A climate change demonstration in front of the Parliament Building in March 2019. Photo: Finnish Parliament.

​Forums for civic engagement

The central tools for civic engagement in direct democracy are citizen and local resident initiatives and referendums. Different organisations, such as political parties, offer a channel for civic engagement. Public debate brings common issues into the public domain and, thereby, potentially into the sphere of political decision making.

​Right of initiative

The citizens’ initiative impacting legislation drafting is the most well known and used form of initiative. Less well known and frequently used initiatives are the European citizens’ initiative impacting the legislative drafting of the EU, the local residents initiative impacting the local operations and the initiative for arranging a municipal referendum.

Citizens’ initiative

At least 50,000 Finnish citizens who are eligible to vote can submit an initiative to Parliament for the enactment of 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. The initiative must concern a matter within the scope of the legislative powers of Parliament.

Citizens’ initiatives can be submitted, supported or browsed in the Kansalaisaloite.fi service. Supporting a citizens’ initiative is as important as submitting one.

Before submitting a citizens’ initiative, it is worth to review the valid legislation. It is also recommended to at least scan through Legal drafter’s guide (Lainkirjoittajan opas), although citizens’ initiatives are subject to only minor form and content requirements according to the Citizens´ initiative act.

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European citizens’ initiative

A European citizens’ initiative is an invitation to the European Commission to propose legislation on matters where the EU has the competence to legislate. These matters include the environment, agriculture, transport and public health.    

In order to launch a citizens’ initiative, citizens must form a “citizens' committee”. The committee must be composed of at least seven EU citizens who are citizens of at least 7 different Member States. The members of the citizens’ committee must be EU citizens old enough to vote in the European elections. A citizens’ initiative has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least seven EU countries (of the 27 Member States). A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those seven Member States. 

The Commission carefully examines the initiative. Within 6 months of receiving the initiative, the Commission will inform whether it will take action and, if so, what kind of actions will be taken in terms of the citizens’ initiative. A Commission Communication will be published about the results. A Commission Communication is an official document formally adopted by the College of Commissioners and published in all official EU languages.

The Commission is not obliged to propose legislation as a result of an initiative. If the Commission decides to put forward a legislative proposal, the normal legislative procedure begins: the Commission proposal is submitted to the legislator (generally the European Parliament and the Council or in some cases only the Council). The law becomes valid only if adopted by legislator. 

The minimum numbers of signatories for initiatives required in different EU countries.

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Local residents initiative

According to the Finnish Local Government Act, Section 23, local residents have the right to submit initiatives to the local authority on matters related to its operations. Persons submitting initiatives must be informed of action taken as a result of an initiative. At least once a year, the council must be informed of all initiatives submitted in matters within its purview and of action taken as a result.

If the persons submitting an initiative on a matter within the purview of the council represent at least two per cent of the local residents entitled to vote, the matter must be considered by the council not later than six months after the matter is instituted.

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Initiating a local referendum

Local residents representing at least four per cent of those entitled to vote, who have reached the age of 15, may initiate a referendum. The council must decide on initiating a referendum without undue delay.

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In Finland, referendums are consultative.

National referendum

According to Section 53 of the Constitution Act, the decision to organise a consultative national referendum (Valtiollinen kansanäänestys) and on the choices to be presented to the voters is made by an Act. To date, two referendums have been held in Finland. The referendum on the repeal of the prohibition was held on 29–30 December 1931 and on Finland’s EU membership on 16 October 1994.

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Local referendum

The act governing the consultative local referendum (Kunnallinen kansanäänestys​) came into force on 1 August 1990. In most cases, referendums have been held on municipal mergers. According to the Local Government Act, the council can decide to hold a referendum. Local residents representing at least five per cent of those entitled to vote may also initiate a referendum.

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Political parties, representative associations and NGOs

Political parties

A party is a registered association entered in the party register. A party entered in the party register must have a party agenda. The party agenda represents the main principles and objectives to influence society and policy-making. A party will be deleted from the register if it fails to gain a seat in the Parliament in two consecutive parliamentary elections. The party register is maintained by the Ministry of Justice. Party activities are governed by the Act on Political Parties.

In representative democracy, citizens can influence state and local matters through parties, as it is the parties (and electoral associations) who are entitled to nominate candidates for elections. Political parties offer voters a choice of programmes, actions and candidates to choose from. In the Parliament, MPs form parliamentary groups (Eduskuntaryhmät) based on party membership.

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Representative associations and NGOs

Representative associations are associations looking after the interests of their members. Economic representative associations negotiate mutually and with the Government on reconciling their respective interests. For example, labour market lobbies exist both for the employees, such as the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions, and the employer sector, such as the Confederation of Finnish Industries.

NGOs provide a structured forum for civic engagement and participation and are therefore perhaps the most easily identifiable actors in civic society. Two of the key remits of NGOs are to influence societal issues and to contribute to policy making by channelling the needs and expertise of their members towards the process. During legislative drafting, consultation with citizens takes place with NGOs, among others.

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Public debate

The Constitution guarantees everyone freedom of expression. Freedom of expression entails the right to express, disseminate and receive information, opinions and other communications without prior prevention by anyone.

In terms of political influence, discussion taking place in the public sphere is important. Public debate is there to make issues public and to place these issues within the remit of public decision making. The public sphere for debate includes the traditional media and, to an increasing degree, the social media.

The social media open up opportunities for dialogue between politicians and the public as well as for communication and interaction independent of party organisations and the traditional media. The social media reinforce citizens’ freedom to disseminate and receive information without anyone’s prior intervention. It has also made expressing individual opinions, preferences and support much easier than previously was the case.

The debate takes place on many levels: amongst citizens, between communities, and between policy-makers and the public – globally and locally alike.

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Petitions, boycotts and demonstrations

A petition is a political statement signed by several signatories. The main purpose of a petition is to place an issue on the public agenda and thereby bring it to the attention of decision makers.

Any citizen may, individually or in association with others, submit a petition to the European Parliament. The petition may present an individual request, a complaint or an observation concerning the application of EU law or an appeal to the European Parliament to adopt a position on a specific matter. Such petitions give the European Parliament the opportunity to call attention to any infringement of a European citizen's rights by a Member State or local authorities or other institutions.

A boycott is the act of abstaining from buying, selling or other, often economic, interaction. Usually, the goal of the boycott is to force the target of the boycott to change their behaviour, for example, a business practice deemed immoral or unfair. Economic sanctions are exercised by a state or several states on another state in order to influence the actions taken by means of economic penalties.

According to the Constitution, everyone has the right to arrange meetings and demonstrations without a permit, as well as the right to participate in them. The objectives of the Assembly Act are to guarantee the exercise of the freedom of assembly, as provided in the Constitution of Finland, as well as to lay down the necessary regulatory provisions on the arrangement of public meetings and public events.

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​Impact guides

Youth engagement is a central value for the Finnish National Youth Council Allianssi. The Democracy education and engagement (Demokratiakasvatus ja osallisuus) service provides professional support, presentations of visiting speakers, online training and access to the Osallisuuden vahvistajat (Engagement boosters) network. The service also offers methods and models to support the youth influencing skills and increase their knowledge of influencing.

The Kuntalaiset keskiöön guide is intended for everyone interested in municipal engagement and people working with engagement issues. Municipal engagement toolbox.

Näin voi vaikuttaa (This is how you can influence). Nuorten politiikkakoulu (Youth political school), Oulu, Finland. The Näin voi vaikuttaa (This is how you can influence) guide introduces several different influencing methods and places, from which everyone can find their own way of influencing and participating.

Osallistu.fi was created to inspire and provide extensive information about local engagement and influencing methods to people who are interested in participation and influencing.

The websites of municipalities and cities have their own Osallistu ja vaikuta (Participate and influence) pages. Usually these pages can be found on the Hallinto ja päätöksenteko (Administration and decision-making) page. For example, on the City of Oulu’s website Osallistu ja vaikuta (Participate and influence)  page includes sections Vaikuta verkossa (Influence online), Osallistuva Oulu (Participatory Oulu) and Vaikuta alueellasi (Make an impact in your area).

Updated on 4.11.2021