Guest post: Finland

July 11, 2011 § 1 Comment

FinlandChris Terry, from Britain votes here for all your Finnish needs:

Who lives there?: More than 5 million people. Finland is mostly ethnically homogenous. There is one big divide, which is not technically an ethnic divide but rather a lingual one. 290,000 Finns (about 5% of the population) speak Swedish as a first language. Ethnically and culturally these people are not Swedes, they are Finns and are generally known as ‘Swedish-speaking Finns’. On the most part they are descendants of Finns who learned Swedish for purposes of social mobility in the historical period when Finland was ruled by Sweden and administered in Swedish. As such these people, in contrast to most national minorities, actually tend to be very middle class and they are concentrated around the affluent Southern coastal region.

Swedish speakers also constitute a clear majority on the island of Aland, which has such autonomy and special status as to practically constitute a territory of Finland as part of a deal worked out by the League of Nations in 1921 following the ‘Aland Crisis’ in which Sweden and Finland almost went to war over the principle of who the islands should belong to.

The other notable native minority in Finland is the Sami of which there are just under 10,000. They are an indigenous inuit-like people who live in Finland’s north.

In general Finland has relatively low rates of immigration, what immigration there is mostly comes from other European countries and Russia. According to the 2010 census there are only about 200,000 people in Finland whose first language is not either Swedish or Finnish, with Russian and Estonian speakers making up more than a 1/3rd of that. Immigration is therefore not much of an issue outside Helsinki, though that hasn’t prevented the rise of populism (which we’ll talk about later).

Finns are notably for their language, Finnish, which is one of only a handful of non-Indo-European languages in Europe. It is a Finno-Ugric language and considered to be quite beautiful; it was the basis for one of Tolkien’s Elvish languages.

I should also note that Finland used to be somewhat larger, a large amount of land, particularly Karelia, was ceded to the Soviets during WWII and remains part of Russia. Occasional calls to return Karelia to Finland are minority voices, however, and the area is by far and away majority Russian now.

How does the system work? (the theory): In contrast to the Scandinavian states of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, Finland is a Republic, specifically a semi-presidential one. Originally on independence in 1917 Finland was to adopt a German Prince as its King but when Germany became a Republic shortly thereafter this was deemed a bad idea.

The President was originally elected by an electoral college of local politicians but as of 1994 the Finnish President is directly elected on a two round system with a standard 50%+1 threshold. Ironically as the position has become more democratised it has also lost power, with the Presidency moving from a French-like Semi-Presidential system more towards a ceremonial figurehead position with, for example, the Presidential veto removed in 2000. The Presidency still retains powers in foreign policy and defense, but the Prime Minister is now the most powerful position in the country. Removing further powers is a subject of some debate. The President is elected on a six year term.

The parliament, the Eduskunta, is elected by open-list PR in 15 constituencies that match the boundaries of Finland’s traditional provinces, with the single exception of Uusimaa, as it includes Helsinki which forms its own constituency (nonetheless Helsinki and Uusimaa still form the largest two constituencies). Parties may form electoral alliances, in which they run separately but pool votes. Voters MUST vote for a candidate, votes are then pooled within a party or electoral alliance and seats assigned by d’Hondt.

The upsides to this system are that it is proportional, it is relatively easy to understand (though it does result in some big ballot papers in the larger constituencies!) and it is very candidate centred. Candidates must campaign not just against opponents in other parties but, in a typically lower level way, they must compete with members of their own parties. Finns take the personal aspect of their vote increasingly seriously.

Criticisms of the system usually focus on the electoral alliances aspect and the constituencies. The alliances are criticised because once in an alliance the system does not differentiate between parties so a party with more votes can get candidates elected behind a party it is in alliance with who has less votes but who homogenises votes behind one candidate.

The issue with the constituencies is the vast differences in district magnate, from six to thirty three seats in a constituency, with a prior Green League leader failing to be re-elected after getting 11% of the vote in one constituency due to district magnitude and her refusal to form an alliance.

The prior government had a modification to the electoral law on the table which would have gotten rid of alliances, modified the system of apportioning seats to one based on national votes, and instituted a 3% national threshold. Constituencies would have technically been kept as would the Open-PR system but seats would apportioned based on national votes on a complex algorithym. The future of this amendment is under question under the new government, as the Social Democrats oppose it, arguing that it reduces direct accountability (the SDP is also advantaged by the current system).

Aland elects one MP, essentially by FPTP. Generally this MP is one of Aland’s native parties but then joins the Swedish People’s Party group.

Parliamentary terms are every four years. After an election the President invites the leader of the largest party to form a government. Coalition formation in Finland is generally a relatively speedy, simple affair by European standards, at least these days it is. Coalitions are generally over-sized, a combination of historic institutional rules which required parliamentary supermajorities for certain types of bills, and a consensus-seeking political culture. PMs often invite minor parties to join governments for their own purposes. For example the Swedish People’s Party are always in government in order to represent that community and in the last government the Green League was invited to participate despite not being needed for a majority because the PM at the time wanted to demonstrate his own green credentials.

Like other Nordic states Finland demonstrates a surprising level of decentralisation for such a small country. For example, the entire healthcare system is run at a municipal level, indeed 2/3rds of public services are provided by municipalities. This is a combination of the power of the Centre Party, which has a highly decentralist political ideology and due to public service reforms encouraged by the pressures of globalisation.

They levy a flat income tax of 16-20%. If a municipality has a population of more than 8% which speak either of the official languages of Finnish and Swedish that municipality is bilingual and must provide services in both languages. If the municipality has less than 8% speaking either language than it is unilingual and only needs to provide services in one language.

In between the municipalities and the central government lie the six regions, which are very weak and exist primarily to distribute EU funds and other such technocratic duties. They are not directly elected, they are filled by municipal councillors instead.

How does the system work? (the practice): Like other Nordic states Finland generally ranks highly on indices of democracy, though a book called ‘Quasi-Democracy’ caused a storm in Finland in 2008 when it argued that Finland’s consensus seeking culture led to the creation of dry centrist governments which fail to reflect public opinion, the book even goes as far as to suggest that Finland still lacks features of a true Western liberal democracy.

How did we get here?: It is not clear when Finns first arrived in Finland, and it is a subject of debate amongst linguists when Finno-Ugric languages arrived in the area.

Historically Finland has been a somewhat contested area, but Finland came under the more or less uninterrupted rule of Sweden from about 1150 up until 1809. During this period Finland evolved several features typical of Nordic societies. For instance there was no serfdom, and so the peasants and the workers came to be particularly well educated. They also came to experience local forms of proto-representative government known as tings. These two characteristics laid the roots of Finnish Social Democratic and Agrarian movements later on.

As part of Sweden Finland was administered in Swedish, as such the middle and upper classes were all Swedish speaking, laying the seeds for today’s lingual divide.

In 1809 Finland was handed into Russian control after Sweden lost the Finnish War with the country. As such Finland became the Grand Duchy of Finland. The Russians were pretty poor colonisers and the country was still run pretty much as before. The Russians, however, started a process of encouraging Finnish identity to attempt to stop identification with Sweden. Doing so, however, encouraged the creation of Finnish nationalism and the creation of a Finnish nationalist movement which grew in strength and passion.

This nationalist movement came to be wrapped up in the politics of class, language, identity and political liberalisation. Russia only tagged on that this was a bad thing by 1899, beginning a policy of Russification known as the ‘years of oppression’ in Finland. However with the Russian Revolution of 1905 the Finns launched a general strike which resulted in a directly elected Parliament elected by universal suffrage, the first time women in Europe could vote.

The revolution of 1917 threw Finland into anarchy. Most of the Social Democratic Party came to see the Bolsheviks as an example to follow and a bloody civil war began between the socialist Reds, and the Whites, analogous to the divides in Russia. The Whites were drawn from the middle and upper classes, especially the Swedish-speakers, the rural regions and the conservative North. Unlike in Russia, the Whites won.

The triumph of the Whites had several major effects on Finland compared to other Nordic states. While the left in most Nordic states split between the Communist and the Social Democratic at this time, the Finnish split was particularly dramatic, and the Communists remained much more powerful and popular than in Sweden, Denmark or Norway. The Social Democrats were also stained by association with the Reds, even though they now became reformist.

The result was a much weaker left than elsewhere in Nordic states. While the SDP had had a small majority in parliament before the war it now became much weaker, it was still an incredibly important party but it would never achieve the hegemony of Scandinavian Social Democracy.

Then came World War II. Unknown to Finland the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact placed Finland in the ‘Soviet sphere of influence’. The Soviets invaded in the Winter War. They had three times as many soldiers, thirty times as many aircraft, and a hundred times as many tanks as the Finns, but they had been crippled by Stalin’s purges and the Finns had superior knowledge of the geography and fought a guerilla war using improvised weapons. The term ‘Molotov Cocktail’ comes from the period as the Finns named their improvised petrol bombs after the Soviet foreign minister. In 1940, the Finns were forced to cede 11% of their territory. There is a famous phrase attributed to Soviet figures that the Russians gained ‘Just enough territory to bury their dead.’ To my mind it appears to be apocryphal, but it does basically sum up the situation.

This was then followed by the ‘Continuation War’ which began 15 months later in 1941 and ended in 1944, essentially this was a continuation of the same conflict, hence the name. The Finns allied with the Germans and attempted to retake their lost territory on the same day as the start of Operation Barbarossa. Nominally the UK declared war on Finland [the only time two undisputed democracies have ever declared war on each other – ED] and the Finns were allied to the Germans but in reality it was pretty much a straight Finnish-Soviet war.

Finland’s relationship with Germany was notably different to other allies of Germany. They refused to sign the Tripartite War pact meaning it was not, de jure part of the Axis. Finland also refused to take negative actions against Jews and Finnish Jews fought on the frontlines. Nonetheless there was a sense of national guilt which was substantially weakened with the revelation of the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

The Soviets won the war, and Finland was then subjected to what was known as, perojatively ‘Finlandisation’. Finland was essentially in the Soviet sphere of influence despite being a capitalist democracy. It had to be careful to maintain sufficient neutrality so as not to annoy the Soviets, but also attempt to survive as an independent democracy.

Government became very unstable. The Finnish Democratic People’s League (SDKL), a Communist front organization, was one of the big three parties in most elections, even winning in 1958. It could not be in power, and at times the conservative National Coalition Party (KOK) had to be kept from power too due to its strident pro-Americanism. Cabinet instability was common due to the threats that could be made by parties as there were simply no other choices available. However, with time, Finland came to adapt and politicians learned how to bring parties into cabinet and deal with their more radical impulses.

With the end of the USSR, the SDKL became irrelevant and reformed as the Left Alliance (VAS). A particularly notable moment came with the ‘rainbow coalition’ of 1995-2003. Composed of Social Democrats, Conservatives, Greens, Swedish minority politicians and the Left Alliance the oddball coalition ranged from far-left to the centre-right. In doing so it broke trust in the political class and fueled the rise of the True Finns. In the most recent election the True Finns won 19.1% of the vote and 39/200 seats.

Who’s in charge?: The current President is Tarja Halonen, who was elected as Finland’s first female President in 2000. Halonen was known as a strident left-winger within the SDP in the past and she is opposed to NATO membership, and has a slight pacifist bent. She has high approval ratings, but will step down in 2012 as she is term-limited. The SDP have held the Presidency since 1982, which includes the entire period since direct election was introduced, though the favourite in 2012’s election must surely be the National Coalition’s Sauli Niinisto who ran Halonen surprisingly close in 2006.

The historic elections of earlier this year resulted in a bizarre six-party coalition headed by the centre-right National Coalition. Their junior coalition partners are the Social Democrats, the Left Alliance, the Green League, the Swedish People’s Party and the Christian Democrats. I’ll go through the parties in parliament by size.

The National Coalition Party (KOK) is the biggest party in the Finnish Parliament and the party of PM Jyrki Katainen. It holds 44 seats on 20.4% of the vote. It is a catch-all right-of-centre party, generally referred to as ‘liberal conservative’ as it combines right-wing liberal and conservative strands. At the moment the more liberal wing is in power and the party has come to endorse multiculturalism (with limits) and same-sex marriage. That said KOK does include religious right parliamentarians and takes what is, by Finnish standards, a militaristic stance. KOK is also passionately pro-American and pro-European, it is the most pro-European party in Finland and supports controversial EU bail-out measures. Traditionally it has been the big 3 Finnish parties but it was been growing since Niinisto’s good outing in 2006. It became the largest party for the first time in 2011 in a somewhat pyrrhic victory as it was forced into coalition with the SDP and lost seats and votes. The KOK is much more urban than most European centre-right parties as the Centre Party dominates rural regions. It is the largest party in Helsinki. This helps to explain some of its comparative cosmopolitanism.

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) is a Nordic Social Democratic party. It is notably more right-wing than most other Nordic parties due to its comparative weakness, a legacy of the Finnish civil war. It enjoys strong links to Finland’s trade unions. It won 19.1% and 42 seats in what was a surprisingly good showing for the SDP in 2011. This was not generally seen as an attempt to keep the True Finns down more than anything else. The party, like most European social democratic parties, is ideologically extremely directionless and confused, current party leader Jutta Urplainen is generally not thought highly of either. However the party is now the second largest in government and Urplainen is now Finance Minister.

The True Finns (PS). Oh, dear. So much has been written about the True Finns it’s hard to know where to begin. The party originates from the ashes of the Finnish Rural Party (SMP) which was formed from a split in the Centre Party in 1959. The Rural Party was a populist-agrarian party which entered government in the 1980s, lost its anti-establishment appeal, slumped, and was down to 1.3% of the vote and 1 seat by 1995. True Finns rose from its ashes, gaining slightly in each election until 2011 when it went from 4.1% and 5 seats to 19.1% and 39. Like the SMP, PS is a populist party, and that is pretty much all anyone can agree on. Under Timo Soini the party has certainly come to be nationalist to some degree, concentrating on Eurosceptisism, particularly. The party is noted for its strident anti-bailout position. It also opposes bilingual policies aimed at appeasing Swedish-speakers and is strongly socially conservative. Soini himself is a Catholic, a rare thing in Lutheran Finland. The party’s economic policies are generally left-leaning but not socialistic, per se. Britain’s leading Scandinavian politics expert, David Arter, has described policy in this area as ‘Christian social’.

The immediate temptation is to put it in the ‘right-wing populist’ category with people like Geert Wilders and Jorg Haider but Soini himself is not particularly anti-immigration, however some members of his party certainly are. True Finns is notable for its eccentric range of oddball attention-grabbing candidates. Former and current MPs include Tony Halme, a former WWF wrestler, Veltto Virtanen, an artist and musician who insists on wearing a beret at all times, Jussi Halla-aho, Finland’s best known blogger, and former Olympians. Outside the MPs the candidates who failed to get elected in 2011 are, if anything, even more bizarre including a licensed shaman and a ‘bear man’.

True Finns eccentric range of personalities remains its biggest problem and doubts remain about its government suitability to do with its unpredictability, sharply anti-establishment image and opposition to compromise. Its voters come from all parties and interestingly tend to be from the most radical ends. They are Social Democrats who think the Social Democrats have become too capitalist, they are Conservatives who think the National Coalition is too liberal, they are Agrarians who think the Centre Party no longer cares about the countryside. True Finns is now the largest party in the opposition. Most observers had expected it to be in the government after its triumph, but it appears the party was unwilling to cede the necessary amount of policy ground. The government is now defined by True Finns, however: a government formed, essentially, as an anti-True Finns coalition, but which will inevitably feel forced to give in to some of the party’s demands in order to win back PS voters.

The Centre Party (KESK) can, in a sense, make a claim to be Finland’s traditionally dominant party. It is not numerically dominant, the SDP wins the most elections, but it has been a member of the most governments. KESK has its beginnings in the Finnish Agrarian movement. The Nordic political spectrum resembles a triangle: urban left, urban right, agrarian centre. Agrarianism has several notable features. Firstly it is passionate about protecting the rural way of life, and so the Centre Party is often identified by its urban opponents with expensive agricultural subsidies. Agrarians are also highly decentralist due to suspicion of urbanised government elites and similarly they are Eurosceptic [ingrates – ED]. Farmers remain an important part of KESK’s base but they no longer make up enough of the population to win an election and so the party has come to be ideologically flexible and centrist. It has a wide ranging support. As the party at the Centre of the political spectrum it often acts as a ‘hinge party’, without which government formation is impossible. From 2003 until 2011 KESK was the largest party and lead the government.

The party’s ideological flexibility, and long periods in government have given it a reputation for corruption. Despite the personal popularity of Premier Mari Kiviniemi KESK went from 23.1% and 51 seats, and largest party status to 15.8% and 35 seats, putting them into fourth place. Kiviniemi now leads the only opposition party besides PS.

The Left Alliance (VAS) is all that remains of Finland’s formerly massive Communist tradition. VAS is a democratic socialist party which is often directionless and seemingly incapable of halting its continual decline. It also has problems with internal division. Whereas the SDKL was once capable of actively winning elections VAS got only 8.1% of the vote and 14 seats this year. Its voters are generally considered to divide between nostalgic old blue-collar Commies and young hipster types. The party will encounter fresh issues now it has joined the KOK-led government as signified by the fact that two MPs left the party to sit in the opposition reducing the party caucus to 12.

‘Not left, not right, but forwards’. That’s what the Green League (VIHR) would have you believe in any case. The right tends to see them as a bunch of smelly hippies and the left sees them as traitors after they went into coalition with KOK and KESK in 2007. In truth the party probably leans more to the left than the right. They are the second biggest party in Helsinki. In 2011 they scored 7.2% of the vote and 10 seats, a drop of 5, a result of their ‘betrayal’.

The Swedish People’s Party (SFP) is one of Finland’s smallest parties but also one of its oldest. It represents Swedish-speaking minority interests. An ideologically flexible party the party has tended to end up in government no matter what, where it is used to demonstrate inclusion of the Swedish-speakers. It has been in government almost constantly since 1956. The party has been criticised in the Swedish-speaking community for its allowing the last government to get rid of Swedish as a compulsory subject at high school, the party’s ideological flexibility extending apparently to its own single-issue. It was polling badly before True Finns started to bounce and then bounced back slightly. At the same time the percentage of Swedish-speakers if falling and therefore so is the party’s support, which currently stays between around 4% and 5%. In the latest election they got 4.3% of the vote and 9 MPs, including the representative from Aland.

Finally we come to the last party in parliament and government, the Christian Democrats (KD). The party originates in a 1958 split from KOK. It is dedicated to the protection of Christian schools and Christian morality in Finland. It is fond of alliances with other right-wing parties and has aligned with KESK, KOK and PS in the past. They hold the Interior Ministry in the new government. KD got 4% of the vote and 6 seats in 2011.

A photo Finnish

What does it look like?: Finland is the Northernmost country in Europe, a quarter of its landmass lies within the Arctic Circle. In winter parts of the North can get as low as -50 Celcius. Finland divides into four regions, broadly speaking. The coastal regions are broad clay plains and highly agricultural. The coast near the Archipelago Sea, ‘Archipelego Finland’ is very rocky however, with large portions of inland water. Interior Finland is known as the ‘Finnish lake district’ and is heavily forested. The North, particularly Lapland, is snowy and covered in shrubs. Finland has 187,888 lakes and 179,584 islands. The country is mostly flat. 86% of Finland is forested.


What are the issues?: Unemployment has been a problem. It is 7.8% as of April 2011, though it is in clear decline. Finland has been worse hit by the financial crisis than Sweden or Norway.

Swedish language laws are creating increasing levels of strife, part of the reason behind True Finns rise.

Immigration is JUST starting to come onto the agenda.

A constant argument is over whether to join NATO. After the fall of the USSR Finland quickly abandoned its historic neutrality to join the EU in 1995 but it remains outside the military alliance. Polls usually show Finns against joining NATO, with support for joining linked with the political right.

The biggest political issue of the next few years is likely to be how best to deal with True Finns, however.

A good source of impartial information is: Finland’s state broadcaster YLE has an English language site and has English language TV and radio news broadcasts available on their website.

It’s on recess for July but the Helsingin Sanomat, one of Finland’s best respected papers, publishes an English language edition.

The Helsinki Times is a specialist English language weekly. It is my preferred choice for politics.

Otherwise is fantastic for politics anywhere in Europe.

A good book is: For general Nordic politics: The Nordic Model: Scandinavia Since 1945 by Mary Hilson is a generalised history of Scandinavia since 1945, whereas Scandinavian politics todayby David Arter is probably the best basic guide to Nordic politics in general. Arter’s Democracy in Scandinavia: Consensual, Majoritarian or Mixed? is also a good shout for a description of the political systems, whereas The Evolution of Electoral and Party Systems in the Nordic Countriesis a good shout if you want to learn about Nordic Social Democracy, or Nordic Agrarian parties.

An abridged version of Quasi-democracy is available as a PDF here. ‘From Grand Duchy to Modern State’ is a political history of Finland.

When are the next elections?: There is a Presidential election in 2012. KOK’s Sauli Niinisto has already announced his candidature and is the favourite. The next legislative election is scheduled for 2015, assuming the rainbow coalition lasts that long.


§ One Response to Guest post: Finland

  • A correction: generally people put the two dissident VAS MPs in the opposition as they have left the party. I tend to put up the MPs as they were at the election rather than as they are now as I don’t have the time to make changes every time there is a by election but they should really be on the other side of the isle

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