Thursday, March 26, 2015

Finland election 2015-a return to continuity

The European country of Finland will be holding an election to the unicameral Eduskunta, or parliament on the 19th of April. Finland is currently governed by a broad four party pro-EU majority coalition, led by centre-right Prime Minister Alexander Stubb. The election looks to be an interesting contest, but the fragmented political landscape of Finland makes government formation difficult to pick.


Finland has only recently become an independent country. It was governed by Sweden until the early 19th century, and then came under the government of the Russian Empire. After the Russian Revolution, Finland declared independence. An attempt to form a monarchy failed, and Finland became an democratic republic, with a president elected by an electoral college.

In the early elections, the Social Democrats were the largest party. However, they did not have a majority, and had little support from the other parties due to their poor relations with the Soviet Union. Most governments were formed by coalitions of the ruralist Agrarian Party and the right-wing National Coalition.

The first Social Democrat government was formed in 1927, with the backing of the Agrarian Party. This government lasted a year, but fell, and was replaced by an Agrarian-only minority. Governments after this were led by the National Coalition, the Agrarians, and the liberal Progressive Party. Social Democrats were included in some governments, but did not lead them. 

Finland's political environment was extremely fragmented, with no party winning more than a quarter of the vote. The right-wing parties were generally able to form a majority government, but occasionally the Social Democrats were able to form a coalition government, usually with the Agrarian Party. The far-left People's Democratic Party also participated in governments, but their influence waned over the years. During most of this period, the Social Democrats held the Presidency.

In 1991, the Social Democrats lost their status as the largest party for the first time to the Centre Party. However, this Centre-led government was unpopular, and the 1995 election resulted in the Social Democrats returning to the position of largest party, with 28% of the vote. This allowed Paavo Lipponen, the Social Democratic leader to become Prime Minister in a broad coalition including the National Coalition, the Greens and the Left Alliance (the renamed People's Democratic Party). This government was re-elected: however, the Social Democrats only won 22%. Lipponen is still the longest serving leader of Finland.

In 2002,  the Centre Party became the biggest party, winning 55 seats (out of 200), despite coming second in the popular vote. They formed a coalition with the Social Democrats and the Swedish People's Party. However, leader Anneli Jaatteenmaki was forced to resign over a scandal involving confidential documents from the Foreign Ministry. She led the second shortest government in Finland's history, lasting only 68 days.

She was replaced by Matti Vanhanen, who ran the country with a similar coalition. However, the Social Democrats left coalition in 2007, and were replaced by the Greens and National Coalition.

The 2010 election was extremely odd. The governing Centre Party were badly defeated, losing 16 seats and 15% of the vote. All parties lost seats, with the exception of the anti-immigration Finns Party. While the Finns Party had been in previous parliaments, they were only a marginal presence. After the 2010 election, they had 39 seats, making them the third largest party. The Social Democrats and National Coalition came second and first respectively

The government formed after this election was a broad coalition of the Social Democrats, the National Coalition, the Greens, the Swedish People's Party, the Left Alliance and the Christian Democrats. The government was led by National Coalition leader Jyrki Katainen, who was replaced by incumbent Prime Minister Alexander Stubb.

In 2012, a Presidential election took place. The National Coalition candidate, Sauli Niinisto,came first in the first round, winning 37% to 18% for the Green candidate, 17% for the Centre candidate, 9% for the Finns Party candidate, and a measly 7% for the Social Democrat candidate, Paavo Lipponen. In the second round, Niinesto won easily, winning 62% to just 37% for the Green.

Electoral system

The Finnish electoral system is a party-list proportional representation system, as is common in Europe. The system uses 13 multi-member constituencies, which are shown below.
Electoral districts of Finland (Wikimedia)
Each constituency elects between 22 (Helsinki, 01 on the map) and 1 (Aland, 05 on this map) Members of Parliament. Members are elected using the D'Hondt system.
A Finnish ballot paper (Andrew Reynolds)
Lists are fully open. Voters vote by writing the number of the candidate that they wish to vote for. Candidates and their numbers are shown on posters inside the polling station.

Presidential elections use the two-round system. Elections are direct, and have been so since 1988.

Party prospects

National Coalition Party

The National Coalition Party is a fairly typical European centre-right party. They are fairly socially liberal: the party officially supports same-sex marriage and multiculturalism. They support economic liberalism. The party is pro-EU and pro-NATO membership. 

They were formed at the time of Finland's independence by monarchists as a strongly conservative party. They were also strongly anti-communist, which meant that they were rarely involved in governments until the 1990s. The party's vote has hovered around 20% since the 1970s. At the last election, they became the largest party, winning 20.4% and 44 seats. 

At this election, they look unlikely to hold on to this status. They are polling at about 16%-17%, which is about the same as the Social Democrats. This does not necessarily mean that they will not form government, but it does mean that their position will be considerably weakened. In fact, given that they will have the most partners in the new parliament, it looks likely that they will return to government in some form.

Social Democratic  Party

The Social Democrats have traditionally been Finland's largest party; however, as detailed above, that does not necessarily mean that they have been most often in government. The party's strong stance against the Soviet Union meant that the Soviet government, which bordered Finland, was reluctant to support a cabinet with Social Democrat support. After the fall of the Soviet Union, however, the Social Democrats took a leading role in government.

Opinion polls have been fairly consistent for the SDP recently. They have been polling at around 16-17%, and are in a close race with the National Coalition. Their alliance with the National Coalition does not seem to have reduced their support dramatically, which is perhaps due to Finns being used to broad coalitions. They will be likely to stay in government after the election, possibly with the Prime Ministership.

Finns Party

The Finns Party were the big news story of the 2011 election. A previously marginal right-wing party that managed only 4% in 2007, they managed third place in 2011, winning 39 seats and 19%. This was rather surprising, but given the rise in radical right parties across Europe at that point, the result was not unprecedented.

The party is a Finnish nationalist group. They support a welfare state, with higher pensions and progressive taxation, paid for by stopping immigration (of course). They are strongly opposed to EU and NATO membership, but prefer NATO to the EU. They support neutrality for Finland, and are relatively hostile to Russia. They are opposed to immigration.

They look likely to lose seats. They are polling around 14-15%, a drop of 5%.  This loss makes it even more unlikely that they will enter government, but they will be a significant opposition force.

Centre Party

The Centre Party is a liberal centrist agrarian party in the Scandinavian tradition. They were previously called the Agrarian League, but changed their name in an attempt to broaden their appeal. The party's centrist status has allowed them to play a significant role in governments. They are fairly accommodating to Russia, which has also allowed them to win the support of the Soviet Union and given them significant positions in government. They are fairly Eurosceptic, but they are unlikely to 

Opinion polls show that the Centre Party are likely to become the biggest party, with about 25-26% of the vote. This, and I must emphasize this, does not mean that they automatically become the government. In fact, the Centre Party's accommodating strategy towards Russia is likely to be more of a handicap in the campaign.

The others

The Green League is a centrist green-liberal party, which is pro-EU. It is currently in government, and they have two seats in the cabinet: the Ministry for the Environment (surprise!) and the Ministry for International Development. They look likely to win a few extra seats, and about 8% of the vote (up from 7%).

The Left Alliance is the successor to the People's Democratic Party. They are a far-left party, vague on the EU, supportive of social justice, and are generally full of the lovely fluffy stuff that plagues that part of the political spectrum. They were part of government, but pulled out in 2014 because of public service cuts. Polls give them about the same figures as in 2011 (about 8%).

The Swedish People's Party are a party that might confuse people at first, but there is a basis for them. They are there to support the Swedish-speaking population of Finland, about 5.4% of the Finnish population. They are a liberal centrist party, and in recent years have been attempting to attract attention from non-Swedish liberals. The party has consistently been willing to participate in governments, and are members of the current government, where they hold the positions of Minister of Defence and Minister of Justice. They are polling about what they got in 2011 (5%).

Finally, the Christian Democrats. They are a relatively traditional, socially conservative, soft Eurosceptic, Christian political party. They are in government (yes, with the Greens and Left Alliance), and they hold the position of Ministry of the Interior (everything all the other departments don't cover). The polls give them a solid 4% (same as 2011).

Election 2015-the continuity election

Finland's 2015 election looks set to be a rather dull contest. Bar a sudden spike for the Finns Party, or a tilt towards Russia by the Centre Party, the result looks to be a return to the politics before Euroscepticism. My prediction, by the way, is a National Coalition-Social Democrat-Green League-Swedish People's-Christian Democrat government (exactly the same as now).

The election may provide some comfort to those politicians struggling with Euroscepticism; it can go away. However, no one can predict the future, and it is easily possible that a further downturn in the economy could erode support for the government, and lead to a comeback from the Finns Party.

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