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All six citizen’s initiatives have failed – activists accuse Parliament of intentionally slowing the process

Each of the six citizen’s initiatives that have proceeded through the proper channels to reach the parliamentary floor for discussion has failed. The Finnish Parliament says it doesn’t have the time to hear them and they can’t be moved to another date. Activists say technical shortcomings are poor justification for the slowness of the process.

Kansalaisaloite tasa-arvoisesta avioliittolaista luovutettiin eduskunnan puhemies Eero Heinäluomalle joulukuussa 2013.
A citizen’s initiative on gender-neutral marriage was delivered to the Parliamentary Speaker Eero Heinäluoma in December 2013. Image: Yle

The idea of a citizen’s initiative was introduced in Finland on 1 March 2012, meant to complement traditional representative democracy. The reality is proving to be a letdown, however, as none of the initiatives proposed to date have been a success.

A minimum of 50,000 Finnish citizens of voting age are required to submit a statement of support in order for the initiative to move on for consideration. A citizen’s organisation built up to support the citizen’s initiatives says the Parliament’s justification for the slow handling of the proposals is just an excuse.

“I hope that at least one initiative, or part of one, would have gone through,” says Joonas Pekkanen of Avoin ministeriö ry, a volunteer crowdsourcing group that promotes citizen’s initiatives.

A more transparent hearing process

Pekkanen says technical shortcomings are a bad justification for the slowness of the processing.

“I think decision-makers have pulled out the legal-technical shortcomings card without any reason to a certain extent, using it as an excuse to keep the initiative from proper consideration in the Parliament,” says Pekkanen.  

In addition, he hopes that the processing of citizen’s initiatives in the Parliament would become more transparent.  He would particularly like the committee work to be more open. He also argues for a consultative general referendum on abandoned citizen’s initiatives.

“At least it would offer some kind of legal rights to those citizens would go through the trouble of collecting 50,000 statements of support,” he says.

Discussion starters at least

Social sciences professor Jan Sundberg does not think the situation is quite so grim.

“They engender discourse on the matter. Not just those who have supported the initiative, but also among the larger public. People remember the issue, and perhaps support it by the time the government proposes it for law,” says Sundberg.

Sundberg says the initiatives could even be tied to referendums some day.

“Normally citizen’s initiatives are connected to referendums, but that is not the case in Finland. If they were given more legal ground, it could distribute decision-making more equitably. But this is just speculation; something that could come up in the future,” Sundberg says.

Of the 266 published initiatives, only six have reached the point that they have passed through the relevant committees and been submitted to the Parliament. The six issues that have been considered to date are tightening penalties for drunken driving, changes to the energy certification law, gender-neutral marriage, making Swedish instruction optional in schools, copyright reform and opposition to birthing centre closures.

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