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Democracy

The Finnish Citizens’ Initiative: Changing the Agenda

By Saara Ilvessalo

In an unprecedented step towards direct democracy, Finland adopted a national Citizens’ Initiative law in March 2012. Although it has succeeded in opening debates in the national parliament on a number of issues, serious questions remain over whether citizens really have the power to effect change through the tool.

Although Europe has been a breeding ground for democracy for centuries, direct democracy has not taken any giant steps in Finland, as it has in some other European countries. Since 1945, only one national referendum has been organised – on Finland’s accession to the European Union. In the Finnish legal system, the referenda are only consultative, not binding. This means that the Parliament first decides whether or not to organise a referendum and then about whether to act on the result or not. Citizens do not really have the means to affect the political agenda between elections.

However, new tools for participation have been developed lately. The Finnish Citizens’ Initiative (FCI) was introduced in May 2012 after years of preparation and hard work, especially by the Greens in the government. Through the FCI, 50 000 Finnish citizens (approximately 1.2% of those entitled to vote) can give notice of their support in order to get a bill into Parliament. Basically, the FCI is a route for the citizens to suggest new legislation or changes to existing legislation.

At the end of 2012, a web service was opened for the FCI to provide a way to launch and manage initiatives online. The aim of the new system is to promote and support free civic activities as well as to strengthen civil society. Before 2012, it was only possible to start an initiative, either about a specific issue or regarding the organisation of a municipal referendum, at the municipal level.

 

Animal Rights, Equal Marriage and Drink-Driving

The first FCI to break the minimum of 50 000 signatures was an initiative by animal rights organisations demanding the prohibition of fur farming. The initiative was handed over to the Finnish Parliament in March 2013 and was dealt with by the Parliament in June. At the hearing it was dismissed by 146 to 36 votes (3 empty, 14 absent) and did not therefore lead to any further measures. Apart from this first FCI, another initiative suggesting changes to energy certificates for housing was also later dismissed by the Parliament.

Besides these two initiatives, there are four others that have collected the minimum of 50 000 signatures in six months and are currently being processed by various committees. The initiatives concern the law of copyright, equal marriage rights for gay couples, the status of the Swedish language in schools and harsher penalties for drink-driving. None of the six FCIs has so far been accepted by the Parliament or led to further moves. At the moment, there are approximately 30 ongoing FCIs and 210 FCIs that never collected the minimum number of signatures and have therefore ended.

The FCI is the first actual national step towards a more direct democratic system and the first tool that allows citizens to directly affect legislation in Finland. The idea was to strengthen representative democracy by giving citizens the opportunity to have their voices heard even between elections. On the other hand, the FCI can only make suggestions on behalf of the people to the Parliament, which does not have to accept any of the changes proposed. If the Parliament dismisses an initiative, the initiators have no recourse to any other means of promoting their agenda.

 

The FCI is the first actual national step towards a more direct democratic system and the first tool that allows citizens to directly affect legislation in Finland.

 

Public Debate – is it Enough?

The FCI has managed to raise questions and discussion about both the contents of the initiatives and Finnish democracy as a whole. Even some Members of Parliament have criticised the FCI system and claimed that it is a “fast lane past representative democracy” – this seems somewhat absurd since that’s exactly what it was created for, to strengthen representative democracy. After one and a half years of attempting to introduce changes, none of the initiatives have actually led to any alterations in legislation but many of them have proved to be openings for introducing new parliamentary debate on a number of political topics.

The FCI on equal marriage rights collected a record 166 851 signatures, 100 000 of which were collected during the first day. Before the FCI there was a similar initiative put forward by Members of Parliament which was however dismissed by the Law Committee. This made the discussion remarkably lively and even boosted the other initiative on the same issue. The initiative was again dismissed by the Law Committee but will now continue to the plenary of the Parliament where a slight majority seems to support it. Thus, the FCI has been a part of a widespread political debate as well as numerous events and therefore supports the strengthening of the civil society.

 

Mistrust as a Democratic Crisis

After two years of the FCI one could still claim that the fundamental problem remains: the people still do not wield actual political power and none of the citizens’ initiatives have led to legal changes in our society. The voting percentage in elections is relatively low: for example, only 39.1 % of the people entitled to vote actually voted in the European parliamentary elections this year. In municipal elections in 2012 the equivalent percentage was 58.3 % and 67.4% in national parliamentary elections one and a half years before.

The mistrust between politicians and citizens is, according to the research, on the rise and only one half of the population actually votes in the elections. This means that the other half is for some reason left outside the democratic process. On the other hand, the politicians do not seem to be ready to give the people enough actual power to make decisions in politics. Many of the FCIs have even been criticised by the politicians for being poorly prepared and conceived.

Even though the world around us has changed rapidly, our democracy has not changed significantly in the past decades. Of all the different forms of social organisation, democracy is still the most respected, but is one that requires mutual trust between the representatives and the electors in order to function. Democracy means acting for a better and more equitable society and must be constantly maintained and developed. Cosmetic changes are not enough to stop democracy from drifting into crisis. A necessary improvement to our democracy is direct empowerment of citizens in order to guarantee the legitimacy of institutional politics, to restore citizens’ faith in democracy and to broaden the means available to the citizenry to influence society.

 

Democracy means acting for a better and more equitable society and must be constantly maintained and developed.

 

More Direct Democracy

If people feel that they do not have a say in decision making, a dangerous platform is given to extremist and illegal movements that want to be heard yet feel marginalised and excluded by society. We should have learnt from our past that the lack of actual legal participation can lead to frustration and anger towards the ”elite”, even to violence and unpredictable, inhumane actions. That is why it is important to give citizens power and to constantly develop democracy.

Even though the FCI is a good start to reducing the gap between politicians and citizens, it is not enough to fix our lack of democracy. We need more direct democracy in which the Parliament does not have the right to veto whether or not a referendum is organised or any result from that referendum. This means that it should be possible to require a referendum on a citizens’ initiative if the result of the Parliament’s processing does not satisfy the initiators. The biggest changes in, for example, the constitution, should always be decided upon in a referendum. Of course, minority rights and basic human rights have to be respected in order for direct democracy to work.

The opponents of direct democracy sometimes say that people do not have sufficient knowledge about the issues that they are directly voting on. However, in countries where direct democracy is constantly used, people are more aware of the societal issues, problems and solutions. Direct democracy leads to increased awareness and even happiness when people feel that they can affect their own society. Additionally, my experiences in local politics and as a candidate both in the European parliamentary elections and in the Finnish parliamentary elections have taught me that politicians have the same ability to acquire information and make decisions as regular citizens. People should demand their power back – it is only being borrowed by the politicians.

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