This year the International Day of Democracy celebrations took place a few days early, on the 13th of September. The annual seminar, organized by the Parliament and Demo Finland, saw an auditorium full of interested listeners.
This year the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) had chosen oversight as the theme for the celebration. Oversight is a core function of parliaments and a vital part of the checks and balances of any democracy. In a time of disconnect between democratic institutions and the people the critical role parliaments play in holding governments accountable should be highlighted.
The seminar was opened by Deputy Speaker Tuula Haatainen, who discussed the state and future of democracy, and the recent changes in the political playing field. Deputy Haatainen emphasized the role of civil society and citizen’s participation in safeguarding democracy.
“It is especially important that through civil society citizens can take part in decision making that concerns them, their communities or society as a whole.”
This view was shared by the Chair of Demo Finland, MP Päivi Räsänen. In her speech she called for defenders of democracy, both individuals and communities alike, as well as strong parliaments to keep governments in check.
“Democracy needs outspoken defenders now maybe more than ever. When democracy is taken for granted it starts to crumble.”
MP’s at the center of parliamentary oversight
The seminar also featured a panel discussion of representatives of all nine parliamentary parties. In the panel moderated by Jenni Karimäki, senior researcher at the Center for Parliamentary Studies, members of parliament Silvia Modig (Left Alliance), Sirpa Paatero (SDP), Tiina Elovaara (Blue Reform), Satu Hassi (Green Party), Anders Adlercreutz (Swedish People’s Party), Sari Tanus (Christian Democrats), Saara-Sofia Siren (National Coalition Party), Aila Paloniemi (Centre Party) and Ville Tavio (Finns Party) discussed parliamentary oversight from various viewpoints.
The participants felt, that in general individual an MP has influence and opportunities to execute their role in parliamentary oversight. Saara-Sofia Siren said, that cooperation between MPs and across party lines also adds to one’s ability to influence.
“An MP can strengthen their influence, if they are able to work together with others, and especially member of other parties. Even though there are times of frustration along the way, there are also successes, and one can really impact outcomes with their work.”
On the other hand Sari Tanus felt that thought MPs have influence, especially new MPs might face challenges in executing their watchdog role.
“I would call for interaction and cooperation between the different generations of MPs. Older, more experienced MPs have the skills to mentor younger MPs and spar with them, this would really help them be more effective in their role.”
In her remarks Satu Hassi emphasized that MPs have different bacjgrounds and bring individual views and ways of working in to decion making. She also raised the point, that even in Finnish politics women still face difficulties.
“Men making decisions and deals in the sauna is a part of Finnish political culture, and women can’t help but be left out of it. Decision making should be fair and equal and accessible for all.”
Appreciation for politics must be restored
The discussion also raised the question of the future of political parties and whether power has concentrated to small groups within the parliament and the parties. The panelists shared the concern that people have lost their belief and interest in political parties.
Silvia Modig stated, that political parties still provide a community, an umbrella under which people can come together and have an influence on matter, and therefore their role is still very important.
“Parties must reinvent themselves. The younger generation is not interested in politics, that looks old. They are interested in values and themes. It is important that parties are flexible, so young people have opportunities and places to join in.”
Anders Adlercreutz commented on and compared voter turnouts in Finland and Sweden, stating that a stronger position and credibility of Swedish parties compared to their Finnish counterparts explain higher turnout in the former.
“In Sweden parties are very committed to their party programmes, but they also allow for individuals to be seen an heard, and this gets people to vote. Still the role of parties as the organization behind MPs cannot be undermined, parties facilitate long-term decision making, even though MPs are their spokespeople.”
Transparent decision-making builds citizens trust
When discussing the role of parliament in oversight the panelists brought up points related to the lack of a separate Constitutional Court and the transparency of decision-making, for example during negotiations to form government.
In Sirpa Paatero’s opinion decision-making should be transparent, but making all processes visible to the whole public is impossible.
“For example, negotiations to form government take place in different locations and on different matters simultaneously, so there is no way of sharing all of them with the whole public. In stead I would pay more attention to the influence of lobbyists, and to making it possible to re-evaluate the government programme mid-term, and add to transparency that way.”
Tiina Elovaara also felt that balancing between the requirements of transparency and the need to allow space and time for negotiations is challenging. She also said, that in her opinion the parliament does not have enough influence when forming government.
“Parliamentary groups do not have a strong enough role in the negotiations. Government officials have more power that members of parliament, and this is not the way it should be.”
The discussion on the need for a separate Constitutional Court saw differences of opinion. In Ville Tavio’s view a separate court is needed.
“Our system is usually complemented, but I think that we should at least consider having a separate Constitutional Court. As things now stand, members of the Constitutional Law Committee might have a conflict of interest.”
Aila Paloniemi, on the other hand, stated that the parties have agreed to the system together.
“The Constitutional Law Committee must retain its place above the parties, but perhaps it should have a more varied representation from parties.”
After the panel discussion, Demo’s partner from Mozamobique, the Executive Director of IMD Hermenegildo Mulhovo, gave a speech on parliamentary oversight and natural resources management in Mozambique.
Work for democracy is not done
The seminar was closed by Minister of Foreign Trade and Development, Anne-Mari Virolainen. In her speech minister Virolainen summarized the importance of democracy support for Finland’s foreign policy, and stated, that though democracy cannot be exported, it can and should be supported.
“The importance of protecting those who defend democracy and human rights has been strengthened in our diplomacy. Supporting democracy is especially important in phases of transition in societies. It is worth mentioning, that no matter the sector of development cooperation, all of our actions aim at supporting and developing democracy.”