Danish teens learn how to run a democracy

Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2004

COPENHAGEN, Denmark The basement of the Danish parliament is abuzz with debate: Should Denmark send 1,000 peacekeepers to civil-war torn Uranium? Perhaps young criminals should have microchip implants so they can be closely monitored. Do we allow scientists to genetically engineer apes to test new medicine for humans?

Party members enthusiastically discuss the issues, scurrying around the corridors seeking to muster a majority for or against the government's proposals. Pressure mounts as a key debate in the 28-seat chamber approaches and Cabinet members and lobbyists keep calling to press their cases. In the background, TV sets churn out news broadcast on the issues.

It's all make believe. The ministers and lobbyists are actors who appear on screens only. The lawmakers are ninth grade students having an interactive field day in democracy as practiced in Den-mark's parliament, the Folketing.

Last year, parliament spent $3.9 million to create a computer-controlled role game for school education purposes.

A scaled-down replica of the Folketing's 179-seat chamber, including portraits of real-life politicians, ornaments and tapestry on the walls, was created in a 3,240-square-foot storage area under the neo-baroque Christians-borg Palace that houses parliament. Even the 1930s-era lamps are similar to those hanging upstairs.

A cluster of 48 computers makes key protagonists appear on the monitors and dispatches e-mails, faxes and telephone calls to the students.

Since it began last March, the "Politician for a Day" program has been a huge success. Some 7,000 teenagers between ages 14 and 16 already have taken part, and there is a six-month waiting list.

"What I can teach in class and what they see on television is hard to grasp. This gives them a hands-on experience with politics," says Rasmus Holm-Nielsen, 32, who teaches social science at the Hjortespring school in Herlev, a Copenhagen suburb.

The free-of-charge game is simple: Teenagers are divided into four imaginary political parties of similar size. They have 2 1/2 hours to muster a majority for or against proposed laws. The final vote takes place in the 28-seat assembly.

"I didn't really understand how lawmakers introduce legislation," says Ida Bonnen, a 15-year-old assigned to the fictional Business Party. "Now I know. It's not that boring after all."

A classmate in the rival Welfare Party, Senem Kaymar, 16, expresses surprise at the complexity of political horse-trading. "It's hard to give up one's opinion," she says.

Claus Christoffersen, a spokes-person for the Folketing, says this is the world's first ever interactive parliament role-playing game.

"Politician for a Day" differs from the youth parliaments and congresses held in several countries during which young people take on the roles of politicians in real parties.

The Youth Parliament held in Denmark every other year requires that participants already know something about politics. But the interactive game is for educational purposes, and the students go through the whole process from law proposal to final vote.

In Denmark, participation in parliamentary elections is high _ voter turnout in the last five elections averaged 85.6 percent of those eligible. "It is important young people learn about democracy and don't take it for granted," says Thomas Adelskov, a real legislator for the opposition Social Democratic Party.

Down in the basement, it's time to vote. The students approve sending troops to Uranium and allowing chip implants for criminals, but they turn thumbs down on genetic engineering of apes.

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