Althing Iceland

Althing Iceland and the legal history of Iceland



Althing Iceland is the oldest parliament in the world and was established in 930.

Iceland never had a pre-historic period: Iceland was settled around 900 AD, well into the period of written history, and historical records exist almost from the first settlements. The year 930 is generally taken as the date of the first Althing Iceland, an assembly of local chieftains where laws were made and court cases tried. For centuries, Iceland had no prince or executive and was governed by the Althing Iceland.

Iceland, settled by Vikings, was on the western periphery of Europe. Only a semi-permanent settlement in Greenland farther to the west and sporadic, seasonal fishing camps in Vinland (now part of Canada), marked an even further westward European frontier. But, as long as the Viking remained active, Iceland was somewhat integrated into Europe through a trade network with Iceland exporting fish and importing wood, metals, and grains. Iceland, however, did remain far enough removed from Europe that the Icelandic language is considered quite similar to the Old Norse in use when the country was settled, an era known as the Commonwealth Period. Indeed, contemporary Icelandic scholars indicate that their language has changed so little in the last 1000 years that they have little difficulty in reading works from the Commonwealth period.

By the end of the 13th century, the Commonwealth period had come to an end and Iceland was firmly under the control of Norwegian King Häkon Häkonarson. But two things kept Iceland somewhat independent and separate: (1) most representatives of the King who resided in Iceland were born in Iceland (it seems few people wanted to move to Iceland) and (2) Norwegian laws were not automatically incorporated into Icelandic law - they had to be approved by Althing Iceland. Consequently, Icelandic governance was largely an Icelandic affair. Eventually, Norway came into a personal union with Denmark through marriage and inheritance, taking Iceland into union with Denmark. This union with Denmark was to last until 1944.

In 1665 the Danish king was granted the most absolute power any European sovereign was ever to attain. Althing Iceland gradually lost power and was largely abandoned by 1700 although it continued through the 18th century as a debating forum for the Icelandic aristocracy. As early as the Commonwealth era, to keep a destitute, dependent population from developing, Iceland instituted a policy that required almost all inhabitants to have a domicile on a farm - a policy that also inhibited the development of an independent fishing industry and towns. Indeed, as late as 1890, the population of Iceland's largest city and capital, Reykjavík, was still only 3886.

The population of Iceland, which for centuries hovered around 50,000 people with periodic declines due to pestilence or famine, was always largely rural -- 90% lived on small and isolated farmsteads and the peasant farmer's wife had a high status. Other members of the farmstead (hired male laborers, female servants, and children) did not enjoy much status. Since it was too cold to grow grains, most farms were primarily sheep farms and dairy and dairy products were very important products. Sheep farming required large tracts of land and was not labor intensive. Late winter and early spring were the slack seasons on the farms, and during this part of the year excess farm laborers would migrate to the coast, erect temporary dwellings, and fish. Some of the fish were used for domestic purposes, but much of it was bartered to summer traders for grain, metals, or wood. The farmstead itself had the normal gender division of labor - men tended flocks, fished, and managed male farm hands; women managed dairy, home, children, female servants, and food stocks. Despite the absence of schools, Iceland had a highly literate peasant population: mothers taught their children to read and write during the long winters. It was not unusual for an Icelander to read Danish or English in addition to Icelandic since many more books were available in Danish and English than in Icelandic. Traditionally, when the farmer died, his wife inherited his responsibilities and position, fulfilling his tasks including becoming the head of the farm stead and the status that went with it.

As in much of Europe, nationalism came to nineteenth-century Iceland and the people of Iceland struggled to become increasingly independent of Denmark, although a formal break between the two countries did not come until 1944. The dominant issue in Icelandic politics during the nineteenth century was Icelandic independence from Denmark with opinion varying on a continuum from Home Rule for Iceland to a complete severing of political bonds with Denmark. Throughout the century, the constitution binding Iceland and Denmark was repeatedly amended; each time the Icelanders won a set of concessions for more autonomy from the Danish Parliament, the Icelanders began drafting the next set of proposed amendments that would give the country even more autonomy. The process began by restoring the consultative functions of an elected Althing Iceland and proceeded by gradually lowering the property qualifications of electors.

In 1837 - 8, leading Icelandic officials and farmers petitioned the king to allow for a consultative assembly to be stationed in Iceland. Before the king could respond, he died; and his cousin, King Christian, a king who was much more liberal than the old king, came to the throne. Instead, in 1840 King Christian ordered his Chancery to investigate the feasibility of reestablishing the Althing Iceland in its former meeting place, Þingvellir. The Icelandic intelligentsia-to-be, students in Copenhagen, entered the debate and pushed to make the new Althing Iceland even more democratic than either the Icelanders or the King had envisioned. In a compromise, Althing Iceland convened in Reykjavík, because the city could accommodate delegates while the remote site at Þingvellir could not. In March 1843, a royal decree was issued reestablishing Althing Iceland to be composed of 26 members, 20 elected, 6 appointed by the crown. Stiff property requirements limited the franchised to about 3-5 % of the Icelandic population. The property qualifications were so high, in fact, that in the ensuing election in 1844, one voting district, the Westman Islands, elected no one to represent it at Althing Iceland because no one was qualified to vote. The modern Althing Iceland convened in July 1845. Voting qualifications were reduced in 1857. As the century progressed, an increasingly large segment of the Icelandic male population became eligible to vote as Iceland moved away from a barter economy to a money economy and as the standard of living in general increased, enabling more and more men to pay taxes which in turn qualified them to vote.

When the farmers wanted to request something from the government, they were in the custom of circulating a petition throughout the area and for the head of each farmstead to sign or to reject the petition. (The idea that the authority and the right to engage in public decision making, to sign petitions, to represent the homestead, and to vote was vested in "independent persons" -- not a hired laborer, servant, wife, child, or other dependent person -- will reoccur throughout the story of woman's quest for suffrage in Iceland.) The petition was sent to the appropriate government official and was copied; the copy was sent to Copenhagen; and the original was stored by the local officials. After Althing Iceland was reestablished, this custom continued. Hálfdanarson (1) recounts the story of widowed and other single, independent women both signing petitions and voting. When the petitions were copied, at times the women's names were changed to men's names by some of the "more worldly" scribes; for example, Valgerður Eriksdóttir became V. Eriksson and Guðrún Guðnadóttir became G. Guðnason. Nonetheless, neither the male nor the female villagers thought anything was amiss when female heads of farmsteads signed the petitions or voted. Rather, they believed that the independent women (eg, widowed women in charge of a homestead and single women of independent means) were entitled to sign the petitions and to vote. Only after it was explained to them by Danish representatives that "things were not done that way" were women forbidden from voting and from signing petitions. In a sense, at least at this time, opposition to woman suffrage came from the "powers-that-be" and not from the local citizenry.

The 1881 extension of local suffrage to women should not be seen as a great progressive step forward for women, but rather as a return to the tradition of independent women being accorded the same political rights as independent men. Thus, the political hegemony of household heads and the domination of farmers over wage laborer, servants, and town dwellers became even more deeply entrenched. This change also made gender discrimination in politics more difficult than before.

At the turn of the 20th century, officials elected to the Reykjavik 15 member town council served for six year terms. However, to increase turn-over in the council and thereby to increase democracy, every other year, lots were drawn so that 5 members of the council stood for reelection. For example, if a member was elected in 1910, his term expired in 1916. However, if when the lots were drawn, his number was selected, then his term came to a premature end and he was up for immediate reelection. Further, electors voted for lists, not candidates and the person to fill the council seat was the person at the top of the winning list. For example, in the 1908 election, the first year for the new city council, 18 lists were on the ballot. The Women's List won the most votes (345 of 1620 votes) or about 22% of the votes, and, hence, won 4 seats. The first 4 of the 5 women on the list became members of the town council.

Although it is somewhat premature to speak of "political parties" in turn-of-the-century Iceland, the major political factions did not take local elections seriously, only elections to Althing Iceland. However, when the Women's List showed such electoral success in 1908, these political factions began to take local elections seriously. At the same time, men began to become wary of extending suffrage to independent women. After all, they had been granted local suffrage, and look what they did with it - they abandoned men's political factions and created their own political faction. Maybe those women would do the same thing in Parliamentary elections. Consequently, the support among men for woman's Parliamentary suffrage declined sharply between 1910 and 1912.

Although Althing Iceland passed a true universal suffrage bill for all those who were not paupers in 1911, by 1913 members of Althing Iceland were having second thoughts about the wisdom of their action. Since the King had not yet acted on their proposal, Althing Iceland amended the suffrage law, gradually allowing dependents to become voters. In the new law, dependents over the age of 40 were given suffrage and the minimum age requirement for dependents was to decrease by one year annually until the age requirement was the same as for independent persons. As before, the right to run for office and to hold office if elected was extended to all person who were eligible to vote. In 1915 the King approved this change in the law.

In 1916, Reykjavík city council elections changed drastically once again. Where the relationship between Iceland and Denmark had once dominated politics, class became the major issue with the trade unions running their own list. With the end of World War I, the political relationship between Iceland and Denmark changed once again: Iceland came into personal union with the Danish sovereign, meaning that the Danish Parliament and government no longer had any authority in Iceland's internal affairs. In 1920, voting qualifications were again changed setting the minimum age for all voters to 25 years.

In some very important ways, the history of voting rights in Iceland is a synopsis of voting rights in many European countries. The story is easier to follow here though, because Iceland is relatively isolated.

Iceland can, however, take pride of place in being the first country in the world to elect a woman as head of state: Vigdís Finnbogadóttír was elected president of Iceland 1980-1996.

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