Finns Party youth hope citizens' initiative will force MPs to debate 'Fixit' referendum

Citizens' initiatives have provided ordinary people with a powerful tool for civic activism, says Turku University political science professor Maija Setälä. The Finns Party youth wing is hoping it can use the instrument to force MPs to consider an EU membership referendum, since its own MPs must abide by a government manifesto that explicitly calls for Finland to remain a member of the EU.

Sukupuolineutraalin avioliittolain kannattajat kerääntyvät ennen eduskunnan äänestystä 28. marraskuuta Kansalaistorille.
Large crowds gathered in Citizens' Square in downtown Helsinki for the historical vote on same-sex marriage in November 2014. Image: Yle

However Justice Minister Jari Lindström says there need to be limits set on citizens’ initiatives with opposing positions on the same issue. The minister was commenting on a citizens’ initiative calling on government to erase new gender neutral marriage laws.

In November 2014, citizens’ initiatives scored a breakthrough in Finland when Parliament legalized same-sex marriage on the back of a citizens’ initiative launched to take the issue to lawmakers.

Since legal reforms came into force in 2012 making way for citizens’ initiatives, the Justice Ministry has received some 1,500 legislative proposals. Turku University political science professor Maija Setälä was involved in setting up the system. She said that the goal was to promote civic activism, something she said has been accomplished.

"It’s very popular among people. I would also say that the citizens’ initiative has also been quite accessible to small NGOs, so it has not been a tool only for very well-established organizations or political parties," she noted.

Finns Party youth arm hoping to reverse govt position

Finns Party youth wing leader Sebastian Tynkkynen is hoping to use the citizens’ initiative to get Parliament to consider a referendum on Finland’s membership in the EU. In less than a month, an initiative set up around the time of the UK’s Brexit vote has so far garnered nearly half the 50,000 signatories needed to take it before MPs.

"The government can’t push for a Fixit [Finnish EU exit]. It is not part of the government manifesto, so the government can’t do it. But that’s why we have the citizens’ channel," Tynkkynen explained.

The young populists are therefore using the instrument to pursue a goal that runs counter to the programme of a government in which its seniors are a partner. In this sense, its course resembles that of the gender neutral marriage initiative, which had been omitted from the previous government programme at the request of the Christian Democrats. Nor did the Christian Democrats leave the coalition once the law was passed.

Tynkkynen said that the previous experience has serves as a blueprint for the Finns Party juniors.

"We are using the same instrument now during this current government term so we are bringing an issue that is outside the government programme to the Parliament using the citizens’ initiative. Of course we hope that we will get as much support as possible from our MPs as well."

However if the Fixit initiative does make it to Parliament the situation will still be a bit different from the marriage equality initiative, since remaining a member of the EU has been explicitly written into the current government manifesto.

Justice Minister: Limits needed for counter-initiatives

Same-sex marriage legislation is so far the first and only citizen-sponsored law to be written into the Finnish legal code. Justice Minister Jari Lindström said it proves the system works.

"Eleven [initiatives] have made it to Parliament. So we can say that it works to some extent. And my understanding is that it has fired up people’s enthusiasm to take matters forward this way," Lindström added.

However shortly after MPs voted to legalise same-sex marriage, a counter movement gave rise to another citizens’ initiative calling for the law to be repealed. Finns Party MP and minister Lindström has called for a discussion on limiting counter-initiatives.

"They should somehow be limited in terms of time so that a new initiative can’t be started within a certain period – or that it’s not possible to launch an initiative on the same issue. This is something that should be discussed. Because it surely isn’t the intention that people start an initiative, then a counter-initiative, and then another. That’s an endless road," Lindström declared.

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