop on my northern tour that I discover another innovative option of engaging people in direct democracy. In the Finnish capital, Helsinki. I meet Niklas Wilhelmsson from the justice ministry. He is the chief advisor to the minister on democratic affairs. This may seem rather abstract to most of us. However, as one of the coordinators of the official online platform for direct democracyexternal link, Wilhelmsson oversees a fascinating project to encourage Finnish citizens to participate.
“We offer citizens, municipalities and nationwide organisations a platform to make their voices heard and gather signatures for initiatives,” says Wilhelmsson. Based on a reform of the Finnish constitution seven years ago, citizens can put an issue on the agenda of the national parliament if they gather at least 50,000 statements of support.
More than 600 such initiatives have been launched in recent years, and some of the them – including the citizens’ initiative to allow for same-sex marriageexternal link – have made it into national law.
This is of course a far cry from the feverish atmosphere of the election night in downtown Reykjavik, but it proves that change is possible. – All you need is a little bit of patience, confidence and the ability for a lasting dialogue.
#ddworldtour Notebook Coming up next week: “How Asian Megacities may change the path of citizen power worldwide”
Follow the tour on Twitter @kaufmannbruno Instagram @democracyreporter Facebook /people2power.info