Maija Setälä | Citizens’ Initiative Review amidst linguistic division and issue polarization: The case of Korsholm


Citizens’ Initiative Review and Finnish local politics

In February 2019, 21 residents of the municipality Korsholm (Mustasaari in Finnish) in Western Finland convened over two weekends to deliberate on the proposed merger of the municipality with the neighboring city of Vaasa. This was the first time the Citizens’ Initiative Review (CIR) was carried out in Europe. The CIR, developed by the non-profit organization Healthy Democracy, has been used in Oregon since 2010, and there have been several pilot projects elsewhere in the US. The CIR involves a Citizens’ Jury that deliberates on a ballot initiative. The statement by the jury, including ‘key findings’ as well as three arguments for and against the measure, is sent to all those eligible to vote before the ballot. The purpose of CIR is to help voters make more informed and considered choices and in this way to address problems of mass participation, such as voter ignorance and the polarization of public opinion.

The municipal merger was a challenging issue for a CIR process, not least because of its multidimensional character. In Finland, municipalities are autonomous political units with the right of taxation as well as important providers of public services. Therefore, a municipal merger has potentially a variety of effects on residents’ every-day lives as well as local democracy. In the case of Korsholm, the potential municipal merger has language political ramifications. Both Korsholm and Vaasa are bilingual; however, about 70% of the population in Korsholm is Swedish-speaking, whereas about 70% of the population in Vaasa is Finnish-speaking. Public debate on the merger has especially focused on the language issue.

The CIR pilot in Finland was part of the PALO project (Participation in Long-Term Decision-Making). Municipal referendums are relatively rare events in Finland and, like in the case of Korsholm, they have usually dealt with municipal mergers. Moreover, referendums are always initiated by municipal councils, not by citizens. From the perspective of the PALO project, the referendum in Korsholm was a good case when it comes to both the timing and the topic.

Deliberation on a polarized and multidimensional issue

Participants of the jury were recruited as follows. In January 2019, a random sample of 1400 citizens eligible to vote in Korsholm were invited to participate in a Citizens’ Jury on the merger issue. From 73 volunteers, a 24-member panel was formed so that it represented the population of Korsholm in terms of socio-demographics and opinion on the merger issue. Some of those selected dropped out, when replacements with similar socio-demographic characteristics were invited. In the end, 21 citizens turned out, including 14 Swedish speakers and 7 Finnish speakers, 12 men and 9 women. The youngest participant was 18 years old and the oldest was 65, the average age being 48. The panel reflected the population rather well also when it comes to place of residence and opinions on the merger issue.

The task of the Citizens’ Jury was to write a joint statement in order to provide voters with reliable and relevant information on the municipal merger before the referendum. The polarization and multi-dimensionality of the issue was reflected in the working of the jury. While the first two days of the jury were dedicated to gathering information and learning about the issue, much of the third day was spent on weighing the relevance of different arguments for or against the merger. The scope of arguments covered a large variety of issues, such as the role of the Swedish language in Finland, linguistic division in the region, availability of public services in both languages, local democracy, quality and costs of public services – especially social and health care, as well as future of education and the economic prospects in the region.

Moreover, the fact that many participants had strong views for or against steered the discussion towards hopes and fears related to the merger, rather than factual arguments, e.g. on economic effects of previous municipal mergers. While the focus of deliberation was on the relevance of value-laden arguments pro and con, it almost seemed as if the other ‘filter’ built in the CIR process, namely the reliability of arguments, was ignored. Although this caused some concern among organizers, it was clearly important for the members of the jury to have an opportunity to deliberate on difficult interest and identity conflicts and to establish an agreement (or ‘meta-consensus’) on what is at stake in the merger issue.

In the beginning of the fourth day, the members of the jury had a chance to review the arguments they had developed and consider possible ‘glaring omissions’. At this point, participants realized that they had to come up with more neutral arguments to be included in the ‘key findings’ of the statement. Overall, the fourth day was largely devoted to improving the factual accuracy of the relevant claims. The fourth day also demonstrated the participants’ ability to engage in constructive and critical discussion and to overcome their own opinions on the issue in order to improve the quality of the statement.

Can CIR work in a bilingual and polarized context? Some reflections

The organization of a bilingual Citizens’ Jury was one of the challenges in the CIR pilot in Korsholm. The linguistic division turned out to be manageable, mostly because most jury members were bilingual or at least capable of understanding the other language. Moreover, there is a strong tradition of bilingual communication in the region. In spite of this, there was a need for translation, especially from Swedish to Finnish, provided by bilingual moderators. In the end, the Swedish and Finnish versions of the statement were developed in parallel.

Overall, the CIR procedure showed its capacity to prompt critical thinking among deliberators with strong and conflicting opinions. The statement by the Citizens’ Jury was sent to about 14.800 voters in Korsholm about three weeks before the referendum day (March 17). The statement summarized key findings as well as three arguments for and against the municipal merger. In the polarized opinion environment of Korsholm, reading the statement may be one of few opportunities for voters to encounter and reflect on arguments from both sides. Obviously, the impact of the statement will be established later, after the PALO research team has analyzed the data from surveys conducted in various stages of the process.

In Finland, municipal referendums are advisory only, and there are indeed several cases where municipal councils have made decisions against the result of a referendum. Given this reality, one should hope that the statement by the jury does not only serve the voters in Korsholm, but also local politicians who will have the final say on the merger issue – and also on what happens after that big decision.

Photo: Christofer Björklund