Finland’s Relationship With Direct Democracy

Finland’s Relationship With Direct Democracy

Finland's relationship with DD2

Question (2/7): What is the current situation in Finland regarding Direct Democracy? Does the political system allow the participation of citizens in the decision making process [besides parliamentary elections] and, if yes, how? What is the opinion of the Finns about direct democracy? Do they have similar political tools in their history or is it all new to them and how do they feel about this?

Answer: The Finnish Constitution and the Local Government Act (LGA) both contain regulations for an advisory plebiscite and for an agenda initiative. So far there have been two national advisory plebiscites (1931 alcohol prohibition, 1995 accession to the EU) and more than fifty local advisory plebiscites (almost exclusively on the merging of municipalities).

The terminology used in the Finnish law can be misleading in so far as it refers to a direct democracy that does not exist. To get the real picture one has to translate the local names into the names used in my typology. Then we can see that what the Finnish law calls a referendum is in fact a plebiscite; what is called a citizens’ initiative is only an agenda setting initiative; and the popular votes are consultative. The reality behind the terminology used is not that of a real direct democracy: Finnish citizens do not have any decision-making power regarding substantive political issues.

Finland has almost no experience with direct democracy, there is little understanding of it and there is a lack of established words or concepts for describing its different instruments. Direct democracy has not been a significant issue in the campaigns for the Finnish Parliament Elections. Since independence a rather negative attitude towards the idea of direct democracy has prevailed and only in recent years positive voices have become noticeable. The golden thread running through the states popular vote policy since the 1920s has been to secure the monopoly of decision making on substantive issues for the politicians. The same thread runs through the states participation policies of the last two decades. Citizen participation is subordinated to „ strong representative democracy“ and „ direct democracy“ is given a merely consultative role.

Finnish experiences with citizen participation are in many respects similar to experiences in other places and at other times. What Sherry Arnstein wrote in a well-known article on citizen participation as long ago as 1969 is true also for the consultation of citizens, an obligation set by many legal acts in today’s Finland: „ What citizens achieve in all this activity is that they have ‚ participated in participation.‘ And what powerholders achieve is the evidence that they have gone through the required motions of involving ‚ those people‘ .“

The conclusion is unavoidable that in Finland the popular vote continues to be an instrument for the government to exercise power rather than a means for real citizen participation in political decision making. Citizen participation is still not understood as citizen power. Instead of real participation citizens are offered rubber-stamp participation; people have little opportunities and resources to influence the policies designed „ for their benefit“ . If there is a will for sharing power with the citizens, it is still overshadowed by the old mentality which is rather hostile towards citizen participation in decision making and tries to avoid it as best as possible.

However, another tradition is available, which goes back to before independence. Like in Germany and Austria, also in Finland the Social Democratic Party and workers’ movement adopted as one of their major demands “the right to direct legislation for the people by way of the right to propose and repeal laws” (Party Congress in Forssa 1903). In 1908 and 1914 proposals for local direct democracy were submitted to the Parliament. The 1918 draft constitution of the Finnish left contained provisions for a popular initiative which included the possibility of a counter proposal by Parliament. The plan was to submit the constitution to a referendum. But after the defeat of the left in the civil war the idea of direct democracy was set aside where it has remained until today.

Finland's relationship with DD

Local name: refers to the terms used in Finnish law
Form of procedure: refers to my typology of popular vote procedures
LGA: Local Government Act


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