The Return of Direct Democracy: Crowdsourcing a Constitution
Back in the days of Ancient Athens, the democracy was as direct as possible: all citizens of the city were to gather and collectively make decisions that then became laws. In Ancient Rome, the lawmaking process was way more complicated and involved the Senate and numerous magistrates, however, none of their ideas were to become laws unless the people of Rome agreed with them. This system is known as direct democracy.
However, these days, it’s not possible to entitle people to directly come up with laws and then vote for them, as it happened in the blessed days of antiquity. Instead, people vote for their representatives who then act on their behalf while drawing up and voting for or against bills, which is known as representative democracy. This system has been widely criticized for centuries, however, with all its shortcomings, it still was the best thing available to the humankind. That is, until recently.
With the advent of the internet, the idea of restoring direct democracy found a new lease of life. After all, if every citizen of a country has internet access, he or she can theoretically participate in collective lawmaking, make decisions, and cast votes. Of course, internet access is still far from being universal, and the issues of personal responsibility are sometimes quoted as well to oppose the idea of giving the power directly to the people, so the concept still remains a concept.
However, it doesn’t mean that there haven’t been any attempts at this. Back in 2012, Iceland made a serious attempt to draw up a new constitution by efforts of all its people. And, most notably, there have been a few other attempts at that in other countries after that.
So, what was Iceland going to do? Is constitution something that has to be written by cisgender straight males in ties and expensive suits? And, most notably, does the future of humanity really lie with the advanced digital collectivism that makes direct democracy possible again?
The actual precedent of creating a crowdsourced constitution dates back in 2012. Iceland was just recovering from the financial crisis of 2007–2008, and by 2011 the need for changes in then effective Constitution adopted in 1944 was obvious. The Constitutional Council put forth a revolutionary proposition to devise the new constitution by crowdsourcing suggestions from Iceland residents.
First, the right to contribute to the new constitution was granted to a thousand of randomly selected Iceland citizens. Later, the Parliament changed the procedure and gave said right to a drafting commission comprised of 25 delegates selected from more than 500 citizens. The key aspects to be reviewed were:
- The foundations of the Icelandic constitution and its fundamental concepts.
- The organization of the legislative and executive branches and the limits of their powers.
- The role and position of the President of the Republic.
- The independence of the judiciary and their supervision of other holders of governmental powers.
- Provisions on elections and electoral districts.
- Public participation in the democratic process, including the timing and organization of a referendum, including a referendum on a legislative bill for a constitutional act.
- Transfer of sovereign powers to international organizations and the conduct of foreign affairs.
- Environmental matters, including the ownership and utilization of natural resources.
During the whole four-month long drafting process all the drafts were available for public discussion. By the end of the procedure the commission received over 3,600 comments from the citizens, who published their feedback via platforms like Twitter or Facebook.
Finally, on 29th of July, 2011 the draft was finished and submitted to the Icelandic Parliament (Althingi) and the people of Iceland for approval. The proposed bill contained a prologue and 114 articles in 9 chapters. Its pivotal topics were distribution of power, transparency, and responsibility. The most important points of the proposal included:
- The “one person, one vote” principle, instead of a system where one would require “much more votes to be elected as an MP in Reykjavik than in one of the more rural areas”.
- Providing internet access to all citizens.
- Making the country’s non-private natural resources a common property.
- A referendum on separating the state from church.
- Changes to government system, such as a 10-year limit for Prime Minister terms and a three-term limit for the President’s term.
- Limiting the government to 10 ministers, and barring them from being Prime Ministers at the same time.
In a non-binding public referendum held in October 2012 about two thirds of voters have chosen to take the proposed draft as the basis for Iceland’s new constitution. Yet, being only a set of guidelines for the authorities, the bill still needed to pass the hearing in the Parliament.
However, due to the debates sparked by the opposition, as well as some other obstacles, the Parliament hasn’t been able to vote on the proposed bill for too long, and the process was paused before Icelandic parliamentary election of 2013. The opponents to the proposition took over the Parliament and the bill was halted.
“It is one thing not to hold a promised referendum on a parliamentary bill as was done in the Faroe Islands. It is quite another thing to disrespect the overwhelming result of a constitutional referendum by putting democracy on ice as is now being attempted in Iceland by putting a new constitution already accepted by the voters into the hands of a parliamentary committee chaired by a sworn enemy of constitutional reform as if no referendum had taken place. Parliament is playing with fire. It risks the demotion of Iceland from the club of full-fledged democracies,” said the chairman of the Iceland Democratic Party and a delegate at the Icelandic Constitutional Assembly Thorvaldur Gylfason.
So far, the bill is still on ice and remains an iconic but a bit disillusioning example of people’s attempt to push for direct democracy. Yet, it happened to become an example for new initiatives abroad. But have they done any better job?
Heirs of Iceland
Iceland wasn’t alone in attempting to crowdsource a constitution: there have been at least two similar attempts in different parts of the world, namely, in Sri Lanka and Mexico City.
The constitution of Sri Lanka became effective in 1978, and has had 20 amendments since then. In 2015, the newly elected government promised to overhaul it to make it more inclusive. In early 2016, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said the new constitution-making process will be “inclusive, transparent, and in line with election pledges.” Most importantly, he said that Sri Lanka will become “the first country to formulate a constitution with ideas to be made through social media.”
Effectively, the general public was invited to share any constitutional ideas they have via mail, e-mail, fax, or a specially created website. However, it turned out that most locals weren’t even aware they were invited to shape their country’s new constitution. To tackle that problem, the Democracy Reporting International has prepared a brochure it distributes across the entire island. For now, there have been news as to the enactment of a new constitution, so it either means that the process is still underway, or that it has been scrapped.
A more successful attempt was made in Mexico City, where mayor Miguel Mancera rolled out a city constitution made up of petitions submitted by average city dwellers online. The resulting document looks like a Lovecraftian nightmare for any conservative who cared to read it, as it promotes things like LGBTI rights, euthanasia, the right to smoke weed, the right to get an abortion, animal rights, and strict transparency rules for public officials. Cardinal Norberto Rivera, the Archbishop of Mexico, called it “murderous”, and it surely looks like one for anyone cherishing traditionalist views on everything. Still, some people called the draft not radical enough as it barely tackled the issues mostly associated with socialism, like housing, water supplies, and security.
Still, unlike Iceland and Sri Lanka, Mexico City eventually passed the draft, and it came into force in 2017. Even though it is only meant for one city, which, granted, houses nearly 20 million people, and also does not include many proposals made by the people, this is the only example of a crowdsourced constitution that actually came into force by now.
The experiment of Iceland, though technically failed, has opened up a new chapter in lawmaking and brought about new prospects for democracy. Notably, somewhat similar attempts made in Mexico City and Sri Lanka both positioned themselves as the first of their kind, so they didn’t even take Iceland’s experience into account, at least in public. This fact could suggest that similar attempts will be made in the future in some other places as the very concept of crowdsourcing a constitution has proved to have a strong appeal.
Of course, there are obvious problems with this model of lawmaking: it’s not quite clear whether it can work in countries where the population is not homogenous; can modern-day technologies successfully process thousands, if not millions, of comments and suggestions made by regular people; and, most certainly, the political issues.
Another problem is the personal responsibility of people. There is no single country in the world that has constitution as their one and only law. However, if some nation manages to draw up and enforce a constitution written collectively by all its people, there is a question, does it really need a legislative body like a parliament if people can enforce their power directly? And what if some of those people decide to start a war out of a passing whimsy? And what if the country in question has nuclear weapons? Those simple questions are yet to be answered properly.
Even though there are lots of technical and moral questions to be addressed, the prospect of direct democracy’s triumphant return might become a thing for the 21st century. And it looks like representative democracy isn’t really happy about it.
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