Sunday, June 23, 2013

Hardy Icelanders Convene “World’s Oldest Parliament”

This painting depicts an early meeting of Iceland’s Althing with the Lögsögumaður (Lawgiver) calling the body to order at the Lögberg (Law Rock.)

On June 23, 930 the Alþingi (Althing in English) of Iceland met for the first time in an open field.  It is considered the oldest parliament in the world.  This was less than 60 years after Ingólfur Arnarson and other Norsemen (Norwegians) established permanent settlements on the North Atlantic island. 
The Althing—literally All Thing meaning an assembly of all—met out doors about 27 miles west of the principle settlement and future capital, Reykjavík.  The first assembly marked the beginning of the self-governing Icelandic Commonwealth. 
Sessions were held in the spring and could be attended by any free man.  The event drew large crowds and was surrounded by a festive atmosphere.  The Althing had both legislative and judicial functions.  The gathering centered on the where the sessions were called to order and dissolved by the Lögsögumaður (Lawgiver) who presided over the sessions and was responsible for orally repeating laws, actions, and decisions.  The legislative session of the Althing was called the Lögrétta and was made up of 39 Goðar, or regional leaders, nine additional members and the Lawgiver. 
After 965 the country was divided into four judicial districts and each of them had a court of 36 judges which met at the Althing.  In the early 11th Century a sort of supreme court, the Fimmtardómur, comprised of 48 judges appointed by the Lögrétta also met. 
In 1262 Iceland submitted to the authority of the King of Norway under the Old Covenant (Gamli sáttmáli) and rule by the Goðar was replaced with the executive authority of the King and his representatives on the ground, Royal Commissioners and District Commissioners.  The Lögrétta was made up of 39 members and the Lawgiver was replaced by two Lögmenn or legal administrators. 
The King and the Lögrétta shared mutual responsibility for governance and laws—each had to ratify the action of the other.  In 1388 the Norwegian throne was inherited when boy king Olav V died by his mother Queen Margrethe I of Denmark. The Danish Crown evolved into an absolute monarchy and the power of the Lögrétta was lost.  The Althing, however, continued to meet annually at its outdoor location until 1799 functioning mainly as a court.
In 1800 the Danish Crown abolished the Althing and replaced it with a High Court of three judges that met in Reykjavík.  As a wave of liberalization swept Europe the Danes restored the Althing as an elected constituent assembly in 1843 with the first session meeting two years later. 
There were 20 legislative districts represented by a single member and the King appointed six Royally Nominated Members.  Suffrage was extended to all males with substantial property over the age of 25—about 5% of the population.  The Althing was officially only a consultive body to the king and its actions, called petitions, had to be approved by him. 
The Danish Constitution of 1874 further restored the authority of the Althing, giving it joint legislative authority with the Crown over exclusively Icelandic matters.  However the King retained the right to veto Althing acts, and frequently did so.  His interests were also protected by the creation of a second, upper chamber consisting of six elected members and six Royally Nominated Members which had to concur with the lower house.  In practice the Crown controlled the upper house.  The same Constitution gave the Treasury the right to collect taxes and disburse funds in Iceland for the first time. 
The Althing was to meet biannually but after 1886 was frequently called into special off year sessions.  Beginning in 1881 sessions were held in a new Parliament House in Reykjavík built of hand hewn Icelandic stone. 
In 1903 a Constitutional amendment granted Iceland home rule with a parliamentary system and an Icelandic Minister as head of government.  Elections, previously held at various times in local districts, were consolidated to a single day nationwide and the old system of publicly proclaiming votes was replaced by the secret paper ballot.  The Althing was expanded to 40 members.
In 1915 another amendment replaced the six Royally Nominated Members with six members elected at large by the entire nation divided among parties by a system of proportional representation. 
In December 1918 the Act of Union placed Iceland in personal union with the Danish Crown.  The Althing was granted unrestricted legislative power and the king became a constitutional monarch figurehead. The Act was set to expire at the end of 25 years at which time either party could dissolve the union. 
By the Constitutional Act of 1934 the membership of the Althing was increased.  The system of system of National representation was replaced with 11 seats meant to equalize representation among parties to correct discrepancies between total national vote and regular seats held.  The total membership was thus increased to 49. The voting age was also reduced to 21. 
When Nazi Germany occupied Denmark on April 9, 1940 ties between Iceland and the mother country were effectively severed.  The next day the Althing assumed control and gave the powers of Head of State to the Cabinet.  It declared itself in charge of foreign policy and assumed responsibility for defense. The following year a Regent was named to represent the Crown. 
On June 17, 1944 Iceland declared itself a Republic formally severing all ties with Denmark.  Since then representation in the Althing has been tinkered with repeatedly.  Voting age was reduced first to 20 and then to 18.  The upper house was abolished in 1991 making the Althing once again a unicameral body.  It is currently made up of 63 members—52 elected from four constituencies and the 11proportional representation members. 
After elections held in April 2009 following the collapse of Iceland’s banking system in the world-wide financial crisis the Social Democratic Alliance held a plurality of seats and its leader, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir was Speaker.  Other parties represented, in descending order of number of seats are the center-right Independence Party, the Left-Green Movement, Progressive Party, and the Citizen’s Movement.
The new government pursued a recover strategy dramatically different than the bank bailout followed by austerity model in the United States and Europe.  Banks were allowed to fail and bankers charged with crimes.  The interests of ordinary citizens were protected.  As a result Iceland led the world in a remarkable economic turn-around that strangely was not copied anywhere.
Despite the success, however, the election in April of this year was won by the two center-right opposition parties, Independence Party and Progressive Party which formed a coalition government.  Some of the reforms of the previous administration are threatened and independent power may be restored to the banking industry.  But voters evidently endorsed the conservatives stance against talks aimed at eventually brining Iceland into the European Union.
Those Icelanders—they will have their Democracy and their Althing.

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