Question No. 6 – Referendums

6. Would you like to see a provision in the new Constitution stating that a certain proportion of the electorate is able to demand that issues be put to a referendum?



This question is intended to establish voters’ position on whether the Constitution should specify that a certain proportion of the electorate (e.g. a minimum percentage of the electoral register) can take the initiative on having particular issues put to a referendum. It does not ask how large the proportion should be.

The way things are now

The present Constitution contains no provision allowing for voters to take the initiative on referring matters to a referendum. Referendums are rather uncommon in European countries, though more of them have been held in the past few decades, for example in connection with states’ accession to the European Union. Iceland has little tradition of holding referendums in order to establish the nation’s views on particular issues or of exercising the authorisations found in the Constitution for putting matters to a referendum. The pattern in recent decades in Iceland has been similar to that in the other Nordic countries, where referendums are intended as a safety mechanism to maintain balance against representative democracy and have been held under special circumstances.

The Constitutional Council’s proposals

The council proposes, in Article 65, that 10% of the electorate could demand a binding referendum on laws passed by the Althingi. The same proportion of voters could take the initiative on proposing issues for debate by the Althingi, which would then be referred to the nation in either binding or advisory referendums, the choice of type lying with the Althingi according to Article 66. The proposals specify, in Article 67, that matters to be put to a referendum demanded or initiated by voters must concern the public interest, and they include a list of categories of issues that would not qualify for such treatment.

Discussions and arguments

Referendums are common in some countries, e.g. in Switzerland and Italy, where voters are able to call for the holding of referendums under provisions in the constitution. The constitutions of the Nordic countries do not contain such provisions.

Article 108 of the Local Government Act, No. 138/2011, contains a provision on initiatives taken by inhabitants of local government areas on calling for a general vote on particular issues, and the local authority is obliged to comply with such a request if it is made by 20% of voters.

The main argument in favour of referendums is that they tend to sharpen voters’ understanding of the issues under discussion, so enhancing their political competence. Referendums can also inform the government of what voters want and put issues that have not aroused politicians’ interest on the agenda. In some cases, they have been used to resolve disputes that are difficult to address in any other way.

The main argument against making referendums more common is that they can reduce turn-outs in elections and encourage a tendency not to see matters in a broader context but instead to concentrate on each one separately. Attitudes towards matters other than the subject of the referendum (e.g. towards the government) can sometimes influence the outcome, and powerful financial interests or the media can also exert a great influence. In some cases, the government itself can then determine how the results are interpreted.