The Finnish democratic story [Archives:2005/897/Viewpoint]

November 24 2005

Over a hundred years ago, the country with the oldest parliament in Europe understood the true concept of human rights and democracy. Finland introduced the proportional representation in 1906 where it used the d'Hondt constituency list system with only slight modifications. Under this system, elections are based on proportionality rather than on plurality, and seats are allotted to parties commensurately with the number of votes polled. Votes go to individual candidates, however, and voters indicate their preferred politician by circling the number assigned to him or to her on their ballots.

This electoral system enabled minorities to be represented in the parliament and hence yielded a true representation of the people. To think that this was done a hundred years ago makes the Yemeni experience in elections seem rather miniscule. Why not? Especially that the democratic experience of modern Yemen is just a little older than 15 years.

Today as the hype about elections and the electoral process increases with the approach of the 2006 presidential elections, one needs to wonder whether we are actually doing it right at all. This includes evaluating the Yemeni electoral system and the procedures used so far in the past three elections since the unity in 1990. Moreover, one wonders how aware the Yemeni population is. The population who is supposedly casting the votes and deciding the future of this country. How much does the layman (or woman for that matter) understand about the electoral system, the value of a vote and of the democratic alternatives? A fair election is not only one in which the votes are transparently counted and results are announced fair and square. It is rather one where the whole process is done fair and square. The process includes people's awareness of their rights, their alternatives and their worth. Unfortunately this did not take place in any of the previous elections in Yemen and I am not sure we have enough time for so in the approaching one.

Going back to our example of Finland, in the beginning of the previous century during the early years of independence acts were passed introducing compulsory education, prohibition of alcohol, freedom of worship, freedom of speech and freedom to form societies. These acts were not just written legislations; rather they were implemented in real life practically and transparently. These measures defiantly ensured that the Finnish people had the ability to participate effectively in the democratic progress of their country. The government wanted the people to be an equal partner, if not a monitoring power of the country's development process. The Finnish government proved that it was serious and committed to this process. People who read the Finnish history get amused at the fact that a law was actually decreed declaring education as a pre-condition for getting married.

Perhaps this is the lesson Yemen could learn from a country with a long democratic experience. As we are – both government and people -preparing for the coming elections maybe we should realise that there is more to democracy than just talk.