The Finnish Citizen's Initiative

The Finnish Citizen's Initiative

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Problems and Purpose

The Finnish Citizens’ Initiative (CI) was introduced to the political system of Finland in 2012. It is aimed at increasing participatory democracy on the national level. (Christensen et al. 2016, 8). As laid out in the constitution, when 50.000 citizens eligible to vote express their support to a certain initiative, the Finnish Parliament is obliged to process the initiative.

History

The Citizens' Initiative was included in a constitutional amendment bill that was handed over to the Parliament in 2010. After two legislatures had passed the amendments the revised constitution was enacted in 2012, together with a separate law to regulate the initiative institution more specifically. The Constitution specifies how many endorsements are needed before the CI can be delivered for the Parliament’s consideration. It also determines that the initiative should affiliate with legislation, meaning that it is possible to propose new legislation, amendments to or repealing of the existing legislation. In other words, the international agreements and obligations, as well as budgetary decisions are out of the scope of the citizens’ initiative. (Finlex.)

Other requirements concerning the citizens’ initiative are stated in a separate law. Most importantly, there is a six-month time limit to gather the support for a specific initiative. Also, the technical details concerning the format of the initiative are regulated: the initiative needs to contain a bill or a proposal for the Parliament to begin preparations to change the legislation, together with the justification of the requested changes. The title needs to be informative of the content, and there needs to be the same date in the initiative and in all the support declarations. An initiative should only concern single topic. Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, and the citizens’ initiative can be written in either, or both. (Finlex.)

Originating Entities and Funding

Participant Recruitment and Selection

Methods and Tools Used

The Finnish Citizens’ Initiative is an instrument of direct democracy. In the field of political science, the concept of direct democracy means those instruments that are included in the legislation, such as the popular vote and the citizens’ initiative (Christensen et al. 2016, 12). Introduced only recently as a new institution to the system that is based on representative democracy, it is justified to categorize the Finnish Citizens’ Initiative as a democratic innovation. Although it is a so-called agenda initiative, meaning that it does not lead to a popular vote, it does influence the political agenda-setting and therefore is expected to increase political inclusion. (Christensen et al. 2017, 1, 3, 452.)

Deliberation, Decisions, and Public Interaction

Online platforms

The law on citizens' initiative defines the procedures and technical requirements for online collection of signatures. It also specifically mentions the possibility of collecting signatures on an online platform, provided by the Ministry of Justice. However, other organizations are also allowed to develop independent platforms. (Christensen et al. 2015, 25-45.)  A vast majority of expressions of support are collected on the governmental website www.kansalaisaloite.fi, which provides a platform for launching CI’s and collecting statements of support for the initiatives. (Christensen et al. 2017, 10.)

The online service is free of charge, accessible and is available in Finnish and Swedish. It also allows users to collect statements for initiatives that have already been started in other online services or on paper. The Ministry of Justice checks that the initiatives submitted by citizens contain the required information and that they do not contain material unsuitable for publication, but otherwise remains neutral in the process. (Oikeusministeriö / Ministry of Justice.)

While www.kansalaisaloite.fi only allows the collection of statements of support, there is also an alternative platform, www.avoinministerio.fi, which is created to offer counseling and gathering voluntary expertise that can help in drafting the initiatives in proper form, and to further develop the ideas. Www.avoinministerio.fi is operated under a non-profit organization, Open ministry or Avoin Ministeriö, and it doesn’t have opinions or political preferences as an institution (Open ministry). In comparison to www.kansalaisaloite.fi, it is more geared towards offering assistance to individuals and organizations that wish to develop their idea before submitting it for collection of statements of support. More on the Open Ministry in Participedia site here: https://www.participedia.net/en/organizations/open-ministry-avoin-ministeri.

Out of all the statements of support collected, a vast majority is collected on www.kansalaisaloite.fi. This is because compared to campaigning through traditional means in public spaces, collection of expressions of support online is much easier. The accessibility of the use of CI is improved by online signature collection. It has enabled smaller civic groups to reach the signature thresholds for their causes, by the making it less time and resource consuming to commit to campaign for an initiative. (Christensen et al. 2017, 9.)

Parliamentary processions

Following the completion of the collection of statements of support, the organiser shall submit the statements to the Population Register Centre, which checks the validity of the statements of support and verifies the number of valid statements. If the number of the valid statements reaches the required threshold of 50.000, the organiser may submit their initiative for the Finnish Parliament to consider. The initiative must be submitted to the Parliament within six months or it lapses. (Oikeusministeriö / Ministry of Justice.)

The Parliament is obliged to deal with an initiative. However, it is left to the Parliament’s discretion to decide whether they want to approve, amend or reject the initiative. The procedures concerning the processing the CI’s are not included in the legislation, but in the Parliamentary rules of procedure. (Christensen et al. 2017, 9.) While the Parliamentary procedures stipulate that the CI’s should be handled like any other law proposals, it does not stipulate whether they should be given a priority compared to legislative initiatives by individual MP’s. Often, legislative proposals by the government are given priority, while the legislative proposals by individual MP’s tend to be pending in the committees for such a long time that they never reach the committee agenda before the Parliament’s term ends, at which point the proposal expires. (Christensen et al. 2017, 9.)

The justifications of the constitution state that the CI should be held comparable with a law proposal by 100 MP’s (out of total 200 MP’s), instead of being held comparable to those made by individual MP’s. Further, the civic society persisted with their demand for acceptable procedures. Especially Open Ministry had a major role in keeping the issue of the procedures topical, until it became somewhat of a customary policy. Yet, the idea of giving privilege to the processions of citizens' initiative has received some criticism from individual MP’s and the secretary-in-chief of the Parliament (Helsingin Sanomat 12.3.2013).

The citizens’ initiative’s consideration in the Parliament begins with a preliminary debate in plenary session. According to the recommendations by the Speaker’s Council, the debates and the committee hearings should be open to individual MP’s, ministers and the media. The initiators of the initiative also have the right to be heard in a relevant committee and state their case. The committees may also hear representatives from relevant ministries and other experts (The Finnish Parliament.)

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

Despite the uncertainty of the noteworthiness of the CI compared to other initiatives, there have been no problems in processing the initiatives in the Finnish Parliament. None of the initiatives have been ‘buried’ in committees, but have received swift and thorough processing. A committee relevant to the issue has given a report on the initiatives, after which the reports have been discussed and voted on at the plenary. The initiators have also been given the right to be heard in the committees and the committee hearings have been open to all MP’s and the media. The open and public committee work has also improved the public image of the committees and the CI and has helped promote openness in legislative decision-making. (Christensen et al. 2017, 10.)

Until March 2017, there have been 600 proposals for initiatives, out of which 543 have expired at the end of the six-months' time limit, without being succesful in collecting the required 50.000 support declarations. For 41 proposals, the signature collection is still ongoing. 16 proposals have reached the status of citizens’ initiative, with the required amount of endorsements, and been delivered to the Parliament’s consideration. Only one (Equal marriage law) has been passed as new legislation, with only minor changes.

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Over the last decades, there has been a discussion of a change in the ways people participate in politics (see eg. Rosanvallon 2006). Traditional political participation (voting, participating in the party politics) has decreased. Concurrently, the popularity of the new modes of political participation has increased. People, especially young people, participate based on single-issue interests. Simultaneously, the gap between people who are politically active and those who are not keeps widening. (Christensen et al. 2017, 1, 5.)

Political participation is linked to personal resources, motivation and networks. Perception of political participation as rational action, sense of duty and accessibility of instruments further increase the probability of participation. Voting in national elections is one of the most common acts of traditional political participation. The study concerning the voting in Finnish parliamentary elections in 2015 states that the pattern regarding the connection between age and voting persists to exist. Young people are less likely to vote than middle-aged, and the voting percentage decreases slightly towards older age. Educational levels of an individual and their parents, occupational and economical statuses, as well as the operational model learned at home are strongly connected to the likelihood of voting. The differences in the levels of political participation of different groups can lead to biases in political representation. More equal society and emphasis on education and accessibility of instruments of participation are likely to level the differences in political participation between different groups thus enhancing the political process. (Grönlund & Wass 2016, 177-194.)

Democratic innovations are targeted to increase the political inclusion. The Finnish Citizens’ Initiative allows citizens to participate in setting the political agenda. It is also expected to mobilize marginalized or politically passive groups. (Christensen et al. 2017, 3.) According to research by Christensen, Jäske, Setälä & Laitinen (2017, 20) the Finnish Citizens’ Initiative has reached the goal of helping to increase the democratic inclusiveness. They also notify that the inequalities in political participation can be seen to have a link to socio-demographic resources and civic skills. Inequality in political participation that leads to bias in representative democracy can further increase the exclusion and inactiveness. (ibid. 5, 18.)

The potential risk that the Citizens’ Initiative becomes an instrument mostly used by the already active groups rather than those marginalized ones has been acknowledged. However, it seems that CI has managed to activate also some of the marginalized groups: especially young people have been more active in using the CI than other forms of political participation. Also women have been more likely to sign an initiative than men. Nonetheless, the CI has not managed to mobilize the people with low political interest, whereas people with links to political parties are more likely to initiate and support initiatives. Internet usage has a strong influence and predicts being active regarding initiatives. (Christensen et al. 2017, 16-19.) Overall it is more likely that the young, more educated people living in cities will initiate or sign an initiative. Same applies to people who identify themselves being politically left rather than right. On the other hand, also unemployment and poor health seem to activate people regarding the CI, whereas usually these factors decrease traditional political participation. (Christensen et al. 2016, 26.)

According to Ministry of Justice 74% of the population acknowledges the Citizens’ Initiative as a positive amendment to democracy (According to Open Ministry the percentage of people of this opinion is 83%). Approximately one third (35%) of the whole population claims to have signed at least one initiative. (Christensen et al. 2016, 43, 444.) To compare, 70,1% of the population used their vote in the last parliamentary elections in 2015 (Grönlund 2016, 66). Perception of the CI seems positive, keeping in mind that it has been in use only since 2012. In addition, it has mobilized some of the marginalized groups. Hence it could be interpreted increasing the inclusiveness of the Finnish political system. However, it cannot erase all inequalities in political participation, and even new inequalities may occur. For example, those less familiar with internet could be marginalized. (Christensen et al. 2017, 12, 20.)

The indirect impact has been more substantial than what it may seem by looking at both, the ratio of proposals for initiatives to the actual CI’s, and the passed legislation. Initiatives have brought issues to the public discussion, partly due to the media attention. Also in few cases the Parliament has decided to take further actions concerning the issues presented in the initiatives. Therefore, it looks like the Citizens’ Initiative has been somewhat successful in affecting the political agenda. The accessibility of the Citizens’ Initiative is increased by the possibility of collecting the signatures on the online platforms. According to research, the fact that most signatures are collected online shows that also those initiatives that are backed with fewer resources can be successful. (Christensen et al. 2016, 14, 41, 63.)

The future success and support of the Citizens’ Initiative depends on the parliamentary handling of them. So far it appears the Parliament has respected the CI’s and has properly processed all the initiatives to have reached the required support of 50.000 citizens. CI seems like a successful supplement to representative democracy, since it does not reduce the use of more traditional modes of political participation. On the contrary, it has been seen as potential instrument of increasing the political participation by activating young people who will continue to also participate later on in life.


 

Secondary Sources

Christensen, Henrik Serup, Karjalainen, Maija. & Nurminen, Laura (2015): Does Crowdsourcing Legislation Increase Political Legitimacy? The Case of Avoin Ministeriö in Finland.

Christensen, Henrik Serup; Jäske, Maija; Setälä, Maija (2016): Kansalaisaloite poliittisen yhdenvertaisuuden näkökulmasta. Teoksessa: Grönlund, Kimmo & Wass, Hanna (toim.): Poliittisen osallistumisen eriytyminen. Eduskuntavaalitutkimus 2015. Oikeusministeriö.

Christensen, Henrik Serup; Jäske, Maija; Setälä, Maija & Laitinen, Elias (2016): Demokraattiset innovaatiot Suomessa – Käyttö ja vaikutukset paikallisella ja valtakunnallisella tasolla. Valtioneuvoston kanslian selvitys ja tutkimustoiminnan julkaisusarja 56/2016.

Christensen, Henrik Serup; Jäske, Maija; Setälä, Maija & Laitinen, Elias (2017): The Finnish Citizens’ Initiative – Towards Inclusive Agenda-Setting? Forthcoming in: Scandinavian Political Studies.

Grönlund, Kimmo (2016): Johdanto. Teoksessa: Grönlund, Kimmo & Wass, Hanna (toim.): Poliittisen osallistumisen eriytyminen. Eduskuntavaalitutkimus 2015. Oikeusministeriö.

Grönlund, Kimmo & Wass, Hanna  (2016): Yhdenvertaisuus äänestyskopissa: äänestysaktiivisuus vuoden 2015 eduskuntavaaleissa. Teoksessa: Grönlund, Kimmo & Wass, Hanna (toim.): Poliittisen osallistumisen eriytyminen. Eduskuntavaalitutkimus 2015. Oikeusministeriö.

Finlex: Suomen Perustuslaki. Online. Accessed 18.3.2017. URL: http://finlex.fi/fi/laki/ajantasa/1999/19990731?search%5Btype%5D=pika&se...

Finlex: Kansalaisaloitelaki. Online. Accessed 31.3.2017. URL: http://finlex.fi/fi/laki/ajantasa/2012/20120012

The Finnish Parliament: Citizens’ initiative. Online. Accessed 29.3.2017. URL:https://www.eduskunta.fi/EN/lakiensaataminen/kansalaisaloite/Pages/defau...

Oikeusministeriö: Sähköinen kansalaisaloitesivusto / Ministry of Justice: the online platform for Citizens’ Initiative. Online. Accessed 19.3.2017. URL: https://www.kansalaisaloite.fi/fi

Open Ministry: an online tool for crowd sourced legislation and participative democracy. Online. Accessed 19.3.2017. URL: https://avoinministerio.fi/, http://openministry.info/

Helsingin Sanomat, 12.03.2013: Eduskunnan pääsihteeri sättii kansalaisaloitetta: Lain perusteet “varomattomia”. Online. Accessed 17.3.2017. URL: http://www.hs.fi/kotimaa/a1362978217346

 

Case Data

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