Iceland is one of those countries that you don’t tend to see in the international spotlight.
That changed this week, when the so-called “Panama Papers” were leaked, revealing that a law firm in Panama allegedly set up secret shell companies and offshore accounts to help world power players avoid taxes.
Iceland’s prime minister was the first major casualty of the Panama Papers. He stepped aside after the leaks showed he owned an offshore company with his wife.
But this isn’t the only political upheaval in recent Icelandic history. Following a financial crisis that all but crippled the country, Icelanders decided it was time to rewrite their constitution. And to do so, they turned to crowdsourcing.
Eileen Jerrett is the director of a documentary film that looks at this remarkable and radical moment in Icelandic history. The film, Blueberry Soup, will be screened April 13 at the University of Michigan.
Jerrett tells us that 25 individuals were elected to be part of the council responsible for redrafting the constitution. The council was an “eclectic array of people,” she says, including pastors, lawyers, teachers, students, activists, radio hosts and more.
“No politicians, no bankers, that was the mandate,” she says.
As they worked on the new draft, it was uploaded live to the internet so that anyone could review and comment on it. Jerrett says the council also stayed active on social media throughout the process, posting on Facebook and Twitter about which issue they would be talking about on a given day and asking for feedback.
“That was something I was very surprised about,” Jerrett says, “sitting in their office while they were putting this together and watching them reference someone, like, 'Jonas in the Westfjords thinks that we should consider this when we're addressing the rights of children.’ It was amazing the way that they were bringing people together and making them feel like this is a very open process. I think transparency was central in this document."
Transparency is a big topic here in Michigan. A study by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity ranked the Great Lake State dead last in terms of state government accountability and transparency.
Jerrett thinks Michigan could learn a lot from Iceland’s example.
“I think that we can see the power of togetherness, we can see the power of gathering with your neighbors. We can also see how important it is to get a vast array of people to the table to talk about solutions,” she says. “We're seeing that bringing the same old people, the same old questions to the table time and time again isn't working for us anymore, and I think every country is seeing that happen in their own specific way.”
Iceland’s population hovers around 320,000 while Michigan’s is approaching 10 million, but Jerrett isn’t so sure that scale is an issue. Whether “10 people or 10,000 people,” Jerrett argues there is always room for consensus.
The crowdsourced constitution was accepted by the people of Iceland, but did not come to a vote before the parliament went to recess ahead of the 2013 parliamentary election. It’s been stuck in what Jerrett calls a “constitutional purgatory” ever since.
In her eyes, that’s not so much a problem of the document’s viability as of its timing.
"There's a possibility that if it went to a vote immediately when it was supposed to … it would have been declined. So now with the possibility of a new government coming in that is supportive of this constitution, this might just be the time that this had to happen for Iceland,” she says.
Iceland expects to hold its next parliamentary election this fall. Regardless of how that election shakes out and whether the new constitution will be allowed to come to a vote, Jerrett believes that it is an “amazing success as an experiment in democracy.”
“When I heard what was happening in Iceland and started documenting it, it just kind of started to flood my heart a little bit to know that it could be a different way, that we have so many infinite opportunities to participate in our future,” she says. “And when people are given that chance, they come up with brilliant solutions that they wouldn't have been able to come up with as individuals, but together we can do something really masterful.”