Background, initiator and participants
From March 2012, the Constitution of Finland made it possible to allow for a citizen action to be submitted to the Parliament of Finland subject to the support of a minimum of 50,000 signatures. Formal conditions and processes can be found in the Citizens’ Initiative Act (12/2012). The Ministry of Justice launched a web service (see www.kansalaisaloite.fi) to facilitate the creation of citizens’ initiatives which can be supported by the general public.
Citizens’ initiatives have been very well received in Finland. In the last six years, more than 1000 initiatives have been processed, with 37 initiatives successfully reaching the minimum number of 50,000 signatures. One initiative led to direct changes in legislation (concerning equal marital rights) while others had an indirect influence on legislation.
Of those initiatives having successfully reached the minimum of 50,000 signatures, at least six related to bioethical issues. Several initiatives on bioethical issues did not reach the required number of signatures. Overall, it can be said that bioethical issues are well reflected in the initiatives by Finnish citizens.
The most well-known initiative concerned euthanasia and assisted suicide (over 63,000 supporters). Parliament repealed the law on euthanasia but required the Government to nominate a working group investigating these issues and possibly making a proposal for new legislation.
An initiative to ensure equal marital rights (with over 166,000 supporters) led to new legislation allowing the same rights for those in same-sex marriages as formerly given to married heterosexual couples. This initiative (with over 55,000 supporters) resulted in a new Maternity Act (which allows both parties in a lesbian couple equal rights of legal parenthood according to a defined process. Also, the definition of motherhood now allows transsexual men to be recognised as mothers and to access social support connected to the birth of a child.
Proposal to enact or draft legislation - A citizens' initiative can propose the enactment or drafting of new legislation. It can also concern the amendment or repeal of existing legislation. An initiative in the form of a bill must contain the proposed legal text. An initiative must confine itself to a particular matter and must present justifications.
Fixed period for gathering signatures - An initiative must be signed by the required number of people within a period of six months. Signatures can be collected on paper or online (e.g. kansalaisaloite.fi). When enough signatures have been collected, the initiative is sent to the Population Register Centre, which checks names and confirms the number of approved signatures.
Consideration in Parliament - After the Population Register Centre has checked names and confirmed that at least 50,000 approved signatures have been collected, a spokesperson for the initiative can submit it to Parliament for consideration. If an initiative is not submitted to Parliament within six months of the date on which the Population Register Centre has made its decision, it is allowed to lapse.
Parliament has an obligation to consider a citizens’ initiative, but it is up to Parliament whether it wishes to approve an initiative, with or without changes. If an initiative is rejected by Parliament, a new initiative concerning the same matter can be set in motion.
Notable features and lessons learned
The citizens’ initiative is today the most important democratic innovation at the national level in Finland. According to a report from 2016 on Democratic Innovations (in English on page 4), about one third of those eligible to vote have signed at least one initiative. The citizens’ initiative seems to engage some of those socio-demographic groups which tend to be otherwise politically passive, especially younger citizens.
The citizens' initiative is an effective way to promote and support free civic activity and public debate and thus strengthen civil society. The websites have provided an active platform for the citizens to reach out to a broader audience while, at the same time, providing an opportunity to feed ideas into the political arena. They allow for greater visibility of the public’s views.
There are several initiatives on bioethical issues on the website. The most well known was the citizen initiative on euthanasia, which led to an inquiry. This will most certainly lead to a better understanding of the options and possibly eventually to a proposal on legislative changes on end-of-life care, assisted suicide and/or euthanasia. This example shows how providing a forum for citizens to voice their views can create an opportunity for the government to explore new directions.
A website allowing for the public to participate in initiating new legislation can have great impact for marginalized groups or in relation to a specific issue. The transparency of the website allows for citizens to be involved in the legislation process and makes the process easy to follow. This includes citizens in a whole new way and brings them closer to the legislators.
The limitation, in comparison with other ways to involve the public, is that the website only provides information given by the initiator and does not provide a forum of further debate, which must be organised separately.