Long reads

Post-crisis Iceland: we have been living a lie but we were able to break it

How civic responsibility in Iceland looks after the crisis that made fall its three major banks and the government back in 2008-2009?

In October 2008 Iceland went bankrupt. Its three biggest banks defaulted, their combined assets were worth more than 10 times the national GDP, and the state couldn’t bail them out. Instead, Iceland itself would have to be bailed out by the IMF and the Nordic and other European countries. As a consequence of the collapse, about 50,000 people would lose their savings (in a country of around 315,000) and a quarter of homeowners would default on their mortgages. Unemployment would rise from 1% in 2007 to 8% in 2009, a very high percentage by Icelandic standards.

When the crisis exploded, most people had been utterly unaware of the dire situation and were caught off guard. By all accounts, the country was a success. By 2008, Iceland was number 1 in the UN’s Human Development Index. And during the 2000s the average Icelander had become much richer as the economy grew quickly and, between 2001 and 2007, the GDP per capita went from 28,500 to 68,400 current US dollars. The news of the collapse fell like a bomb. “It really shocked me, along with most people”, remembers veteran artist and activist Hörður Torfason. After some small impromptu protests, Hörður, today 73, arranged for a more organised gathering on Saturday 18 October 2008, setting up a stage on the square in front of parliament and inviting speakers. This became a regular weekly event where people discussed the situation, and where they ended up agreeing on a simple set of three demands: the government should resign along with the boards of the Financial Supervisory Authority and of the Central Bank. People felt betrayed by politicians, bankers, and decision-makers.

When the crisis exploded, most people had been utterly unaware of the dire situation and were caught off guard. By 2008, Iceland was number 1 in the UN’s Human Development Index.

After the winter recess, parliament reconvened on 19 January 2009 and the first item in the agenda wasn’t the crisis but the sale of alcohol in grocery shops, and then the protests became violent – at least by Icelandic standards. Demonstrators lit a bonfire (fed with the Christmas tree that had been on the square), and surrounded the parliament building and threw stones, toilet paper, fireworks and even shoes at the building and the police, who replied with pepper spray and then tear gas. When the prime minister (PM) tried to leave parliament, people surrounded his car and threw eggs and cans at it. With around 3,000 demonstrators in below zero temperatures –in a city of 120,000 and a country of 315,000–, these were the biggest protests in Iceland since 1949, when people took to the streets to oppose their country joining NATO (Iceland ended up joining anyway).

On 25 January, the minister of Commerce announced he had fired the head of the Financial Supervisory Authority, and then he resigned himself. The next day, the whole centre-right coalition government announced their resignation. And, finally, on 26 February the Central Bank governor –who was a former PM– was also forced out, which meant the protesters’ demands had been met.

An interim government made up of the centre-left opposition took office until snap elections called for 25 April. But after such a big loss of confidence in traditional political institutions, was this it? Was victory for demonstrators simply being allowed to pick one or another candidate out of the same old stock of politicians?

Rewriting the rules of the game

People never feel that empowered by elections, myself included. You go and vote, and then there is a higher system that decides what actually comes out”, says Guðrún Pétursdóttir, senior lecturer in Health Sciences at the University of Iceland. “The sense of direct influence isn’t there”.

In fact, when discussing the demands during the protests, there had also been the talk of calling for a new constitution and a new electoral system, as some wanted to rewrite the rules of the Icelandic democracy. Aware that it had to regain the people’s trust, the parliamentary majority, and government that came out of the April 2009 elections, formed by the Social Democrats and the progressive Left-Green Movement, not only picked up on the idea of rewriting the constitutions but decided to hand on the process to citizens.

It took a while, but by June 2010 a bill setting the next steps was passed. An expert committee of seven people would prepare materials for the rewriting, a National Forum of 1,000 people would discuss Iceland’s fundamental values, and then an assembly of 25 elected citizens would rewrite the constitution based on those values and guided by the expert materials.

Photo by: Jóhann Ágúst Hansen. All rights reserved.

Political parties would be excluded from the preparation and drafting stages of the new constitutional bill: they were not supposed to rewrite the rules of a game in which they were the main players. Guðrún took the position of chair of the constitutional expert committee, which also organised the National Forum. This took place on 6 November 2010 with around 950 participants drawn at random from the national registry, controlling for age, gender and geographical origin to get a representative sample of Iceland’s population.

The thousand who came felt empowered, they were proud to be there. This was new to them, this was a new kind of activity for most of them, and I think they liked being heard”, Guðrún says. “I welcomed them and spoke to them at the end, and this is one of the most beautiful events I’ve ever witnessed, it was amazing”, she says, moved by the memories of that time.

In the Forum, participants were divided into tables of around 10 people of diverse backgrounds, and trained facilitators guided the discussions while computer programmes collated people’s inputs. By the end of the discussions, the Forum concluded integrity and honesty should be the fundamental Icelandic values, and they were to be especially expected from public officials. Conclusions also stated that children should be taught ethics at schools since a very early age, that animal rights should be respected equally as human rights, and that natural resources not in private hands should be made the public property.

The government that came out of the April 2009 elections, formed by the Social Democrats and the progressive Left-Green Movement, not only picked up on the idea of rewriting the constitutions but decided to hand on the process to citizens.

The Forum also said that in the elections every person’s vote should be worth the same independently of their constituency. As it’s the case in other countries, in the Icelandic elections individual votes ended up weighing more or less, depending on the population of their constituency, which gave an oversized influence to candidates coming from the sparsely populated areas where the powerful fishing industry is based.

Not everyone was happy with the National Forum, and some people from Academia criticised the deliberative process and said the conclusions were shallow. “Of course there was no deep analysis into, ‘What do you really mean by animal rights?’, Guðrún says. “In general, the feeling (was) that we should respect animal rights, it should be a part of our constitution to respect animal rights. Many people were of that opinion: fine, let’s put it in”. Then citizens were asked to run for the election to become one of the 25 members of the constitutional assembly that would rewrite the constitution – and a total of 522 people applied.

These candidates were given airtime in the public radio to introduce themselves and their vision for the new constitution, and many also used social media to promote their candidacy. “What’s so beautiful about it is that this is normal people, most of it, it’s people from all over the country, doing whatever jobs, all ages, just talking about how they would like to change the country”, says Katrín Oddsdóttir, one of the 522 candidates who back then was a Law student and now is a human rights lawyer.

Yet, over 500 candidates to pick from seemed too many when voters were used to choosing between the well-known leaders of a few parties that spend a lot in publicity and electoral campaigning, while this time mainstream media didn’t seem interested in reporting about the campaign. Then the election itself used the “single transferable vote”, a proportional system that had never been used in Iceland and further complicated matters. The ballots had 25 lines for people to rank their preferred candidates (one or as many as they wanted), and then the votes were counted and allocated in a proportional way according to some obscure equations. Conservative parties, and in particular the Independence Party, which had been against the process since the beginning, called for their supporters to ignore the vote.

The election was held on 27 November 2010 and 25 people were elected to the assembly that would write the new constitution, and Katrín Oddsdóttir was one of them. “They remembered me because I was the woman in the orange coat from the speech, and I got elected”, she says, a wide smile on his face. Katrín had been among the first protesters back in 2008, and one day she had made a fiery speech from the stage while wearing a long orange coat. As it happened, most of the 25 people elected were like Katrín: from Reykjavík, well educated and with a public profile of some sort, and there were several university professors, journalists, and media personalities.

Turnout in the constitutional assembly election had been just 35.9%, which supporters of the process see as quite high given all the circumstances. “One out of three, that’s quite something”, Guðrun says. “There were 80,000 people (out of 232,000 eligible voters) that went through the trouble of actually going through this”.

Critics, however, said the turnout was too low for the vote to be legitimate, and some people opposing the process referred the election to the Supreme Court, which in late January 2011 declared it invalid due to technical faults like the fact that voting booths hadn’t been completely closed, and that some voters had not folded their ballots as required before casting them. Many saw this ruling as politically motivated, as most judges had been appointed by the Independence Party during its long 18 years in government before the crisis.

The elected constitutional assembly was no more but, unfazed, the governing majority in parliament decided to create a new body, now called the constitutional council, made up of the same 25 people that had been voted into the constitutional assembly, and this allowed the process to go on. This newly formed council started working in early April 2011 and was given until the end of July to deliver a reviewed constitutional text.

We felt in a historical situation, we were sitting in a room in Reykjavík University and we thought, okay, this is a moment in history where we can either walk away or we can be courageous, and even though it feels like crossing our egos, that we have to participate in (a process) that’s been so wobbly, we will have to continue and try to finish what we’ve been asked to do, for our people”, Katrín remembers. “And that also rose our high spirits, like ‘Let’s just do this’”.

The 25 had the core values produced by the National Forum, the lengthy advice and materials devised by the expert committee chaired by Guðrún, an open office space, some rooms and some computers in a former university building, three secretaries and a few staff to bring them food – and less than four months to produce a new constitution for Iceland.

They had to work during the run-up to the precious summertime when Icelanders discuss holidays and travelling (by mid-2011 the country had started to recover from the economic side of the crisis) and switch off their brains to anything else, Katrín says. And, as in the election to the constitutional assembly, most Icelandic media again showed very little interest in the work of the council of 25 citizens rewriting the Icelandic supreme law.

Katrín and her colleagues divided themselves into three committees to work on different areas: rights and natural resources, the organisation of the state, and the electoral system and other participatory mechanisms. “We decided, okay, we’re trying to do something that’s gonna change our society, so let’s try to be that change, so let’s try to be as transparent as we can because that’s what we want (politicians) to be, let’s try to be as efficient as we can because we want that from them also”, she says.

Photo by: Jóhann Ágúst Hansen. All rights reserved.

The three committees met once a week to put their work in common and discuss it, and that weekly meeting was streamed live and open to whoever wanted to attend. They also shared their main working document on a dedicated web page and on Facebook and asked people to comment and make suggestions. “We put it online and we’re like, ah, shit, now it’s gonna be crazy, the way people speak online sometimes is so ugly”, Katrín remembers. “And then it was not like that, it was very respectful and the discourse was beautiful, people were trying to help seriously, or trying to say what they thought, but they were not trying to hurt or be personal or anything like that”.

My theory is that they had been given a lot of respect by (us) saying, ‘Come do this with us’, and they repaid that respect completely with the way they spoke. And it was even the same people participating online with us that you could see on the media going like (growling), saying something horrible”, Katrín says.

We’re trying to do something that’s gonna change our society, so let’s try to be that change, so let’s try to be as transparent as we can because that’s what we want (politicians) to be, let’s try to be as efficient as we can because we want that from them. 

In the end, the council would receive 3,600 comments and 370 suggestions from the public. And the 25 also reached out to experts when working on particular aspects. So if they were writing articles about the environment, they consulted with a professor of Environmental Law. When they were writing about children’s rights, they consulted with Unicef.

We, the people who inhabit Iceland, wish to create a just society where every person has equal opportunity. Our diverse origin enriches our society and together we are responsible for the heritage of generations, our country and its history, nature, language and culture”, so begins, in its official English translation, the 25-page long text the 25-citizen council unanimously approved and handed to parliament on 29 July 2011.

In the ceremonial act, the speaker of parliament took the proposed new constitution as “something she wasn’t really wanting to accept”, Katrín says, and many MPs weren’t showing much excitement either about these 25 people bringing to parliament a new supreme law of the country.

In the spirit of the National Forum, the council hadn’t written a detailed constitution but left room for interpretation and for future laws to provide the required level of detail. The 25 had tried to write the text in a language clear enough for everyone to understand, and the new constitution provided citizens with more opportunities to participate in the political process. It stated that 2% of the electorate could make a legislative proposal to parliament, and 10% could demand a referendum about laws just passed. The text also made changes to the electoral system and said the vote of every person should have the same weight independently of the voter’s constituency.

The new constitution stressed the protection of human rights and explicitly mentioned those most vulnerable, like children and refugees, and said animal rights should be respected too. It also stated that all natural resources not in private hands would become public property, and the government would be obliged to inform the public about the status of the environment and the effect of land development on it.

The constitution strengthened the role of parliament opposite other state institutions and gave it a bigger role in supervising the state’s finances. Media freedom and freedom of information were also protected, and the text created a new institution, the Law Council, that would examine whether laws were in accordance with the new constitution.

Public reception of the proposed constitution was mixed: while progressives generally liked it, opposition parties, conservative sectors of society and parts of academia were critical of it, as they had indeed been of the whole constitutional process.

Next, parliament decided there would be a consultative referendum on the proposed constitution in October 2012. In it, citizens were asked not one but six different questions: a general one about whether they wanted this proposal to be the basis of the new constitution (67% said yes), and five questions about some of the most controversial aspects of the text (all five were supported by a clear majority). The turnout was 49%, a figure used by critics to point out that not even half of the electorate had voted.

After the referendum, parliament sent the proposed constitution to the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe made up of experts in constitutional law. In its official opinion in March 2013, the Venice Commission noted the participatory dimension of the process and welcomed the “the effort to provide increased transparency and clarity as to the functioning of institutions”.

However, the Commission was also quite critical of several aspects of the proposed constitution. It first noted the divisions in the Icelandic parliament over the proposed constitution, and then said many provisions were formulated “in too vague and broad terms”, which might be difficult to interpret, including when implementing laws. It also said the proposed institutional system was “rather complex and marked by lack of consistency”, and that the mechanisms for citizen participation appeared “too complicated” and “would need a careful review, both from a legal and political perspective”.

Public reception of the proposed constitution was mixed: while progressives generally liked it, opposition parties, conservative sectors of society and parts of academia were critical of it, as they had indeed been of the whole constitutional process.

In Reykjavík, parliament amended the proposed constitution in line with some the Venice Commission’s advice, and then finally, almost three years after the process began, the text first written by the 25 and supported by a majority of voters in a referendum was ready to be adopted as the new constitution of Iceland. For this, a simple majority in parliament needed to vote in favour of the proposed constitution, then there should be elections, and then the new parliament would again need to approve the new constitutional bill with a single majority.

By then, the general elections scheduled for April 2013 were looming, so there was very little time for parliament to discuss and vote on the new constitution. A majority of MPs, 32 out of the 63, made public declarations about their support for the proposal. Yet, blocking from parties opposed to it and a lack of decisiveness by those supposedly supporting the constitution meant there wasn’t a vote before the end of the legislature.

Then the elections brought back to power the conservative Independence and Progressive parties, which were against the constitutional process and during this latest campaign hadn’t spoken about the constitution. Once in government and with a majority in parliament, they just let the issue die off.

The idea of sidelining parliament by electing a special constitutional council, we were always against that. (…) From our point of view, if you believe you are in a democratic society the way to change the constitution is according to the constitution, not trying to sideline the normal procedures”, says Birgir Ármansson, a veteran MP with the Independence Party.

It was too big a lump for the politicians to actually chew, they felt too threatened”, Guðrun says. “(Politicians) very, very quickly fall into the trap of thinking they are better in preparing and managing and deciding what changes are to be made in society. (…) The process of the constitution is a very good example of how unable parliament is of taking the voice of the people into account (…). They listen to (people) before elections, not the entire time, no”.

That’s the key to every system: it always tries to maintain itself, that’s why it’s a system”, says Katrín, who now chairs the Constitutional Society, a small group of people still campaigning for the new constitution to be finally adopted.

Despite efforts by the Constitutional Society, the issue is not one of the hottest topics of conversation these days in Iceland. Even so, it prompted many people to say that they like the proposed constitution better. And by late 2017 it was a majority of Icelanders, 55%, who considered getting a new constitution very important or rather important, according to a poll reported then in the Icelandic press.

Digital democracy

Back during the 2008-09 protests, waking up to the fact that things in politics weren’t actually as they had seemed was a widely shared feeling. “The general consensus was that the political establishment, the political parties and the people running with them were useless”, says Gunnar Grímsson, a consultant and web designer and developer.

Another of the early ideas to fix the system was about moving to some form of direct democracy, for citizens to have a continuous way of participating in the decision-making progress. “At the time we just thought, ‘What can we do with the internet to give people more influence?’ And people at the time were, ‘Oh, we just need direct democracy, just get rid of all politicians’”, says Róbert Bjarnasson, an IT entrepreneur and environmental activist.

Róbert and Gunnar developed a website called Shadow Parliament, which by May 2009 was up and running. The site automatically retrieved the law proposals being discussed in parliament and allowed users to track and comment on these debates, and to suggest their own amendments to the bills. But the site itself wasn’t affiliated with the actual parliament, and MPs were free to listen to what people said on the site – or to just ignore it.

Photo by: Jóhann Ágúst Hansen. All rights reserved.

Shadow Parliament received attention on the Icelandic blogosphere and was spoken about on the media, and quite a few people became active on the site. But Róbert and Gunnar were surprised it wasn’t receiving more visits and actual participation. “There was so much anger in society, there were so many people that were clamouring, ‘We need to fix this, we can’t live with this, this has to be better, blah blah blah’. We thought that everybody would immediately go there”, Gunnar says.

They reckoned one of the reasons was people are more inclined to participate in decisions that affect their immediate everyday life rather than in questions of state. So using the same software technology they had created for Shadow Parliament (called Your Priorities and which they released as open source for anyone to use), Róbert and Gunnar launched a site called Shadow City in the few weeks before the Reykjavík local elections scheduled for 29 May 2010.

On Shadow City, all the parties received space to post their electoral programmes and interact with citizens, who would then be able to discuss the parties’ proposals and suggest other initiatives.

Most parties barely used Shadow City if at all, but there was one that did really make use of the site: the Best Party (that was its real name). This had originally been created as a parody of traditional parties by comedian Jón Gnarr and some friends of his, including ex-punks, singers and artists. To show the usual hollowness of parties’ programmes, the Best Party promised, first, to break all its promises, and then went on to promise building a Disneyworld park, free towels in swimming pools, a polar bear for the zoo, a drug-free parliament within 10 years… The Best Party’s 10-point plan had 13 points, and its campaign video had Jón Gnarr and his colleagues singing in Icelandic to the music of Tina Turner’s “The Best”.

Shadow City opened a section called Better Reykjavík, where people could make policy and improvement proposals for the city for the potential local government coalition partners.

People’s distrust in traditional parties was still high and, as it happened, shortly before the elections the Best Party was topping the polls and faced the possibility of actually winning. And then the Best Party decided to take advantage of Shadow City to crowdsource real policy ideas based on the users’ inputs in case it made it all the way to City Council.

Then the Best Party won the elections with 34.7% of the vote and got six out of the 15 council seats. While Jón Gnarr’s party was in conversation talks with potential coalition partners, Shadow City opened a section called Better Reykjavík, where people could make policy and improvement proposals for the city for the potential local government coalition partners. An estimated 5,000 people used the site (almost 9% of the number of voters) to create nearly 2,000 priorities, which finally were part of the agreement between the Best Party and the Social Democrats to get into a government coalition.

Better Reykjavík stayed as a site of its own, and new mayor Jón Gnarr liked it so much that he wanted to make it part of the local administration. “Bureaucrats didn’t know what to do with it because it’s so foreign to them, suddenly we’d have to have all these citizens coming to the government in some way”, Róbert says. “People were not against it, but the system very much (so), most bureaucratic systems are really resistant to change”.

After quite a few months of negotiations, in October 2011 the Reykjavík City Council signed a partnership with the non-profit Citizens Foundation –which Róbert and Gunnar had formed in December 2010– to institutionalise Better Reykjavík as part of the municipality. Since then on, the Citizens Foundation has kept running the site as a public service, and every month the top citizen priorities, overall and by category (environment, transportation, education…), go automatically into the City Council’s appropriate department’s agenda. And that’s how it is still today.

Along the way, Róbert and Gunnar had been modifying the software –Your Priorities– and the site Better Reykjavík to make the system more usable, more graphics, more simple “(It’s) about being fun. We want easy, fun, informative, educational. There’s just so much competition (online)”, says Róbert.

When they had first launched Shadow Parliament, and as it often happens in other online forums, in the comments people would end up having arguments about unrelated topics and insulting each other. So Róbert and Gunnar had ended up devising a different system to try and encourage users to have constructive discussions.

Now, on top of the page, there’s an improvement or policy proposed by some user and described by a short text, that other user can vote as good or bad. Below the proposal, there are two columns, where people can post separate short comments arguing respectively for and against the proposal. Then other users can vote up or down each argument, and that sorts them out according to popularity, in theory also rewarding constructive arguments whether they are for or against the proposal.

Based on the same idea and technology, the Citizens Foundation developed a participatory budgeting tool to be included as part of the Better Reykjavík platform. It was called Better Neighbourhoods (today, it’s just My Neighbourhood), and starting in 2012 the City Council allocated 300 million kronur of the municipal budget (about 1.86 million euros and around 0.5% of the overall budget) for projects pitched, discussed and prioritised by citizens through the site.

The projects discussed refer to infrastructure and range from renewing the pavement of some road to building a new football pitch somewhere or a children’s playground somewhere else. “Also the idea is that it’s an educational tool to teach citizens about budget, about how much things cost to build in a city, that you have limitations, you can never have everything you want”, says Róbert, who is convinced of the system’s potential both as an educational resource and as an actual decision-making tool.

The way My Neighbourhood works, first people propose, discuss and vote up or down different projects. The top proposals at the end of this phase go to a technical committee that estimates their cost. Then the projects go back to the site with this price tag, and now users may pick their favourites in a very graphic way – but up to the set amount of money for each neighbourhood, so they see very clearly how the budget is limited and one is forced to pick just some of the projects out of all those wanted by the population. In 2017, the amount given to citizens for the whole city through this system was 450 million kronur, or about 2.78 million euros.

Between 2012 and 2017, 608 citizen proposals have been approved through this system, according to the Citizens Foundation’s own figures. “Every neighbourhood we go to has ideas from citizens. When people look out of the window, (they see) they’ve been participating in this and the proof is out there, you can actually have an influence on it”, Róbert says.

When it comes to Better Reykjavík, today there are about 20,000 registered users, but overall more than 70,000 people have participated at some point since it was launched (in a city of around 122,000 people these days), and more than 6,800 proposals have been made, all according to figures by the Citizens Foundation. Of those, more than 3,000 have been formally reviewed by the City Council, and nearly a hundred citizen proposals have been approved.

Every neighbourhood we go to has ideas from citizens. When people look out of the window, they’ve been participating in this and the proof is out there, you can actually have an influence on it.

Also back in late 2011, the Citizens Foundation had launched Better Iceland, which was a revamped version of Shadow Parliament now working in a similar way to Better Reykjavík. When a given number of users endorsed or refused a particular initiative, Better Iceland would automatically send the talking points and comments to parliament. But, unlike its municipal counterpart, Better Iceland wasn’t integrated into the national administration, and MPs and parliamentary committees were still able to simply ignore any requests coming from the site. Better Iceland hasn’t achieved the buy-in Better Reykjavík has got, and another reason may be that policy- and decision-making at the national level don’t feel as immediate or personal as at the local.

By 2014, the Better Iceland site had become like an umbrella site that municipalities other than Reykjavík were using in a similar way to Better Reykjavík; and a section within the site, Dear Parliament, kept functioning in the Shadow Parliament fashion. And during the snap elections in late October 2017, ten out of the 11 parties published their manifestos on a Your Priorities site developed by the Citizens Foundation. This allowed people to discuss the policies and also to propose new ones, and attracted about 22,000 visitors.

Direct democracy’ for whom?

Apart from the potential limitations of these platforms to make people engage beyond the local level –or even beyond the level of small, highly developed cities like Reykjavík, there is an open question about what type of citizens these “direct democracy” sites attract. Besides the possibility that most active users are people already politically engaged who come from affluent backgrounds, there’s the fear that these participatory technologies may contribute to keeping behind those who already lack access to the political process because of language, education or other socio-economic barriers. Namely: immigrants, old people, the uneducated, the poor – who are already among those usually politically forgotten.

The Citizens Foundation acknowledges this risk and potential shortcomings, and one of the ways in which it aims to address them is by having machine learning helping bridge the knowledge and participatory gap to have more inclusive systems.

Since 2013, the Citizens Foundation has been working on developing an artificial intelligence-powered system it calls Active Citizen. The idea is this AI system –which would be kind of a personal digital assistant– would keep each user up to date about the issues this person is interested in so that they need only to engage with it by watching or reading or commenting or proposing an amendment to it.

Photo by: Jóhann Ágúst Hansen. All rights reserved.

In general, the idea is also about compensating for the present trend to privatise and monetise algorithms and machine learning and also to use them for policing and military purposes. “I think that if we have open source, community-owned, community-driven algorithms that are basically helping evaluate proposals, that could become an objective tool. You, as a citizen, let the algorithm know what’s your preference, what are your needs. And then the algorithm will evaluate things based on your needs”, Róbert says. “But the algorithms need to be open, they need to be non-for-profit, because how can you trust a for-profit algorithm to give you decisions on your life? They will just tell you, ‘You should buy this product and you’ll feel happy’”.

The idea behind open source algorithms, and generally open source software –in which the code is open for anyone to see, use and modify– is that in principle you can know everything about how it works, and you can adapt it to your own particular needs. In the case of public administrations, this also means not using proprietary software about which you can’t know the inner workings and which was made by commercially-oriented companies. “I don’t think Facebook should run our democracy, or Google, or Amazon, I think that will destroy whatever trust we have left in (democracy)”, Róbert says.

Your Priorities software developed by Róbert and Gunnar has also been used outside Iceland. One of the most successful examples is Estonia, itself another country taking big strides towards what some call e-democracy. Back in 2012, after a string of political scandals, the Estonian president asked grassroots organisations to come up with ideas to improve the democratic functioning of the country, and this was crowdsourced using Your Priorities. More than 50,000 people took part in the process and 2,000 proposals were submitted, according to the Citizens Foundation. The top 18 initiatives were put forward to the Estonian parliament, and –even though it took time– by December 2014 seven of those had become laws.

The idea behind open source algorithms, and generally open source software –in which the code is open for anyone to see, use and modify – is that in principle you can know everything about how it works, and you can adapt it to your own particular needs.

Your Priorities system has also been used by the National Health System in the UK and in other places, and Róbert and Gunnar have helped to set up similar systems in cities like Madrid. But for the most part, and with the possible exception of Reykjavík, it seems these sites end up engaging a very small and narrow part of the population. And it still remains to be seen whether these deliberative systems and the participatory budgeting tool can reach a critical mass of users when it comes to state policy.

As a citizen, in the Better Reykjavík project you can say if you want to spend a few krona or euros on a bench in a public park, or do you want to have a traffic light there or there, but you don’t have anything to say about the bigger issues”, says with a big smile Birgir Ármansson, the conservative MP. He notes that, before the crisis and these participatory systems, in Iceland, the parliament’s website already offered a way for people to follow and comment on law proposals (something very few people did). And he says in such a small society like Iceland’s, and even more in Reykjavík city, MPs, councillors and government officials are very approachable online and offline. “But for the government day-to-day business is better to use the old forms of representative democracy, where MPs –or the city council, or whatever body it is– have to take decisions on spending according to the revenues they get and have to deal with both sides. (…) You will have the public say, ‘Okay, we want to increase spending but lower the taxes’, and things like that, but professional politicians in parliament and in city councils have to find some balance”.

On the other side of the political spectrum, there’s more acceptance towards these participatory processes, but progressive politicians are equally aware of the limitations such systems may pose. “I think (Better Reykjavík) is quite a good model, but it doesn’t solve everything. Because I’ve been talking about (how) these processes should become institutionalised, and I firmly believe that they should be, but the processes can never substitute also the responsibility of politicians. Because sometimes you participate in all sorts of very nice processes but still you feel that nobody is really listening to you”, says Katrín Jakobsdóttir, today the Icelandic PM, but who when this interview was done was one of the opposition leaders in parliament as head of the Left-Green Movement.

Gunnar, who left the Citizens Foundation in January 2017, has grown sceptical about some aspects of online participatory systems. “It’s really quite hard to do a participation website that works well, attracts people, and makes them want to come again and again to do something, and just talking about ideas and nothing else”, he says. “If you want people to participate in something on a regular level, then it needs to be fun, it needs to be entertaining in some ways”.

A website that wants users to keep coming back to it needs to somehow reward their participation and engagement, it has to create a feeling that they are missing out on important things if they are not there. The problem is that that’s exactly what online social networks like Facebook do in order to keep people inside their platforms. And both Gunnar and Róbert think that shouldn’t be the way to replicate when it comes to democratic participatory websites, because the Facebook model generates all the wrong incentives to keep people hooked: it tends to disregard moderate and constructive debate in favour of click-bait and outrageous headlines and statements.

Striking the right balance between being fun –or even addictive– and generating a polite, respectful and constructive debate may indeed be one of the key issues for participatory sites to become attractive enough to people so that they reach a critical mass of engaged users that makes them self-sustainable. And still other questions remain open, as of how to scale up such participatory sites to deal with national issues, and in bigger and more diverse societies than Iceland’s and which may have lacked a culture of civic participation.

Citizen MPs

Back during the protests, another view was that to reclaim the political process as citizens the most effective way would be to participate through the most conventional of political actors in a representative democracy: political parties. But not simply by voting for one or another existing party every four years, as these had clearly failed in ruling Iceland. “It was so heavy on us, it was so humiliating that your country was like that, we had been fooled, with the bankers and the politicians, and we felt so betrayed”, says Margrét Tryggvadóttir, 46, an editor and active protester back then.

When the government fell and new elections were called for April 2009, some people who’d been in the demonstrations created the Citizens’ Movement (CM), a citizen-led party to run in the elections. The idea was to have a non-partisan platform that would represent the protesters’ and –as they saw it– the public interest in parliament. “And I was, ‘What should I do?’ and I said, ‘Okay, I will just run’. (…) And if I don’t do it, then my kids won’t want to live here when they grow up, so I just have to do this”, says Margrét, who finally ran as number one for one of the constituencies.

In its programme, the CM had collected the demands protesters had been asking for: a credible investigation of the economic crisis supervised by independent foreign experts, emergency measures in favour of households and businesses, increasing transparency in public administration, and the people writing their own constitution, among others. The CM saw itself as something temporary and decided that it would cease to exist or function when either it had achieved its goals or it became clear it wouldn’t achieve them.

In the elections, the Citizens’ Movement received 7.2% of the vote and Margrét was one of the four MPs the citizen party got. When a few months earlier she would’ve never imagined herself entering parliament, now she was one of the 63 MPs representing the Icelandic people in the Althingi, considered the oldest running parliament in the world, as in its original form it was founded one millennium ago, back in the year 930.

The most veteran MPs looked at these fresh faces with suspicion, and Margrét found that new MPs from the established parties could get along better with herself and her colleagues from the CM than with veteran MPs from their own parties. “We were really eager to change things, we were there to change, not to become part of the system”, Margrét says.

This eagerness, as well as the situation the crisis had created, helped the new MPs contribute to some changes that increased transparency in the way the Althingi worked, and for instance, the arm’s length principle was introduced for the distribution of public funding. It was also during this legislature that the constitutional process was launched.

But parliamentary politics was more complex than it might have looked like from the outside. “What the public can see is the room (in parliament) where everything takes place, but the public never sees what’s happening behind the scenes”, Margrét says. “The worst thing about it is that parliamentarians are trying to earn some points by doing some favours and something like that. And I didn’t want anything to do with that, because that’s not how things should work – but that’s how it does”. She particularly remembers how little interest veteran MPs showed for the constitutional process, and how they would only accept to discuss it if first new MPs like Magrét accepted compromises about other issues.

Also, what had got the CM into parliament and was its main identity trait –the fact that it wasn’t a conventional party but a movement of citizens– proved also one of its main weaknesses. Lacking a clear party structure and trying to represent a fluid grassroots movement wasn’t conducive to being very productive in parliament. “First, you think, ‘Well, the old political parties are corrupt and too much like institutions’, and in one perspective that’s correct. But then I realised, when I went in there, that being a representative just on your own it’s not a good idea”, Margrét says.

In March 2012, Margrét and another citizen MP founded along with people from the grassroots a new party, called Dawn, to run in the April 2013 elections. “When we started to establish Dawn, I said, ‘I want a political party that is stable, (…) where we can work and it’s clear how everything works’. Because that was not the case with the Citizens’ Movement, and that’s why things got out of hand”. Dawn came from the same inspiration and had basically the same programme as the CM, but then in the 2013 elections it got only 3.10% of the vote and didn’t get any MP.

In those elections, in which the Independence and Progressive parties –the same two parties that had been running Iceland up to the crisis– got back to power, it would be another of the four citizen MPs, artist and poet Birgitta Jónsdóttir, who had gone her own way and co-founded the Icelandic version of the Pirate Party, who would almost achieve a parliamentary and government revolution.

Pirates in parliament

The first Pirate Party had been launched in Sweden in 2006 with the aim of reforming copyright law and supporting the individual’s right to privacy while calling for transparency from the government and the state. In Iceland, in November 2012, Birgitta and other activists founded the Icelandic Pirate Party along those lines, which have been called “pirate politics”: a strong anti-corruption and pro-transparency stance, direct democracy, and the promotion and protection of civil rights, with an emphasis in freedom of information, free speech and the right to privacy.

In the April 2013 elections, the Pirates got 5.1% of the vote, just above the 5% threshold to enter the Althingi, and Birgitta and two other members of the party became the first pirates to enter a national parliament anywhere in the world.

By then, Birgitta herself had become internationally known after collaborating with WikiLeaks in the production and release of “Collateral Murder” in 2010, a video that showed the killing and injuring of civilians by an American war helicopter in Iraq in 2007. She had also been the main person behind the Icelandic Modern Media Initiative, a parliamentary resolution adopted also in 2010 that aimed to make Iceland a journalistic safe haven by protecting freedom of expression and of information, and of the International Modern Media Institute, which was launched in 2011 with the idea of supporting the international realisation of the Initiative.

In a way the Citizens’ Movement had maybe failed to do, once in parliament, the Pirates kept getting the people’s attention and support thank to their openness and to their pro-transparency and anti-corruption –and generally anti-establishment– attitude.

Even though the party was generally short in detailed policy proposals, the Pirates managed to channel the protesters’ ambition of having citizens reclaiming politics, as the party supported the direct democracy digital platforms and the constitutional process. It also called for copyright reform, banks to completely separate their investment and commercial arms, a 35-hour work week, and the loosening of drug regulation. Later on during the legislature, the Pirates would also call for granting asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden, and for Iceland to accept the cryptocurrency bitcoin.

Even though the party was generally short in detailed policy proposals, the Pirates managed to channel the protesters’ ambition of having citizens reclaiming politics, as the party supported the direct democracy digital platforms and the constitutional process.

By late January 2016, the Pirates’ popularity had soared and they polled at 37.8%, while the two ruling partners, the Independence and Progressive parties, got just over 30% between the two.

The publication of the Panama Papers in April 2016 revealed that the then-PM, Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, had owned –and his wife still did– an offshore investment company. This provoked an even bigger demonstration than back during the 2008-09 protests and made the PM resign. At that moment, the Pirates got a 43% of vote intention in a poll, more than double the Independence Party (21.6%).

In summer, elections were called for October, and by that point, the Pirates were making international headlines. Even if formally the party didn’t have leaders but was a horizontal platform, Birgitta had become their iconic face. At a time when Brexit had just happened and it seemed Donald Trump might actually have a chance to win the US elections, Birgitta featured on front pages well beyond Iceland and was written about as the possible first-ever pirate prime minister.

However, that seemed to be the Pirates’ popularity peak, and by late September 2016, they were polling at just over 20%. But that was still slightly more than the Independence Party, so the Pirates still seemed to have a realistic chance to lead a government after the elections in October. Instead, when the actual moment of voting came the Pirates got 14.5% of the vote, behind the Independence Party (29%) and the progressive Left-Green Movement (15.9%).

The Pirates still got a shot at forming a coalition government after those two most voted parties successively failed to do so themselves – but the Pirates didn’t manage either and in the end the Independence Party was able to secure a tiny parliamentary majority to form a government with the support of two centrist parties. The Pirates became one of the opposition leaders along with the Left-Green Movement.

Photo by: Jóhann Ágúst Hansen. All rights reserved.

You can go inside the system to try to get a deeper understanding on how it works, but in general I don’t think that – unless you have a very extraordinary situation where you can completely shift the system – you can really do any real, fundamental change”, Birgitta says today.

Less than a year later, in September 2017 the Icelandic government collapsed again, this time because of a scandal about the PM’s failure to disclose his father’s role in helping to expunge the record of a convicted child rapist. New snap elections were called for 28 October 2017. By then, exhausted from all the work and public exposure, Birgitta decided not to run for the elections. Before quitting, she tried one last push for reforms that would make easier for Iceland to pass the new constitutional bill, but again most MPs failed to follow suit.

I feel deeply privileged to have been given this trust by this nation and I’m deeply thankful for that. But I’m deeply pissed off at the same time at these very same people for not putting more effort into democracy, (not) putting more effort pressuring for the changes that we were trying to do in parliament”, Birgitta says. “Being in a tiny parliamentary group means that you can basically do nothing except to raise awareness and try to make people engaged. And people were just not listening, and they were not getting engaged. And they were just always demanding that other people solved their problems. And that’s just not how we are going to do any changes”.

In the elections on 28 October 2017, the Pirates got 9.2% of the vote and six MPs, four down from the former legislature. The government that finally came out of the elections was an unexpected one, with the Left-Green Movement and the conservative Independence and Progressive parties as very unusual coalition partners.

These days, Iceland may read again like the success story of a resilient country that was able to recover very quickly from a huge economic and political crisis. The economy is back on the track, driven by tourism, which boom helped by the devaluation of the krona during the crisis –what suddenly made visiting Iceland much cheaper– and is now the country’s main industry ahead of fishing and banking. The odd coalition government seems stable and, as Birgitta reflected, the civic impetus coming out of the protests may have become assimilated into the system.

However, many people worry about when the next economic crisis will hit, and in a report in 2018, the Central Bank of Iceland identified very high prices in real estate and a possible turnaround in the tourism industry as the main risks for the Icelandic economy.

These days, Iceland may read again like the success story of a resilient country that was able to recover very quickly from a huge economic and political crisis. However, many people worry about when the next economic crisis will hit.

I always try to get people to do stuff in the good times because these are the times when we have actually space and energy to actually do the fundamental preparation work, so you can have something ready when you have a crisis. Because the crisis times are the only times where you can actually impose fundamental change, change the rules of the game, (because) the game, as you know, is totally rigged”, Birgitta says. “And it’s very difficult to change it on a marathon run, a lot of pirates have started to talk like this, ‘This is like a long-term project’. And I’m like, ‘Guys, you’re fucking delusional’. This is not a long-term project, because then you get assimilated into it, and you will lose your edge, and you just become one of them, and this happens to all parties”.

Katrín Oddsdóttir of the Constitutional Society remains optimistic about the new constitution being passed at some point in the future, maybe precisely in response to a new financial crisis, and she is also convinced that the protests and the different ways in which citizens responded have already made the Icelandic society more politically aware and engaged. “Even though people are much calmer (now), we’re not taking to the streets with the pots and pans every day, there is a level of knowledge that the power is ours that was not there before, (…) and that is really precious”, she says.

And I think the basic foundation is just this real deep love of democracy, seriously. It sounds corny but I think it’s like we have the power. It’s like we have been living a lie but we were able to break it”.

***
Jose Miguel Calatayud is a freelance journalist currently based in Barcelona. In 2017 and 2018, he researched citizen political engagement and democracy in Europe thanks to an Open Society Fellowship. Earlier, he has been based in East Africa and in Turkey as a foreign correspondent. He has reported from three continents and his work has appeared, among others, in El País (Spain), the New Statesman (UK), The Independent (UK), Agence France-Presse, Radio France Internationale, Deutsche Welle (Germany), GlobalPost (US), Al Jazeera (international), Internazionale (Italy), Information (Denmark) and Expresso (Portugal).

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