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From Finland and Switzerland with love

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By Bruno Kaufmann

Just in time for the festive season two countries have sent out a couple of very friendly messages to the rest of the world. While the Swiss offered a genuine lesson in openness and modern direct democracy, Finland’s first successful citizens’ initiative made (almost) everybody happy.

The last weekend of a long and – in many parts of Europe – very harsh and grey November saw one of the last electoral high points of the year. While the Taiwanese clearly indicated that they want more democracy (and somewhat less China), Swiss voters were called to take a stand on three nationwide issues and hundreds more at state and local levels.

But the weekend started with a big party in chilly Helsinki, Finland’s capital city. With 105 ‘yes’ votes to 92 ‘no’, the Finnish Parliament (Eduskunta) approved a new law allowing same-sex couples to officially marry.

While Finland is not the first country to allow gays to wed, it is the first time that such a nationwide decision was launched by the people themselves via a citizens’ initiative. Finland introduced the new right for citizens to set the agenda of the national parliament back in 2012 as part of a bigger update of its constitution.

279 nationwide initiatives in two years

The new tool offers a minimum of 50,000 Finnish citizens aged 18 and above the possibility to propose a new national law and it has become a very popular way for people to make their voices heard. As of today, 279 nationwide citizens’ initiatives have been filed and 254 concluded. But only five of these gathered the required number of signatures within six months. 

What makes the Finnish citizens’ agenda-setting somewhat unique is the possibility to gather signatures electronically. Together with the transnational European Citizens’ Initiative, which was also established in 2012, Finland’s “kansalaisaloite” has the most developed participation hardware available worldwide.

Bruno Kaufmann serves as Chairman of the Democracy Council and Election Commission in Falun, Sweden; and is president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe and co-chair of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. He is the correspondent for Northern Europe at the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation and Editor-in-Chief of people2power.info, a direct democracy platform created and hosted by www.swissinfo.ch

(Bruno Kaufmann)

Of the 166,851 supporting signatures for the same-sex marriage initiative, 156,234 (or 93.6%) were gathered online. The initiative was launched in March 2013 and delivered to Parliament in December the same year. 

It has become a powerful tool for finally convincing a majority in the Finnish Parliament to change their minds and tear down another bastion of inequality between people. 

Interestingly, the Finnish Lutheran Archbishop Kari Mäkinens supported the citizens’ initiative from the very beginning. Within hours of the positive decision in Parliament more than 12,000 people notified the state church that they intended to leave it in protest against the progressive step.

Further south, in Switzerland, the citizens themselves voted in a 2005 referendum vote to allow gays to freely live together and enjoy most of the same legal privileges as married couples.

Last weekend the Swiss electorate sent another kind message of love to the world. 

Weakest result for anti-immigrants ever

Confronted by a eco-nationalist proposal to curb immigration to a minimum (0.2% per year, about 16,000 people), almost two million Swiss citizens voted “no” (74.1%), leaving just 670,000 votes (25.9%) in favour. 

This was the weakest-ever result in a nationwide Swiss popular vote for an anti-immigration proposal, something which has been put forward and discussed many times in Switzerland, with more than 30 such votes in the last 150 years. 

At the same time the November 30 voting day offered an impressive lesson in how a modern direct democracy can fine-tune highly emotional issues like immigration. 

In yet another closely observed vote, the Swiss voted down – by a share of more than 77% – a proposal which would have obliged the Swiss National Bank to keep at least 20% of its assets in gold.

With the November 30 votes Switzerland also celebrated another interesting feature of its well-developed participative democracy. Over the past ten years more than 30 nationwide popular votes have been held including the possibility for some of the electorate to participate online. 

In 12 out of 26 cantons, especially citizens living outside the country, voters have been invited to cast their ballots via the internet. This is an option which has been welcomed and widely accepted, as more than two-thirds of the participating voters have opted for the online option.

Finland and Switzerland have therefore sent some very friendly and encouraging signals in a year which, in addition to all the bad and sad things, has seen more countries and people involved in electoral processes than ever before –more than 50% of the world’s population for the first time in history.

Opinion series

swissinfo.ch publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. Over time, the selection of articles will present a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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