The right of initiative, the ability to put legislative proposals and ideas on the political agenda, is fundamental in democracies. Parliaments deliberate, the public debates, laws are enacted and implemented. Agenda initiatives give citizens the right to propose issues for parliamentary consideration and legislation. More and more countries around the world are introducing this tool - Finland and Latvia, for example, with remarkable success. Since 2012, the European Citizens' Initiative has even introduced at European level. Environmental protection, services of general interest or citizens' rights - practical experience shows: Citizens can use agenda initiatives to set the agenda, initiate discourse and shape policy. This strengthens democracy.
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Agenda initiatives reinforce democracy
Agenda-setting is a vital aspect of democracies. Which items make it to the agenda? What ideas have a chance to become law? No matter whether it is a question of environmental protection, public services or civil rights: Agenda initiatives enable citizens to participate in determining the political agenda.
Agenda initiatives entitle the electorate to propose topics it wants to see debated in parliament and/or passed as a law. Parliament is obliged to react to such proposals. More and more countries all over the world are adopting this democratic tool. Two European countries—Finland and Latvia—have shown how successful agenda initiatives can be.
In Finland, the privatisation of the water industry was blocked. In Latvia the constitution was amended - it is now possible for the parliament to elect the president in an open, non-secret ballot. There has even been an equivalent at EU level since 2012, the European Citizens’ Initiative.
Over 70% of the Latvian population used the Latvian initiatives’ online platform. 83% of the Finnish electorate believes that this tool has improved democracy in Finland: living, practical proof that successful agenda initiatives raise the acceptance of, and trust in, the political system.
Comparison of three agenda initiatives
Latvia: 84 attained a quorum. 50 were implemented. 2,113 submitted initiatives; to date, 70% of the electorate has visited the initiatives website. The constitution was amended as a result of the initiative in favor of an open parliamentary election of the Latvian president.
Finland: More than 1,200 submitted initiatives; 62 attained the quorum and four were implemented. 83% of Finnish voters say that the agenda initiatives improve democracy in Finland. The initiative in favor of equality for single-sex marriages was the first successful initiative – 167,000 signatures.
EU: In 10 years, more than 14 million EU citizens have participated in a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Eight initiatives have attained a quorum, to three of which have been attributed a concrete effect. The ECI Right to Water resulted in the amendment of the EU Drinking Water Directive.
European Union 2012
Number of initiatives submitted (Status 2022)
European Union 88
Participation age (Status January 2023)
European Union 16
Diversity of topics
In Latvia, there are no predominant topics. They range from ban on genetic engineering to improvement of the vaccination policy, as well as local topics (revival of the Latvian operetta).
In Finland, the predominant topic areas are health, welfare, housing & civil liberties, civil rights, & law and order.
At European level, the predominant topics are animal welfare and environmental protection – especially in the case of successful initiatives.
Latvia and Finland show the way
Latvia and Finland demonstrate how agenda initiatives can enrich the political landscape. Whether it is a question of banning lynx hunting or revising maternity leave laws, citizens have a say in setting the political agenda and improving democracy.
2,213 initiatives in Latvia, 64% were implemented. 1,200 initiatives: 83% of Finns believe that their agenda Initiative has improved democracy. This success was not a coincidence. In Finland, successful initiatives are not merely voted on in parliament—they must be dealt with before the end of a government’s term of office, so they even take precedence over other topics. In Latvia, there is close cooperation between parliament and the non-partisan NGO ManaBalls.lv, which provides a digital collection platform online, advises citizens’ initiatives in legal and practical matters, and helps with communication. Signatures can be collected digitally and without any problems in both countries.
By contrast, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is mostly unknown. It is neither widely used nor does it initiate public debate. Obviously, the challenges it faces are different from those of tools used in only one country: 24 different official languages, the sheer geographical size of Europe and the lack of a pan-European public are large obstacles—and there is a lack of real effectiveness or encouraging success stories as incentives. Despite the progress made in the effort to make the ECB more user-friendly, it is still relatively difficult to raise support via digital means. Consequently, the ECI (still) tends to be a tool for organised civil society rather than individuals.
It has been shown in practice that easily accessible agenda initiatives can enable citizens to set agendas, initiate discussions and shape policies. Ideally, citizens receive support during organisation. Successful initiatives are digital. And finally, the clear commitment of political decision-makers—which includes implementing initiatives—is essential for their success.
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Sources and further reading
Christensen, Henrik Serup; Karjalainen, Marija; Setälä, Maija (2017): ‘Finnish Citizens’ Initiatives – Towards Inclusive Agenda-Setting?’; published in Scandinavian Political Studies, December 2017
Hierlemann, Dominik, Huesmann, Christian (2018): Policy Brief 02.2018: “More Initiative for Europe’s Citizens” and the corresponding factsheet “Facts, Figures, Analyses: Ten Things to Know about the European Citizens’ Initiative.”, Gütersloh.
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The shortcut series presents and discusses interesting approaches, methods, and projects for solving democratic challenges in a condensed and illustrative format. The Bertelsmann Stiftung‘s project New Democracy publishes it at irregular intervals.