Citizens’ Right to Initiate Legal Proposal On-line

Introduction

Citizens’ Initiative is a term that could be understood as the right and possibility for individuals and groups of citizens to raise an initiative to decision-making bodies. This could be done at the national level, i.e. to initiate legislative changes with the parliament or press for a referendum. It could also be done locally or at the regional level and refer to proposals of very practical nature, but of importance to the local citizens. At a supranational level, citizens in EU member states can initiate a debate and influence the EU agenda by calling on the Commission to propose legislation debate through the European Citizen’s initiative[1].

The ECI, just like many other processes for citizens’ initiatives, uses on-line systems for the registration of an initiative and for the collection of the necessary signatures to be able to submit the initiative. Actually, the growing use of ICT seems to have stimulated a wider spread of the possibility for citizens to make initiatives.

The reasons for introducing procedures for citizens’ initiatives are often based on a perceived need to “vitalize the democracy”, and to give “every individual access to a formal channel to make their voice heard”[2]. When applied on the local level, citizens’ initiatives are also seen as a way to get input and ideas for improved local services or projects of public interest.[3]

While most systems for citizens’ initiatives are focused on making possible the presentation of proposals from citizens, in some countries similar processes are used to make it possible for citizens to press for a referendum that would stop a legislative decision, i.e. an initiative for abrogation.

The wider context

Today two concurring trends, the growth of internet access and calls for more inclusive democracies, seem to be drivers behind a growing number of systems for (on-line) citizens’ initiative. But already in 1891 the Swiss Federal Constitution opened up for a citizens’ initiative, permitting a certain number of citizens  to make a request to amend a constitutional article, or even to introduce a new article into the constitution and have the request put to a plebiscite.

At the local level, the right to take initiatives have been granted the citizens in different forms in different countries. This ranges from the right of all citizens to table a motion in the communal meetings of small villages or municipalities practicing forms of direct democracy to completely on-line systems for citizens’ initiatives that require a larger number of citizens’ support to be lifted to the municipal assembly for discussion and decision.

Requirements

In all these systems there is a set of elements that need to be made clear:

  • Who can make an initiative? Only citizens or all who live in the country/municipality? Organisations?
  • On which matters can initiatives be made? Constitutional changes? New laws. Nullification of governmental/parliamentary decisions (i.e. abrogation)?
  • What support is needed for an initiative? Number of signatures? Percentage of population or eligible voters? Support from more than one region?
  • How are signatures collected? On paper? Online?
  • How are signatures verified? Eidentification? Civic registration number?
  • Is the collection and verification compatible with personal integrity legislation?
  • What happens with a qualified initiative? Enters the parliamentary agenda? Goes to a referendum?

Experiences

Different combinations of requirements have been chosen in different countries and in the European Union. In the following some examples:

Finland

The Finnish experience is often seen as an example of successful introduction of a citizens’ initiative system. It is a national, mainly electronic, system run by the Ministry of Justice and with the Digital and Population Data Services Agency (DVV) [4] responsible for the verification of signatures. An initiative could relate to either a proposal of a new law, the revision or abolition of an existing law or the preparation of a proposal for a new law[5].

The basic figures include a minimum of five individuals launching the initiative and at least 50,000 signatures from Finnish citizens entitled to vote in general elections i.e. support from approximately 1.1 percent of the eligible group. Since the right to initiative was established in 2013, a total of 38 initiatives out of 1,155 have met the criteria and been handed over to the parliament. Out of these 2 have been positively received by the parliament. The most well-known is probably the initiative regarding same-sex-marriage, which resulted in a new law permitting marriage between persons belonging to the same sex.

The collection of support could be done on paper, but the vast majority of the signatures are entered digitally. The online service is free of charge and is available in Finnish and Swedish, the two official languages in Finland. The Ministry of Justice checks that the initiatives submitted by citizens contain the required information and that they do not contain such material that is not suitable for publication on the Internet. The system requires the supporters of an initiative to identify themselves with a strong e-identification using online banking codes a mobile certificate or an id-card with a chip.

When the initiators of the proposals deem that they have sufficient support, they hand over the signatures to the DVV, which checks that they are correct. If so, the initiators may present the proposal to the Parliament.

When statements of support are being collected and it is not yet sure whether the matter will be taken up for consideration by the Parliament, the names and other personal data of the signatories must not be made available to the public or to the other signatories. When collecting statements of support via the online service provided by the Ministry of Justice, the statements of support are also confidential.

The names of the signatories may be made public only after the DVV has verified that the number of statements of support goes up to the required minimum number 50,000.

Financial support received for organising a citizens' initiative and its donor shall be disclosed, if the value of the financial support from the same donor is at least 1,500 euros.

Despite that only a small percentage of the initiatives have managed to collect the required support and only two have led to changes in the legislation, political scientists that have studied the system have found positive effects on the quality of democracy:

The results suggest that the Citizens’ Initiative has increased democratic inclusion. Most noticeably, the Citizens’ Initiative attracts young citizens who are otherwise often politically inactive. Furthermore, it is a relatively accessible form of participation since the Internet constitutes an important recruitment network.[6]

Spain

Since 1983, Spanish citizens have presented more than 150 initiatives to the congress, which is the first step in the Spanish system called “Initiativa Legislativa Popular” or ILP. The congress then decide whether or not the initiative is in line with the constitutional requirements i.e. not relating to taxes, to international matters or to topics regulated in organic laws.

If admitted, the initiators have nine month to collect more than 500,000 signatures of support. This is predominantly done on-line. If the promotors succeed in getting sufficient support, the state will recompense them for the expenses incurred in the promotion and collection of signatures.

The experience shows that a substantial part of the initiatives are found inadmissible by the congress and that only a minority of the other initiatives manage to get sufficient support. Until 2019, only three initiatives resulted in changes in line with the intentions of the promoters.

Switzerland

The federal Swiss “Popular Initiative” dates back to 1891 and is used to initiate referenda regarding changes in the constitution.[7] An initiative should be presented by a minimum of seven people and get the support of at least 100,000 citizens with voting rights to be considered. The collection of support cannot be done on-line.

If the initiative receives sufficient support, it is handed over to the Federal Council (the government) which must give an opinion on the initiative within one year or present a counter proposal within 18 months.

Then, the parliament i.e. the two chambers of the Federal Assembly, should discuss the proposal within two and a half years (three and a half if an alternative proposal is elaborated). The decision of the parliament comes only in the form of a recommendation to the electorate.

To be successful in the referendum, a proposal must receive both a majority of the votes cast and a majority in a majority of the cantons (states).

There have been a total of 216 referenda on popular initiatives, with 22 being accepted. The possibility to launch an initiative have been more popular during the last decades. Simultaneously, the political parties have been repeatedly criticized for using the popular initiative as an election vehicle, with significantly more initiatives being presented before and during years of elections.

New Zealand

In New Zealand a vote initiated by the public is called a citizen initiated referendum. These are non-binding referendums on any issue in which proponents have submitted a petition to Parliament signed by ten percent of all registered electors within 12 months. Only five initiatives out of 48 have reached the ten percent line.

Other Countries

According to the on-line “Direct Democracy Database”[8] published by International IDEA a total of 66 countries out of 198, i.e. precisely one third, have some kind of mechanism for citizens’ initiative at the national level. The data-base does not include information on the use of on-line mechanisms for presenting initiatives and collecting support, but it seems as if there are few examples of this. One such is Estonia, where an initiative needs 1000 supporters at the electronic platform[9] to be sent to the parliament for discussion.

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI)

Launched in 2012, the ECI could be seen as a move to counter the perceived democratic deficit within the European Union. The idea of the ECI is to call directly on the European Commission to propose a legal act (for example a Directive or Regulation) in an area where the Member States have conferred powers onto the EU level. This right to request the Commission to initiate a legislative proposal puts citizens on the same footing as the European Parliament and the European Council.

An initiative requires at least seven organizers from at least seven EU member states. The initiative could only relate to an issue where the European Commission has powers to propose an EU law. [10]The organizers should register their initiative before the European commission, which decides if the initiative fulfils the requirements.

Support is normally collected online through an application launched by the EU and made available free of cost. The initiative needs to get the support from at least one million individuals entitled to vote in the EU parliamentary elections with minimum number of signatories reached in at least seven EU countries[11]. Once the organizers believe they have sufficient report they ask the designated authorities in each EU country to carry out checks to certify the number of statements of support collected.

The organizers may then submit their initiative to the European Commission, which invites the organizers to a meeting This meeting consists of a structured discussion on the content of the initiative, to ensure the Commission has a clear understanding of its objectives (including any clarifications needed), before it prepares its answer. Within six months the Commission issues a communication stating the measures it plans to take, if any, as well as justifications, and a timeline for implementing the measures.

So far 75 initiatives have been registered and 5 have been successful in meeting the qualification criteria and 4 have been answered by the commission. Obviously the process of launching and campaigning for an ECI is cumbersome and the successful initiatives have been able to build on existing networks and relatively large donations; the latest successful ECI “Ban glyphosate and protect people and the environment from toxic pesticides” received almost 330,000 EUR in support and donations.

Local and Regional levels

Although there is no data-base gathering information on how citizens’ initiative mechanisms are designed at sub-national levels, a scanning shows a plethora of different approaches. This goes from the right for any citizen to write a proposal to the municipal council and have it discussed to completely on-line solutions. Issues to be included stretches from play-grounds to initiating a referendum of the Canton constitution. Solutions could be mandatory for all sub-national governments or designed locally.

Once again, Finland serves as an advanced example with its web portal for local initiatives[12]. This is more or less the same solution as for the national level. If two percent of the citizens in a municipality support an initiative, the issue must be discussed in the municipal council within six months. Further, four percent of the citizens 15 years or older can initiate a local referendum.

Some on-line portals allow not only for gathering support, but also for discussions about the initiative and eventual further development of the proposal. Some systems does not guarantee that a proposal will be discussed if a certain support is achieved, but instead serves as a signal system for the local politicians that can chose to make an initiative theirs, if they find it relevant and have large support.

Considerations

The virtues and designs of different systems for citizens’ initiatives could not reasonably be discussed without taking into account the specific purposes of the system. Typically, the arguments for national systems focus on inclusion; to make more people active in politics and thereby strengthening the democratic system. In other words, it is not the contributions to the legislation, but the activity of people trying to make these contributions that is most important. The same goes for the local level, but here the purpose could also be to achieve better local solutions to very practical issues.

Naturally, the different systems are influenced by the national democratic traditions and values. It is no surprise that the Swiss system relates directly to the right to initiate binding referenda, given the importance given to direct democracy in Switzerland. On the other extreme, the decision of the Swedish government not to introduce a system for citizens’ initiative – although this has been proposed in a national inquiry on the state of democracy[13] – reflects the importance given to the parliamentary democracy and the interaction between parties and interest organisation in Sweden.

The middle road, which could be exemplified by Finland, seems to be what could be called the “agenda initiative”, i.e. the possibility for a citizens initiative to influence the agenda of the parliament and thus the public and political discussions in the country. The political scientists studying the Finnish example put it in the following way:

In parliamentary democracies, agenda initiatives seem to represent a feasible compromise between those who support the principle of parliamentary sovereignty and those who support the expansion of people’s direct involvement in policy-making processes. Agenda initiatives provide citizens with a form of discursive power or, more precisely, a power to influence the parliamentary decision-making agenda by proposing new legislation. However, because the numbers of signatures required for agenda initiatives are usually low compared to full-scale initiatives, the use of agenda initiatives seem to be more easily within the reach of marginalised groups. This effect is reinforced by the fact that agenda initiatives do not lead to a referendum, which means that substantial financial and organisational campaign resources are not necessarily required[14].

They also conclude that he online collection system potentially makes it possible for smaller and more marginalised civic groups to reach the signature thresholds for their political and societal causes.

With more than 1,100 initiatives and a considerable part of the population having supported at least one initiative (a survey from 2015 gives the figure 20 percent) it is obvious that the possibility to make and support initiatives has popular support. This could have been strengthened by the fact that the parliament is taking the successful initiatives seriously. None of the initiatives submitted to parliament have been ‘buried’ in committees so far and they have all experienced relatively swift and thorough proceedings in parliament. A relevant committee has given a report on each initiative, and the reports have then been discussed and, apart from few exemptions, voted on at the plenary. As required by the parliamentary procedures, initiators have been heard by committees, and these committee hearings have been open to all MPs as well as to the media. This publicity of committee work is a novel feature in the Finnish legislative system, which has served to increase the openness of legislative decision making.

The political scientists quoted above make the following conclusion:

This suggests that the citizens’ initiative is used for promoting a variety of topics that would not otherwise enter the public sphere since they are only backed by small minorities. To sum up, the early experiences of the Finnish CI suggest that it has served as a channel to test ideas and raise awareness on questions that tend to be under-represented in the parliamentary decision-making agenda. As can be seen, most results suggest that the citizens’ initiative does reasonably well to attract people otherwise less involved politically.

It should be kept in mind that even if institutional reforms such as the citizens’ initiative empower some groups, they may at the same time marginalise other groups – in this case, older citizens and those who are less avid Internet users. This shows the importance of developing multiple channels of access that allow multiple and contending discourses, forms of expression and debate since different participatory practices appeal to different social groups.


[2] The quotes come from the Swedish Inquiry on Democracy, summoned by the government, that proposed the introduction of a citizens’ initiative in Sweden. https://www.regeringen.se/48e909/contentassets/16dfd1fed76e42dd9f40c9229637e44b/lat-fler-forma-framtiden-sou-20165-del-a.pdf

[3] The City of Montreal, Canada presents their “Right to Initiative” in the following way: “The right of initiative allows citizens to get actively involved, with their neighbours, and to propose for public consultation ideas,

directions or innovative projects that are close to their hearts and that are of public interest. It allows them to take the initiative and submit constructive and mobilizing proposals to public discussion. http://ville.montreal.qc.ca/pls/portal/docs/PAGE/DROIT_INITIATIVE_FR/MEDIA/DOCUMENTS/Droit_Initiative_resume_FR_2015.pdf

[6] Christensen et al. The Finnish Citizens’ Initiative: Towards Inclusive Agenda‐setting? https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-9477.12096

[11] Minimum numbers are calculated by multiplying the number of the Members of the European Parliament elected in each Member State by the total number of Members of the European Parliament.

[14] Christensen et al. The Finnish Citizens’ Initiative: Towards Inclusive Agenda‐setting? https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1467-9477.12096

10.11.2020 - 15:59 | Views: 7218
Citizens’ Right to Initiate Legal Proposal On-line

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