Election Preview: Finland 2011
Parliamentary elections will be held in Finland on April 17, 2011. This election will likely get some attention in the world media, and it is an interesting election in a generally interesting country, so I’ve decided to do a brief preview of it. I don’t know enough about Finnish political history to do a traditional run-through of the recent political history, but instead I’ll spend more time on the parties.
How does it work?
Finland’s unicameral Parliament, the Eduskunta or Riksdag has 200 seats elected by proportional representation in 15 electoral districts. Wikipedia has a nice map of these districts which often correspond to the boundaries of one or two regions. Each district has a varying number of seats, except for the small islands of Åland who are automatically entitled to a single seat. At each election the number of citizens in each constituency is divided by the country’s total population and the result is then multiplied by 199 to get the number of seats in each district. In this election, this number varies between 6 (Southern Savonia, North Karelia) and 35 (Uusimaa). There is no threshold, but in practice districts with fewer seats have a higher informal threshold and bigger districts have a lower one. Voters cast their vote for a candidate within a party list.
Finland has had a remarkably stable political system with three parties of roughly equal size – in the last election, the top three parties won 23%, 22% and 21% of the votes respectively. These three main parties are all old parties and have all been in power at least once in the past ten years.
The largest party in 2007, with 51 seats and 23% of the vote was the Centre Party (KESK). KESK is a centrist party of the Nordic agrarian tradition, founded in 1906. KESK is traditionally the dominant party, and is a generally a rather ideology-free party of power though not as much as the textbook examples of such parties. For example, KESK never won over 30% of the vote and its vote has been steady in the lower 20 range for most of its existence which is quite remarkable. KESK’s dominant figure of the Cold War era was Urho Kekkonen, who served as president between 1956 and 1982. Kekkonen and his predecessor as President, Juho Paasikivi, were caught between a rock and a hard place as Finland shared an extensive border with Soviet Union and had just lost a war to the Soviets during the course of World War II. The Soviets came to impose their will on Finland without turning it into a full satellite state, doing so through a 1948 treaty which recognized Finland’s ‘neutrality’ while the Finnish government engaged itself to supporting the Soviets if Moscow was attacked. This type of policy, derogatorily styled ‘finlandization’ consisted of not doing anything which might ruffle Moscow’s feather and taking pro-Soviet stances as part of ‘active neutrality’ such as defending a denuclearized zone in northern Europe (which would have, coincidentally, excluded the Russian Kola Peninsula). Incidentally, this policy allowed Finland to industrialize (the Soviets demanded reparations through metallurgical products or naval construction) and have full access to the Soviet market to sell its goods (and importing Soviet oil) while also trading with its western partners (passing a free trade deal with the EEC in 1973 and joining the EFTA in 1985).
KESK’s current leader and Prime Minister is Mari Kiviniemi, who took office in June 2010. She replaced Matti Vanhanen, the KESK Prime Minister between 2003 and 2010. Vanhanen fell over a financial scandal which involved KESK and the conservative KOK. Prominent businessmen were accused of having financed 53 politicians from KESK and KOK.
KOK’s support base is predominantly rural, which harks back to KESK’s place in the political spectrum as the traditional agrarian party. This old base includes large swathes of rural Finland’s small holders as well pietist religious movements within the Church of Finland. It has since expanded somewhat to include middle class small businessmen and some urban liberals though KESK remains particularly weak in Helsinki (7% in 2007) and in a lot of larger urban areas. Most of its support comes from northern remote areas where few people live, but where KESK has built up a strong machine over the years. Such things may help explain why KESK, which remains a traditional rural party in voter base and practice, has survived when its sister parties in Sweden and Norway struggle.
The National Coalition Party (KOK [yes, I know, cue the bad jokes]) with 22.3% and 50 seats in the 2007 election is the junior governing party, led by Jyrki Katainen. KOK originally emerged in 1918 as a coalition of monarchists, and has transitioned into a moderate conservative-libertarian party. Its hostility to Moscow and Kekkonen kept KOK out of all governments between 1966 and 1987, though since then it has been in all but two cabinets and led one of them between 1987 and 1991. The modern KOK is a modern European liberal party, supporting low taxes and low regulation. Strongly pro-European, the party has also become socially liberal – endorsing gay marriage at its 2010 convention.
KOK draws its support mostly from the middle-class and wealthy in densely populated southern Finland, and is the dominant centre-right force in Helsinki. KOK’s support is remarkably stable, moving in a 10% range between 13% and 23% since the war.
The Social Democratic Party (SDP) won 21.4% and 45 seats in 2007, making it the third largest party and the dominant opposition party. Very strong during the Russian era, it has oscillated between 19.5% and 27% of the vote since the war. Under the leadership of Väinö Tanner, the SDP attempted to regain the credibility it had lost in the eyes of moderates during the 1918 Finnish Civil War. This included taking a strong nationalist line and slightly less left-wing line compared to its Nordic neighbors. In the post-war era, the SDP adopted a staunchly pro-democracy line which put it on Moscow’s black list but which allowed it to generously supported by the CIA. Moscow’s influence kept the SDP out of cabinet for some stretch of time in the early Cold War days. It was in constant and active competition with the Communists for control of trade unions, whose electoral clientele remains important to the SDP to this day.
The SDP is strong in working-class areas, especially the lumber areas of southeastern Finland. The SDP won its worst electoral result ever in the 2009 European elections (17.5%) and its leader Jutta Urpilainen seems to be facing internal wrangling.
The Left Alliance (VAS) was the fourth party in 2007, with 8.8% and 17 seats in 2007. VAS emerged in 1990 from a merger of the Finnish People’s Democratic League (SKDL), the old Communists (SKP) and a ragtag bunch of smaller parties ranging from feminists to Stalinists. The SKDL emerged in 1944 as a ‘front’ of sorts for the SKP though the SKP didn’t control the entire SKDL machinery. The SKDL as a communist party of sorts was one of Europe’s strong communist parties during the Cold War, winning between 17% and 23.5% between 1945 and 1979 before declining to 9.4% in 1987 – the SKDL’s last election before it folded into the VAS. Though SKDL was expelled from cabinet in 1949, it participated in governments in the late 60s and 70s. The SKP, under Moscow’s influence, never moderated because it was unable to expel the orthodox pro-Soviet taistoists less it wanted to lose Moscow’s support. VAS managed 10-11% of the vote in the 90s, but has since declined constantly since its 1995 high of 11.2%.
The Left is particularly strong in remote northern Finland, where the SKP was usually strong with local lumberjacks or workers. VAS won a paltry record low of 5.9% in the 2009 European elections, losing its sole MEP. VAS participated in the SDP Lipponen cabinets between 1995 and 2003, working, notably, alongside KOK.
The Green League (Vihr) was founded in 1987 and entered cabinet in 1995. Its vote share has constantly increased since 1995, peaking at 8.5% and 15 seats in the 2007 elections. The Greens currently participate in government, with its leader Anni Sinnemäki serving as Labour Minister in the Kiviniemi cabinet. The Finnish Green are to the right of the Swedish Greens and most European Greens.
The Greenies are remarkably strong in Helsinki, where they have established themselves as the second largest party (behind KOK) in the 2008 local elections. The EU elections of 2009, where they won 12.4% and 2 seats was very successful for them.
Finland is a bilingual country, with Swedish, despite being spoken by only 5% or so of the population, being co-official alongside Finnish which is an isolated Finno-Ugric language. Swedish Finns form roughly 5.5% of the population and are represented by the Swedish People’s Party (SFP-RKP) which has been around since 1906. The SFP is a liberal party, which reflects the classical liberal nature of the elitist pro-Swedish Svecoman movement during Finland’s language strife during the latter part of the Russian era in Finland. SFP’s power has declined as the Swedish minority in Finland got smaller. It won 4.6% in the 2007 election, which seems to be the SFP’s stable base since the 1990s. Swedish is mandatory for Finnish-speakers (and vice-versa) in schools, although the requirement for Swedish was dropped from the high school matriculation exam recently. The SFP is often and easily derided as a single-issue party which is after power. It has, after all, been a coalition member of a vast number of governing coalitions since the war and didn’t even leave the government when the Vanhanen’s government made Swedish option on the high school matriculation exam.
SFP’s support is drawn overwhelmingly from Swedish-speaking areas in coastal Finland (Wikipedia has a map here) although interestingly SFP, as a liberal party (the only, arguably, liberal party in Finland), gets some support from Finnish-speaking urban liberals. Voters on the island of Åland, which is a unilingual Swedish autonomous region, vote for their own political parties but the representative for Åland will invariably sit with the SFP’s caucus.
Next we have the Christian Democrats (KD), founded from a split in KOK in 1958 which won 4.9% and 7 seats in the 2007 election. The KDs are a run-of-the-mill social conservative Christian democratic party very similar to those found in Norway and Sweden. The KDs have been in government only once (between 1991 and 1994). The party’s leader, Päivi Räsänen, got media attention last year when she said that gays had a psychological disorder and were against the Bible. Her comments led to a ‘Church exodus’ of thousands of Finns from the Church of Finland, the Church for 78% of Finns.
The True Finns (PS) won only 4.1% and 5 seats in 2007, but they are likely to be the sensation of this election. The True Finns are a continuation of the Rural Party (SMP) which won 10.5% and 18 seats in 1970 (and later 9.7% and 17 seats in 1983). The SMP, originally led by Veikko Vennamo, emerged as an anti-Kekkonen split from KESK and was successful in the 70s and early 80s as a protest movement for small farmers and the unemployed. When Vennamo retired and when SMP entered government in 1983, the party’s fortunes declined and the party died out in 1995, when PS was born. PS’s main asset is its leader, Timo Soini, a charismatic Catholic populist and an MEP since 2009. PS has been an a roll since 2007, when it saw its vote share increase from 1.6% in 2003 to 4.1%. In 2008 local elections, PS won 5.4% and in the 2009 European elections PS won a record 9.8% of the vote (in alliance with the KDs) and elected Timo Soini to Strasbourg with the highest individual vote for a candidate. Since then, its polling numbers have been quasi-consistently on the upswing, peaking at 18% in March.
PS’s policies are an eclectic mix of social conservatism and economic nationalism. Their left-wing economic policies include increased state investment in industry and infrastructure, state support for rural regions and a passionate defense of the welfare state. As such, PS has been described in the past as ‘non-socialist populist left’ party. Their more right-wing policies include opposition to the EU and NATO, abolition of mandatory Swedish on all levels of education, reduction in foreign aid, limits on asylum seekers, law-and-order crime policies and support for those promoting “Finnish identity”.
The inevitable question is whether PS is really a party of the far-right. It is a subjective question, but I believe that the term ‘populist right’ is more applicable to the party. While it does campaign on strict limits for asylum seekers, Finland has one of the lowest foreign-born populations in the EU27 and as such can’t form the dominant theme of the party. In addition, unlike parties such as the PVV, FN or FPÖ the PS does not campaign heavily on rejection of Islam.
PS takes its voters from all political parties. A good share of its new voters are people who used to abstain from voting. Another share of its electorate used to the support the SDP, but in mill towns with high unemployment the PS is the main party of left-wing workers’ discontent. It takes a good bulk of its vote from KESK’s old base in northern rural Finland, where PS and the SMP had always been strong with smallholders. It takes some votes away from KOK (but less from them than from the two other big parties) and from VAS.
Issues and Campaign
The PS has also thrived on two other potent issues: the financial scandals and the government’s European/economic policy. On the first issue, the campaign finance scandal has practically affected all major political parties and all parties – even those in opposition such as the SDP or VAS – have lost a good share of their credibility as governing alternatives. After all, they’ve all been in government in the recent past. Finally, all three major parties are in practice very similar to each other.
Finland played a major role in the EU-led bailout of Greece and Ireland, a policy actively supported by the four-party governing coalition although opposed by all opposition parties, including the traditionally pro-European SDP. The True Finns want Helsinki to lower its financial contribution to the EU and a right to veto any increase in the current total of the European Financial Stabilisation Fund. Soini has done very well as an opponent of the EU-led bailouts, saying that the Finnish taxpayers were unjustly burdened by reckless spenders and squanderers within the Eurozone such as Greece, Ireland and now Portugal.
Finland’s economy has weathered the recession particularly well, with the GDP growth recovering to 3% in 2010 after shrinking in 2009 and growth of roughly 3% is again expected this year. The state deficit is also decreasing, due to decrease 8 billion € this year after decreasing by 10 billion € in 2010. However, unemployment – at nearly 12% in January – remains high and inflation is projected to increase this year.
Here are Taloustutkimus’ latest party rankings:
It is interesting to note that most pollsters have had PS’ support dropping off in the final stretch, after having risen constantly since last year. The National Coalition remains the largest party, but the support for the three major parties is down since 2007 with KOK suffering the least of the three. KESK took particular hits for the campaign finance scandal, while the SDP has suffered significant bleeding of its working-class base to the PS. It is hard to estimate a seat count from this, given that smaller parties tend to be hurt somewhat by the electoral system.
The idea of isolating the populist right from cabinet does not really exist in Finland. Soini has said that he is open to working with any party, except for the Greens. Both Mari Kiviniemi and Jyrki Katainen have publicly said that a coalition with PS was a possibility to be explored among others. However, certain of PS’ policies may prove to be significant roadblocks to a formation of a coalition including PS. Firstly, Soini imposes as a precondition to participation his party’s opposition to a new constitutional clause which stipulates that Finland is a member of the EU. The new clause was approved by the outgoing Parliament but requires approval by the new Parliament to be approved. Constitutional reform and the EU is a consensus between the main parties. PS has said that it would oppose any bailout to Portugal or an increase in guarantees, something which may hurt its chances of entering government given that KOK’s leader Jyrki Katainen has said that he would not allow governmental participation by any party which opposes the European Stability Mechanism. Finally, PS’ opposition to bilingualism would probably exclude SFP from any government in which PS is in, but PS’ stance on Swedish breaks a pro-bilingualism consensus between the larger parties, though some people within those parties have made some moves away from that – Kiviniemi recently talked about replacing Swedish with Russian in eastern Finland schools.
The main parties might, however, like to accommodate PS into cabinet for this one time remembering how SMP’s participation in cabinet in the 1980s hurt it and eventually led to its collapse later on.
Finland’s election will certainly be quite interesting. It could lead to the destruction, in parts, of the very stable party system which has prevailed since the 1990s. In addition, PS’ entry into a new government coalition could make it the first populist right party to enter government in northern Europe.