REYKJAVIK (Reuters) - Icelanders, still stunned by the collapse of their banks a year ago, chose “honesty” as their chief national value on Saturday at an experimental assembly of politicians and ordinary people to map the island’s future.
Some 1,500 Icelanders, from ministers to fishermen, took part in the experiment, dubbed the National Assembly, in an attempt to define their basic values as the country of 320,000 continues to grapple with its worst-ever economic crisis.
Participants aged 18 to 80, who were randomly chosen to provide a representative sample of Icelandic society, gathered at the country’s largest sports arena where they were seated nine to a table to meet, chat, and discuss values.
Finance Minister Steingrimur Sigfusson sat next to a burly fisherman at one table, while at another the minister of justice discussed family values with a small-town checkout girl.
Honesty topped the list of Icelandic values that resulted from their conversations, followed by respect, equality, justice, responsibility and compassion.
“These are people from all walks of life,” said Dora, 50, an artist. “We were all pleasantly surprised to realize that we were all on the same page when it came to values.”
Icelanders have been suffering from high levels of household debt, joblessness and inflation since their banking system collapsed last year, leaving the economy in tatters.
The country was forced to accept billions of dollars in aid from the International Monetary Fund and other lenders as its currency, the krona, virtually stopped trading overnight.
Iceland named a special prosecutor in September to investigate possible wrongdoing in the lead-up to the banks’ fall, and local media have reported the financial watchdog was investigating whether the banks sought to boost their share prices by sending misleading information to the market.
Organizers of the National Assembly, who call their ad-hoc movement “the Anthill,” said the financial crisis had created a sense of powerlessness among Icelanders, many of whom felt the country needed to reevaluate its basic values.
“The core population of Icelanders feel like they’ve been betrayed,” said Marianna Fridjonsdottir, an organizer. “They’ve just been living their daily lives and all of a sudden they had to take huge burdens they never knew they had to bear.”
The Anthill group, in a manifesto published the same day as the National Assembly event, said its purpose was to create “a discussion about the future vision of the whole population.”
Fridjonsdottir said that while the National Assembly was meant to be non-political, she hoped that politicians, many of whom were invited to the event, would heed the wisdom of the crowd when making decisions about Iceland’s future.
“We hope it’s going to be foundation for decision-making,” she said of the assembly. “People are angry and frustrated and afraid, and they are talking about their lack of influence.”
Fridjonsdottir said Iceland’s parliament, the world’s oldest, was too small to accommodate the number of participants, about 0.4 percent of the population, or the equivalent of almost a million people in a country the size of the United States.
Conclusions drawn by the National Assembly would be compiled in an online database accessible to all, she added.
Writing by Nick Vinocur; Editing by Jon Hemming