In the Estonian town of Paide, a festival is kicking off in the grounds of a ruined castle. Despite the drizzle, people weave past tents and flit between bars and food stands. A glance at the programme, however, reveals that you are more likely to run into a minister than a musician. This is a “democracy festival”, made up of talks, panels and seminars about issues related to public life. This year’s topics include NATO’s military agenda, the role of young people in European affairs, the government’s collection of genetic data and how to make cities greener. Such festivals are a regular feature in Nordic and Baltic countries. Now they are popping up elsewhere, driven by citizens who want a little more demos in their democracy.
The spiritual home of this movement is Almedalen park on the Swedish island of Gotland. It was there in 1968 that Olof Palme, then education minister, gave an impromptu speech from the back of a flatbed truck while campaigning to become leader of the Swedish Social Democrats. (He succeeded, and became prime minister in 1969 and again in 1982, before his assassination in 1986.) Palme, who spent his summer holidays near the park, returned to speak each year. In 1982 the Social Democrats turned the occasion into a formal seminar; other parties soon joined in.
Today the event has grown into Almedalsveckan (Almedalen Week, pictured), an annual eight-day shindig. Each of the political parties represented in the Riksdag is responsible for one day of the programme. But the festival has expanded far beyond stump speeches by party leaders. In 2018 45,000 visitors attended more than 4,000 official activities (plus 3,000-odd unofficial ones), straddling politics, business, social issues and more. Talks revealed what India’s cities can teach the world about urban futures, how to fight wildfires with artificial intelligence and even how to make your summer cabin zero-waste.
If Almedalsveckan was the Woodstock of democracy festivals, then other Nordic countries have tried to emulate it. Norway has Arendalsuka, Denmark has Folkemødet, Finns go to Suomiareena and Icelanders to Lysa. Across the Baltic sea there are similar jamborees in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The combined audience is more than 600,000 people each year. About 90% of parliamentary parties send representatives. Recently the organisers banded together to form the “Democracy Festivals Association”, which will offer support to groups from other countries who want to put on something similar.
The popularity of these events in northern Europe owes much to those countries’ political cultures, reckons Zakia Elvang, the Democracy Festival Association’s chairwoman, since “there is less distance between the regular citizens and the elite of society” than elsewhere. The organisers encourage attendees to see themselves as a crucial part of the political system. Admission is always free. The welcoming atmosphere, where you can “wear your sneakers and have a beer”, is designed to attract as wide a range of people as possible.
The schedules have evolved, Ms Elvang explains, to focus on audience participation, rather than endless policy announcements. “You might come along with your kids because you’ve seen that there’s a children’s soccer game, but then you stay there,” she says. “You overhear a conversation about environmental politics, and decide to check it out. It opens up this space for people who are not already attending the church of democracy.” You might even bump into the president at a barbecue: in Paine Kersti Kaljulaid, Estonia’s leader, was ambling between kiosks.
At times this idyllic vision of political participation runs up against uncomfortable realities. In both 2017 and 2018 the Nordic Resistance Movement, a neo-Nazi organisation, disrupted Sweden’s Almedalsveckan. But the idea of citizens celebrating their political differences over a picnic is catching on elsewhere. The Democracy Festival Association is working with organisers in Ukraine and South Korea to set up their own events. Groups from Moldova, Poland, Georgia, Turkey, Nepal, Kenya and Somalia are also interested.
Festivals sans frontières are also starting to appear. On September 6th and 7th Brussels hosted Jubel Festival, the first official pan-European democracy festival, following a one-day prototype last year. The agenda was based on 150 interviews conducted across Europe, asking people which issues mattered most to them. Alain Deneef, president of the Jubel Festival board, wanted the event to represent “the daily life of the people, their present, their concerns, their worries, their aspirations”. Mr Deneef cheerfully admits that this noble aim is made trickier by the self-selecting nature of participants. Whereas Scandinavian festivals enjoy widespread attendance from across the political spectrum, in Brussels “it’s the usual suspects who respond, of course”, he says. “Socialists, liberals, Christian Democrats, greens, and people on the left.”
Nonetheless, the spread of these events shows that ordinary people have plenty of appetite for civic engagement and public debate—as long as it is lubricated by a couple of drinks and the odd ice-cream. In an age when democracy is threatened by online polarisation and institution-flouting populists, these festivals offer something to cheer.
Read the original text at The Economist.