Earlier this month, Iceland’s Minister of Justice Sigríður Á. Andersen faced a vote of no confidence in response to her handling of appointments to a newly formed court that took effect in January. While all members of the opposition party, save for one abstention, and two members of the ruling coalition voted in favor, the measure ultimately failed to pass by a slight majority. The events leading up to this vote provide mixed signals as to the health of democracy in Iceland, with a cabinet member institutionally checked for her abuse of power, and yet remaining in her post despite continual involvement in questions of illegality and scandal.
The controversy that spurred the parliamentary vote surrounded Andersen’s disregard of a neutral selection committee in appointing judges to the Landsréttur, a new mid-level court system intended to handle cases in between the District Courts and the Supreme Court of Iceland. In overseeing the hiring process as per her jurisdiction, Andersen made the decision to pass over two of the applicants determined by the selection committee as fittest to serve in favor of her own choices. Andersen’s action was subsequently declared illegal by the Supreme Court of Iceland, and the two applicants were awarded compensation.
While it is problematic that Andersen attempted to go around the legal process of nomination in the first place, the fact that the court held her accountable and declared her actions illegal is a positive sign that the judiciary’s function in checking the executive branch is in working order. Political scientists Douglas Gibler and Kirk Randazzo, in a 2011 paper, stress that one of the key functions of an independent judiciary (as Iceland has) is checking the executive branch from concentrating power, either overtly after the fact or by deterring executive actors from taking such actions in the first place, due to the courts’ perceived legitimacy and authority. This recent development in Iceland demonstrates the stronger kind of check, with the court preventing the Minister from expanding her power beyond its defined limits through an official ruling. The decision also ensures that the judiciary truly remains independent, favoring the choices of the neutral selection committee over those of a cabinet member with potential political motives.
But while the function of formally checking the executive branch might be uncompromised, the weaker check of preventing such actions from occurring in the first place is clearly lacking. This calls into question the perceived influence and authority of the judiciary, which may signal a danger of democratic backsliding. According to Ellen Lust, governance scholar at the University of Gothenburg, failures of horizontal accountability–the outcome realized when government institutions check one another–is one of the means by which we can identify the erosion of democracy in various regimes. Although a check on the executive actor’s missteps was implemented after the fact in Iceland, one might argue that the rules being broken in the first place warns of a larger issue. If members of the executive branch feel confident enough to begin testing the boundaries of their offices in such blatantly illegal ways, it may indicate that they do not in fact expect to be held accountable in every situation. And if this happens often enough, the judiciary may begin allowing smaller infractions to slip through in favor of pursuing larger ones.
While these speculations may seem overblown for one violation, this is not the first controversy or legal concern to plague the Minister during her tenure in her post. As overseer of Iceland’s Directorate of Immigration, she has presided over numerous decisions to deport asylum seekers, actions that many argue violate national law. Iceland has encoded within its laws several international agreements, including the Refugee Convention, the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, all of which prohibit nations from executing such deportations. Moreover, Andersen has recently been connected with another scandal that broke the news last September involving the former Prime Minister’s father providing a recommendation letter of “restored honor” to a convicted pedophile. While the nation’s leadership has since changed, Andersen has retained her post in the Ministry of Justice, and continues to receive vocalized support from the current Prime Minister in the wake of the failed no confidence vote.
These events call into question how closely the executive branch is policing its own actors, as it appears to increasingly rely on other branches of government and on media scrutiny to keep its actions in line with democratic rules and norms. However, it is clear that among the Icelandic people at least, the desire for democracy is very much alive. In light of Andersen’s unpopular decisions and illegal use of power, almost 75 percent of Icelanders now desire her resignation. According to the same poll, 92 percent of Left-Greens support that position, despite the fact that the party lies within the ruling coalition and is chaired by Prime Minister Jakobsdóttir. Perhaps public outcry may soon force Andersen from her post where parliamentary vote failed to do so.
That being said, Andersen remains in power despite abusing her station as a member of the Prime Minister’s cabinet. We must be careful about the message that sends to other members of the executive branch who seek to get around similar institutional checks. And we must consider the message it sends to the world about the strength of democracy in Iceland.
Photo: Pixabay, Creative Commons Zero license.