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Nearly 4 years of citizens' initiatives: Just one breakthrough in over 450 proposals

It's been nearly four years since Finland embarked on an experiment to give ordinary people a greater say in lawmaking via citizens' initiatives. In that time however, just a handful of proposals have made it to Parliament and only one has seen MPs vote to rewrite national legislation. One activist for crowdsourced legislation says it’s time to step back and review the system.

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A massive crowd turned out in downtown Helsinki on November 28, 2014 to celebrate the legalisation of same sex marriage. It is so far the only citizen's initiative to have completed the course through Parliament. Image: Vesa Moilanen / Lehtikuva

November 28, 2014 was a watershed moment for Finnish democracy as well as for gay rights. It was the first time that a peoples' initiative directly influenced the national Parliament - resulting in the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Three years on though, no other initiative has made a similar breakthrough.  Joonas Pekkanen, founder of the Open Ministry platform that promotes crowdsourced legislation, said that now might be a good time to step back and take a look at the system.

"One worry is that just one citizen’s initiative has passed and has directly influenced national legislation in the more than three years since citizens have been given the right to do so," he noted.

Activist: Parliamentary committees should help calibrate proposals

He pointed to the fact that although just under a dozen initiatives have met the 50,000-signature requirement to go before lawmakers, all but one was rejected, mainly because MPs complained of the "lack of technical merit".

Pekkanen said that it’s time to modify the system so that sponsors of initiatives can work more closely with Parliamentary committees to ensure that proposals are better framed before they are tabled for MPs to debate.

"The current system is too rigid in that citizens' initiatives are treated in the same way as other legislation brought to Parliament by the government and which are generally well thought through and prepared,” he pointed out.

Campaigning a key to success

Pekkanen pointed out that the same-sex marriage initiative fared well, partly because of the extensive preparation that went into the proposal and its related campaign. He advised future sponsors of initiatives to pay close attention to campaign planning.

The citizen’s initiative programme was rolled out by the Justice Ministry in 2012, after legislation was passed to guarantee citizens’ constitutional right to influence democracy by way of the initiative. Many proposals make use of an online platform provided by the Ministry, kansalaisaloite.fi

Johanna Suurpää, director of the unit for Democracy, Language Affairs and Fundamental Rights agreed that while initiatives need to be well-framed, publicity is also essential to get the support required to take proposals to Parliament.

"There are many relatively good initiatives that never really got off the ground because there was not enough attention and the media didn't pick it up. That is quite a challenge and it should be taken seriously," she said.

Professor: Direct impact on Parliamentary work

Professor Maija Setälä of Turku University’s department of political science said she felt that citizens' initiatives have had a direct impact on the work of the Parliament, since proposals no longer come only from the government or political parties.

"MPs now have to reflect and can follow their own convictions rather than the party line. It has overall made parliamentary proceedings more transparent," she added.

While Setälä said that the online platform makes it easy to launch initiatives and to create online campaigns, she pondered whether interest in the instrument could eventually lag.

"Early publicity and interest in the new instrument has helped the citizens' initiative. It is not as evident that it will be as successful in the future and this needs to be addressed going forward," she advised.

Citizens' initiative or protest channel?

Since the launch of the ministry’s online petition platform, some 462 citizens' initiatives have been registered.  Johanna Suurpää of the Justice Ministry said that interest in the platform has remained steady in the nearly four years since it came online. She acknowledged that in some cases the instrument may have been used as a channel to air public frustrations.

"The idea is to encourage participatory democracy and create channels for people to get their voices heard and that can take many forms. Sometimes it is a serious initiative to go to Parliament and other times it may be launching a campaign to raise a certain point in society more generally. That’s fine with us," she declared.

Open Ministry’s Joonas Pekkanen echoed Suurpää’s view that the citizens' initiative is also a valid tool when used as a protest channel. He said there will be some ideas that don't get widespread support, but people should be able to air their concerns all the same.

"Seeing that their views are not shared could be a useful process. Of course some initiatives are clearly not viable or may even be racist in tone, but luckily they don’t seem to have gathered much support," Pekkanen observed.

Citizens' initiative as an alternative to the ballot

Although divided on whether or not there are kinks to be worked out of the system, Pekkanen, Suurpää and Setälä agreed that the citizens' initiative process has opened up an important opportunity for ordinary people to make a difference in their democracy.

"We are not totally satisfied with … the number of people that go to polling stations during elections. Also some people say that the youth are not as active as they used to be in terms of voting. So I think that may have created awareness that maybe we need to think of something else to provide alternative platforms for participation."

Although Suurpää said that the ministry is generally pleased with the open democracy project, she said that there have been some change proposals coming from members of the public.

"Sometimes there is a discussion about whether 50,000 signatures is the right benchmark, but we are not sure there can ever be a right number," she noted.

For now though, the platform will remain unchanged. Suurpää said that the ministry has commissioned independent research into the citizens' initiative system. Once the results of the study are final in autumn this year, the ministry will consider whether any changes are needed.

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