Challenges of Initiative and Referendum in Finland

Finland has a constitution based on the notion of highly representative democracy. Traditionally, it has also been seen as a semi-presidential constitution, compared to more parliamentary types of political system. The powers of the President were in fact not reduced until the latest amendments to the constitution in 2000. These two characteristics of the constitution can be seen as two sides of the same coin. The unique character of the Finnish constitution could be explained by the fact that plans for Finland to become a kingdom upon gaining independence in 1917 were never realised. The royalists did not want to see strong parliamentary control, mostly for fear of left-wing rebellion. Bearing this in mind, it is not surprising that the most comprehensive proposal until the present day for a constitution on the basis of public initiative and referendum was drawn up in 1918 by a left-wing socialist Otto-Wille Kuusinen. Needless to say, it never had a chance. The republicans were victorious in the struggle regarding the constitution, although they had to make concessions to royalists in the form of a powerful presidential institution which left little room for direct democracy. Another important element of the Finnish constitution is its “flexible” nature: it has taken many forms, depending on the particular requirements of past presidents of the Republic. During, and in the long period following the Second World War, in which Finland nearly lost her independence, the President made full use of his power as the sole decision-maker in foreign policy. Foreign policy served the interest of national security, which was felt to be best guaranteed when executed by only one person. Only in the recently amended version of the constitution did the obligation of the President to decide “in co-operation with the Council of State (government)” all matters relating to foreign policy first appear. Still, the Finnish President continues to exercise a great deal more power than the equivalents in other European countries. Finland is also a central state, even though the Parliament building has a room which was to become a second chamber. A small population of merely five million is spread over a territory larger than the whole of Germany. The regions have very weak powers vis-à-vis the central state and even now, the regional councils are not directly elected. It can be noted that federal states seem to have more elements of direct democracy than central states. However, Finland makes good use of delegation and regularly delegates competence to local levels, i.e. municipalities. This again could lead to future steps towards direct democracy.

The Finnish constitution also allows for consultations of the people. Section 53 of the constitution stipulates, “The decision to organise a consultative referendum is made by an Act, which shall contain the provisions on the time of the referendum and on the choices to be presented to the voters. Provisions concerning the conduct of the referendum shall be laid down in the Act.” In fact, such a consultation of the people has only been arranged twice, firstly in 1932 regarding the abolition of the alcohol prohibition, then again in 1994 relating to the accession of Finland to the European Union. In the context of the latter consultation it became disturbingly clear that the ultimate decision-maker, i.e. the Parliament, could speculate freely about whether it was going to follow the result of the consultation or not. Around that time, I proposed to the Finnish Parliament, without much success, an amendment to the constitution, calling for the Danish model to be incorporated into the decision-making process on international agreements and all other important decisions which would reduce national sovereignty. This would give the citizens the final decision, subject to certain provisions regarding quorum etc., if the Parliament found itself unable to agree to a decision by a sufficiently large majority. In 1995, the Finnish Parliament decided to carry out a reform to the constitution regarding the fundamental rights contained therein. No elements of direct democracy were introduced. However, tentative steps towards the exercise of a greater influence by citizens in decision-making can be found. Section 20 of the constitution stipulates, “Nature and its biodiversity, the environment and national heritage are the responsibility of everyone. The public authorities shall endeavour to guarantee for everyone the right to a healthy environment and the possibility to influence the decisions concerning their own living environment.” Another significant change was the guarantee of a fundamental right of public access to information introduced by Section 12, “Documents and recordings in the possession of the authorities are public, unless their disclosure has, for compelling reasons, been specifically restricted by an Act. Everyone has a right of access to public documents and recordings.” The law on Public Access to Documents was reformed in 1999. A lively debate continues on whether and how the future EU Regulation on Public Access to Documents will influence Finnish law and practice in this domain. With regard to the most recent amendment of the constitution in 2000, the main failure identified is the lack of any improvement in the direct political rights of the citizens. The normalisation of presidential powers (a process which still has far to go) should have been complemented by the introduction of a proper right of public initiative and referendum. Many political scientists have supported these proposals. This remains the biggest challenge of the next constitutional reform, even if the political establishment believes they have just finalised a “constitutional reform of the 21st century”.

Once independence had been attained, a right of referendum was introduced into Finnish Local Government law, but was soon abolished. The Local Government Act contains (since 1990) a right of initiative (Section 28), “Local residents have the right to submit initiatives to the local authority in matters related to its operations. Persons submitting initiatives shall be informed of action taken as a result of an initiative. At least once a year, the municipal council shall be informed of all initiatives submitted in matters within its competence and of action taken as a result. If the persons submitting the initiative on a matter within the competence of the council represent at least two percent of the local residents, the matter shall be considered by the council not later than six months after the matter is initiated.” The law obliges the municipal council to consider the need to arrange a consultation of the people if it has been proposed by at least two percent of the residents of that municipality. But there is no obligation for the council to arrange it. Thus we see that several recent initiatives have been turned down by the councils, e.g. on the construction of a new highway through an important wilderness area in Southern Finland (Lohja) and on the construction of a bridge through a valuable historic urban area (Tampere). Local consultations of the people are mainly organised in connection with intended fusions of neighbouring local authorities, and are thus often in the direct interest of the stronger authority as a tool to convince the residents of the weaker authority that the fusion should go ahead. In at least one case (Kuorevesi), the council directly rejected the negative result of a consultation on such a fusion with another municipality. Such consultations tend to be more concerned with the interests of leaders of municipalities, rather than the expression of the democratic needs of the residents within these municipalities. In the context of a new Land Use and Building Act adopted in 1999, one of the main discussions was about the need to strengthen the residents’ right to influence their local environment. According to Section 1, “The Act also aims to ensure that everyone has the right to participate in the preparation process, that planning is interactive and of a high quality, that all necessary expert advice has been sought and that information is openly provided on matters being processed.” It is not really possible to evaluate whether this law is going to make any real difference from the residents’ point of view. A major problem has been and still is that there are many hidden private/economic interests in local decision-making, leading to the well-documented cases of local corruption, which dictate the planning and land-use process more than the above-mentioned principles of participation.

With regard to state decision-making, we should already be starting to think about the next constitutional modification with a view to introducing a right of public initiative and referendum. In addition to sections on the right of public initiative and referendum, the aforementioned Danish rule regarding referendums where national sovereignty is being passed to international organisations should also be considered. These changes would be welcomed by many, although much work remains to be done before they can be introduced, due to the highly representative nature of the Finnish constitution. On a local level, there appear to be grounds for a little more optimism with regards to the near future. Dr. Marja Sutela has in her recent dissertation (2000, University of Joensuu) shown how and why the existing conditional and insufficient right of public initiative and consultation of the people should be reformed. Her dissertation has sparked off a reasonably lively debate on the subject. I believe that the time has come to propose a right of public initiative and referendum at both local and national levels. The frustration of a large number of NGOs and citizen activists who feel that they do not have a real say in the running of their country would provide a solid basis for the campaign. It is likely that contribution and support would be forthcoming from some academia, although unfortunately most political parties and politicians continue to refute the clear need for a review of Finnish governing practices.

Stockholm, 27 May, 2000