August 2001

Citizens debate democracy

Citizens' alienation from the traditional democratic process has triggered debate on the implications of this distrust of politicians. Recent research conducted by the University of Tampere revealed poor ratings for citizens' confidence in government and parliament. Only 34 per cent of persons interviewed trusted the government, 32 per cent trusted the parliament and the figure fell to 22 per cent with ministries.

In a leading article, the editor of the Green weekly newspaper Vihreä Lanka (10 August 2001), Jyrki Räikkä, notes that politicians seem surprised but also hurt by the findings.

"It is hard to believe, however, that the attitudes revealed in the research would only reflect shortcomings in citizens' attitudes, flaws in the mirror or bad PR work of decision-making institutions. There certainly exists margins of improvement in how politics and governance are being carried out.

"It is indeed the perception of non-differentiation of politics and governance which might explain the weak figures of confidence. During the last recession the nation was overwhelmed by the rhetoric claiming that there were no alternatives. Neither has the rainbow government's [coalition of Conservatives, Social Democrats, Left-Wing Alliance, the Greens and the Swedish People's Party] consensus encouraged public debate on values. Ideological differences having been pushed to the background, all parties are easily seen as practitioners of chamber politics."

The social democratic newspaper Uutispäivä Demari (21 August 2001) approaches the debate from another angle. In a leading article, the paper quotes Professor Matti Wiberg who has criticised groups which have opted to remain outside democratic systems. In his new book Paluu politiikkaan (Return to Politics), Wiberg takes a critical view of many citizens' movements.

"Wiberg has looked inside extra-parliamentary citizens' movements and found elitist and oligarchic tendencies. Those leading the movements are not accountable on anything or to anyone. Yet, from the heights where they have heisted themselves, they try to dictate to the political system what kind of political decisions it should make. Wiberg considers this kind of activity patronising, especially since the supporters of these movements don't even try to influence the political decision-making process from inside.

"The criticism is harsh and even somewhat exaggerated. For instance environmental, consumer and human rights movements have had a remarkable influence on political decision-making. However, it is important to point out that this kind of influence is based on a positively functioning contact between political decision-making and citizens' activity, not stepping outside or above the system."

Wiberg's book has been commented on in many other newspapers as well. The regional newspaper Etelä-Suomen Sanomat (22 August 2001) agrees with the main thrust of Wiberg's argument writing that "without political parties there is no democracy and without democracy one cannot talk about human rights".

"Yet citizens' movements are as necessary as parties. Parties are constantly in danger of standing still. Imaginative citizens' movements help to introduce into debate new issues and new viewpoints which parties can then use. In the end, the whole society gains."

See also:

Politicians behind water canons

25 July 2001

Why not ask the people?

11 July 2001

From disorder to a new order

26 June 2001

Towards transparent decision-making

27 April 2001

Teenagers snub politics

16 March 2001

Citizens trust police and army

31 October 2000

New social attitudes detected in research

26 October 2000


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