Sigrún Davíðsdóttir's Icelog

The pain of political responsibility

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After the informative and insightful report by the Althingi Investigative Commission a parliamentary commission was to review the report, picking out things that the political class needed to ponder on and draw lessons from. The commission was also to come to conclusion if any ministers should be charged for recklessness or negligence, wilful or otherwise, in office related to the collapse of the banks. Should they or could they have done more to prevent what happened?

September 11 the MPs published their report and it unleashed a political tempest that is still raging. The commission was split regarding eventual charges against former ministers but the majority wanted to charge four ex-ministers: PM Geir Haarde and minister of finance Arni Matthiesen, both from the Independence Party and minister of foreign affairs and leader of the Social democrats Ingibjorg Solrun Gisladottir and minister of trade Bjorgvin Sigurdsson. All of them have left politics.

According to the Icelandic constitution Althingi can convene a court (based on a Danish court, ‘Landsdom’; a similar court is found in many countries) where ministers can be charged for misconduct in office.

This caused quite a fury for many different reasons. The Investigative Commission had let Gisladottir off the hook since she wasn’t directly involved with business and finance. The MPs commission came to the conclusion that she should be charged because she had been a leader in government and should have had an insight into what was going on. This came no doubt as a huge shock to her.

Last Monday evening, PM Johanna Sigurdardottir (social democrat) gave a speech where she effectively undermined the report saying that no minister should be charged. This added yet another dimension to the already tense debate and there are those who talk about a new election.

For the time being the matter still rests with Althingi but a conclusion has to be reached by Oct. 1 since that was the time Althingi set itself to settle the issue.

One of the many interesting aspects of the dispute is that Althingi set itself the task to review the report and i.a. solve the issue on ministers’ responsibility. Should the court be convened or not? Should the ministers be charged? Now that this process is about to be brought to a close it seems that Althingi is unable to close the matter. It is bucking under the weight of confronting the ministers’ responsibility and the individuals in question.

The parties directly involved in government in the years before the collapse – the Independence Party, the social democrats and the progressives – point out that none of these four ex-ministers are now in politics and shouldn’t that be enough of a punishment that they have to live with the disgrace of having failed in office? A tricky question: if someone has broken the law it’s normally not possible to escape the law just by changing track.

Others point out that those who were in power in 2006 should be prosecuted because that’s when something should have been done to tie down the banks. That has brought the names of Halldor Asgrimsson from the progressives and Independence Party leader David Oddsson into the debate.

There is anger in society towards politicians for what happened and there will no doubt be anger if Althingi is found to escape its responsibility by ducking a process it itself set in motion. Althingi finds itself resting in the proverbial place between a rock and a hard place – and the outcome is wholly unpredictable.

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Written by Sigrún Davídsdóttir

September 22nd, 2010 at 2:39 pm

Posted in Iceland

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