REYKJAVIK, Iceland – Iceland's getting a new constitution — and it's really going to be the voice of the people.
The sparsely-populated volcanic island is holding an unusual election Saturday to select ordinary citizens to cobble together a new charter, an exercise in direct democracy born out of the outrage and soul-searching that followed the nation's economic meltdown.
Hundreds of people are vying for the chance to be among up to 31 people who will form the Constitutional Assembly slated to convene early next year — a source of huge pride for Icelanders who have seen their egos take a beating in recent years.
"This is the first time in the history of the world that a nation's constitution is reviewed in such a way, by direct democratic process," says Berghildur Erla Bergthorsdottir, spokeswoman for the committee entrusted with organizing the Constitutional Assembly.
Iceland has never written its own constitution. After gaining independence from Denmark in 1944, it took the Danish constitution, amended a few clauses to state that it was now an independent republic, and substituted the word 'president' for 'king.' A comprehensive review of the constitution has been on the agenda ever since.
Pressure mounted for action after the nation's economic collapse in 2008, an event punctuated by ordinary citizens gathering outside the Althingi, the parliament, banging pots, pans and barrels — a loud, clanging expression of fury. The meltdown was seen not only as a failure of the economy but of the system of government and regulatory agencies. Many came to believe a tighter constitutional framework — including a clearer division of powers — might have been able to minimize that damage, or even prevent it.
"It is very important for ordinary citizens, who have no direct interest in maintaining the status quo, to take part in a constitutional review," said Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir. "We are hoping this new constitution will be a new social covenant leading to reconstruction and reconciliation, and for that to happen, the entire nation needs to be involved."
The election marks yet another twist in the fortunes of this Nordic nation of just 320,000 that went from economic marvel to fiscal basket-case almost overnight. The rugged island settled by Vikings was transformed from a country of fisherman to hub of international finance with dizzying speed. Icelandic investors — dubbed 'Viking raiders' — snapped up assets around the world for a decade, mostly on borrowed funds.
The global financial crisis wreaked political and economic havoc in Iceland. Banks collapsed in October 2008, and with them the Icelandic currency, the krona. Unemployment soared, as did the cost of living. Loans issued in foreign currencies during the boom suddenly doubled, tripled or even quadrupled, all due to the collapse of the krona.
Icelanders debated their values and turned to questioning the foundations of their society, including those that had facilitated the boom. Anger grew as more instances of misdeeds and incompetence in the private and public sector were exposed. Icelanders woke up to the harsh fact that their country, which had consistently been at or near the top of the Transparency International anti-corruption index, was, in fact, steeped in corruption.
That was ultimately confirmed in a 2,000-page report following a special parliamentary investigation. That report showed that the foundations of Icelandic society were decayed and that a sweeping revision of the social framework was needed.
Sigurdardottir says a new social covenant can at least assist in "restoring the public's faith in the government."
The constitutional assembly will be made up of 25 to 31 delegates, the final number to be determined by a gender and equality ratio. It will be made up of regular citizens elected by direct personal voting. Anyone is eligible to stand for election, with the exceptions of the president, lawmakers and the committee appointed to organize the assembly.
The assembly will draft a proposed new constitution next year. They will use material from another extraordinary project earlier this year in which 1,000 randomly chosen Icelanders — aged 18-89 — offered their views on what should be in the constitution.
Now the race is on to be among the charter's authors, with 523 people in the running. Truck drivers, university professors, lawyers, journalists and computer geeks are all among the candidates. All have been given equal air time on Icelandic radio to make their platforms known.
Those elected will receive a salary equal to that of Iceland's lawmakers while the constitutional review takes place, and Icelandic employers are legally obliged to grant leave to any employees elected to the assembly.
One candidate, Thorvaldur Gylfason, a professor of economics at the University of Iceland, drew parallels between Iceland and South Africa, saying that a country that has experienced shock needs a fresh start.
"A country that has suffered a complete economic and moral collapse needs to start with a clean slate," he said. "We need to ensure that the sort of malpractice and negligence that, among other things, led to the collapse of the Icelandic economy two years ago, cannot happen again."
Not everyone is convinced that the constitution should be amended, and some view the process as a frivolous populist exercise. They cite the high cost of the assembly and the difficulty of adequately presenting all the candidates.
Thorsteinn Arnalds, an engineer, is running in hopes of keeping the existing constitution intact, arguing that change in a time of crisis is preposterous.
"The constitution had nothing to do with the bank collapse, and it is not standing in the way of rebuilding," he said. "Right now we need the basic social structures in place, not for them to be torn down."
Others, like Berglind Steinsdottir, a proofreader and student, are more enthusiastic.
"I am incredibly optimistic and excited about seeing what comes out of this," Steinsdottir said.