We often tend to take many things for granted, but history shows that all societies can experience crises and unexpected events that cause us to question what we have taken for granted as common values. Change is necessary for societies to evolve, but the basis for sustainable change in society is an unstoppable democratic conversation. Only when all citizens feel a sense of ownership and trust do the preconditions for a harmonious society emerge.
That is why I find it endearing that the Latvian Democracy Festival LAMPA is actually called a "conversation festival", thus underlining the importance of a lively conversation. The first festival of its kind in our region was organised in Sweden, whose then Minister of Education, Olof Palme (later Prime Minister), spent his annual holidays in Gotland. In the summer of 1968, he gathered journalists for an impromptu meeting in a car box in Visby, and eventually the event became an annual tradition. At first, only the members of Palme’s Social Democratic Party took part, but interest grew and, since 1991, all political parties are welcome. For a time, it was called "Politicians' Week", but later it was renamed into the "Almedalen Week" in honour of the Visby Park, where most of the activities take place. Later, the same concept was adopted by other Nordic and Baltic countries: in Denmark, the event takes place in Bornholm and is called "People's Assembly", in Norway there is "Arendal Week", named after the town where the festival is held. Nowadays there is even a whole network – the Democracy Festivals’ Association – that covers similar events in Europe, in addition to the Nordic and Baltic democracy festivals.
The Nordic Council of Ministers’ (NCM) Office in Latvia has worked closely with the Latvian democracy festival LAMPA over the years, bringing the Nordic experience and perspective to the festival in various ways. This has most often been done together with Latvian partners, so that we can be sure that the Nordic contribution is relevant to the discussion. Nordic participants who come to Cēsis often express their admiration for the format that has been created for this festival. It is not only about the unique venue of LAMPA – Cēsis Castle Park – but also about the professional and aesthetically thoughtful organisation of the event.
At this year's LAMPA festival, on 9–10 of June, the NCM Office will gather its Nordic activities under a common tent – “Nordic Island” ("Ziemeļsala"). The programme will be attended by both Nordic and Latvian delegates and will cover a variety of topics: democracy, renewable energy, digital inclusion, etc. In addition to panel discussions, practical activities are planned that will demonstrate in different ways how we can foster a democratic conversation. We will also use a game called "The Democracy Labyrinth", demonstrating how people can participate and engage in democratic processes in different ways. Finnish philosopher Kai Alhanen will also return to LAMPA to conduct dialogues based on the concept he had developed in his book “Dialogue in Democracy”, which is based on the simple premise that we need to listen to each other through conversation in order to reach mutual understanding. Unfortunately, nowadays listening is not always a given; all too often, public conversation consists of monologues in an increasingly shrill tone.
Without a lively conversation in which people feel ownership and responsibility for the social, economic and political processes in society, there is a great risk that trust and confidence in democracy as a social system will erode. A recently published study from the University of Gothenburg found that quite many people in Sweden believe that sometimes there are reasons to limit democracy. Support for freedom of speech and demonstration remains high, but when forced to choose between freedom and security, 53.1% of Swedes choose freedom and 46.9% choose security. On the other hand, when asked whether democracy should be curbed to deal with societal problems, more than half of the respondents fully or partially agree that democracy could be curbed to deal with pandemics, climate crises, serious crime, financial crises, and integration problems. More than 70% of Swedes would be willing to limit democracy to deal with a pandemic, and more than 60% think the same about climate crises and serious crime.
These figures have certainly been influenced by recent events, but they still give some food for thought. Personally, I find it a little disturbing that so many people believe that democratic principles can be pushed aside in the hope of solving problems – no matter how important they are. Because where will the line be drawn? If a problem is big enough to abandon freedom and democracy, who can guarantee that the next problem will not require the same? Of course, it could be argued that in such a situation the decision should be taken with the support of the majority, but then it is forgotten that democracy is also about respect for minority views. Lest that the majority some day 'democratically’ abolishes part of the democracy itself, it is important that we talk every day about what democracy really means and how we can make it work better. Welcome to the LAMPA festival and the "Nordic Island" (#ZiemelSala) tent to discuss these and other issues on 9-10 June! To avoid democracy becoming meaningless for some groups in society, it is important that we regularly have open and honest discussions about the true meaning of democracy, not only at LAMPA but also elsewhere.
Published in the daily newspaper "Latvijas Avīze" on 28 April 2023