Finnish Parliamentary Election 2007 – Lessons Learnt

Well, as it happens I know even less about Finnish politics than I do about the Italian version, so I thought I’d put up this piece that Aapo Markkanen of Aapotsikko sent me on the recent elections in Finland – Edward Hugh

Finland has chosen its new parliament, and the result was a historic triumph for the centre-right National Coalition Party. The last time the two non-socialist parties had as many seats as they do now was in the early 1930s, and they came near to it in 1960s when the Social Democrats had a disastrous election result. Manuel Alvarez-Rivera has written a thorough background article on Finnish politics for Global Economy Matters, and the blog is also hosting my own piece on the Finnish economy (available here). For further analysis of the election and the ongoing cabinet talks you can visit my personal blog – but right now I’d like to focus on two issues that, in my opinion, were the most important ones in this year’s contest.

In the first place the Finnish Social Democratic Party will now have the opportunity for a considerable period of self-reflection, and most obviously it will be able to do this while in opposition. In fact one could say that the SDP fell into the the same trap as their Swedish counterparts already did last September, by choosing to appear to be mainly a conserving force – a kind of irreplaceable component of the Finnish welfare machine. Strategically thinking, this was somewhat understandable since the last four years had been a rather easy time for the country and cooperation with the main coalition partner, the Centre, had gone pretty smoothly; so extending the incumbent government’s mandate was a priority for both parties, and they made no secret of this.

Nevertheless, in order to get hold of the Prime Minister’s seat the SDP had to somehow strive for the status of being the biggest party, so they tried to gain the cutting edge by seeking clashes with the National Coalition, their right-wing rivals.Thus the SDPs election campaign had a strong emphasis on public services from the very beginning, which included an attempt to picture the Coalition as the traditional welfare enemy that wanted to slash taxes and expose the cherished welfare services to the whims of the market. The socdems natural ally, the blue collar trade unions, made their own contribution by making noises about how precarious and exploitative working life would become, should the right ever be allowed to govern – a point made even clearer by the SDP chief Eero Heinäluoma’s unionist background. In principle this may have sounded like a safe bet, yet it was a bet that backfired badly. It may be only my point of view, but the lines of old-school social democracy just proved too old-fashioned and too outworn. The socdems put more effort into explaining how everyone else would make things worse, rather than explaining how the party itself would make them better. Many voters interpreted this as complacency and a lack of ideas – especially as the Coalition, for its own part, had followed the example of Sweden and moved slightly to the left, with their talk about better pay for nurses and the need to narrow the gender gap.

Besides, their nothing-broken-nothing-to-fix tactic just seemed to sound too banal in a country which in reality does have significant problems with its welfare model. The Finnish health-care system offers one example: it is high-quality, cost-effective, and – being based largely on occupational care – dramatically unequal. It might function as designed were Finland closer to having full-employment, but instead Finland happens to have (assuming that the official unemployment figure of 7% is slightly tweaked) somewhere around 10% of its working age population who are jobless. And those who do have jobs, in fact fall into two quite distinct groups; Finland is indeed a classic case of a two-tier labour market, with a protected majority on one hand and an increasingly anxious minority on the other – which may certainly be one of the reasons why the trade union’s mobilisation attempts didn’t exactly hit the right spot either. Old medicines don’t work if the illness is new.”

The second lesson which I take from these elections concerns the Centre Party. Besides the Coalition itself, the other big winner in these elections was the openly populist True Finns party, which surprisingly increased its seats from three to five. The True Finns don’t really fall into the same category as the right-wing populists in Denmark or Belgium for example, since they tend to keep their views on immigration rather moderate (simply because there’s no issue in Finland; the size of the foreign-born population is still very low) and mainly focus on EU matters – and they do this, as it now appears, with some success. And there was indeed plenty of Euroskepticism around for them to harness: the last Eurobarometer showed that a mere 39% of Finns see the EU as a good thing, indicating a somewhat pervasive distaste which, according to the pollsters, is only stronger in the UK and in Austria.

I’d call the Finnish version of Euroskepticism rather Nordic as its style; the EU is considered to be a synonym for Brussels – distant, elitist and terribly bureaucratic. The Union is seldom criticised on economic grounds, and no one has seriously attempted to blame the euro for any major problems, attacked enlargement or the common trade policy (because this hasn’t become an issue either; Finnish globalisation angst has been very mild). Rather EU resistance is based more on the perception that “it just isn’t our thing”; and on how the voice of the north loses too often to the more populous south. Partly this is a result of oversimplifications and, say, one-sided media coverage – ask your random Finn what the EU stands for, and he or she is quite likely to start talking to you about how the Union has tried to ban tar (which forms part of our national heritage) or tried to define how curvy a cucumber must be, or how some metropolitan Frenchwoman “from Brussels” has declared that Finland has too few wild beasts; Olli Rehn is cited by The Economist probably more often than any other EU Commissioner, yet in Finland it’s Rocco Buttiglione or Edith Cresson who his employer is more famous for.

However behind every myth there often also lies a grain of truth. The episodes of Helsinki losing the Food Agency to Parma – after an unanimous decision broken by an Italian who didn’t like the taste of smoked reindeer – or, say, Josep Borrell disregarding the Strasbourg petition simply as historical ignorance, from a people who had suffered no war, can certainly bring a sort of disillusion to many who would rather see their country trying to fix the Union, than leaving it.

Nevertheless, the case of our Centre Party shows how Finnish leaders are also failing to do their own bit to explain why Europe is good for you. In the European Parliament the Centre belongs to the Liberal bloc, yet back home its roots are pretty different from those of its sister parties. It has been, and still is, a party of the countryside – and, as such, a strong one. When Finland gained its independence, in 1917, 70% of the employed population was working in agriculture, and it remained a more or less semi-agrarian society until the 1960s. That was also the decade when the former Agrarian League renamed itself the Centre Party of Finland. Bit by bit they have modernised and made themselves electable in the eyes of the urban voter too, but this has, however, caused inevitable problems back in the villages.

It was the Centre-led government that navigated the country’s course into the EU in 1995, a decision about which there was a large consensus among the policymakers – it was seen as a mere necessity, after the Cold War under the Soviet shadow. Membership was put to a referendum, in 1994, and a clear majority were in favour, with 57% voting “kyllä” and 43% “ei”. Most of the Centre’s traditional supporters were among the naysayers, and ever since the accession the party remained somewhat reluctant to take part in any integration debate – until 2003, that is. That was the year when their two-term long opposition diaspora ended, and when they had to start to take responsibility again.

So, as you might guess, the last four years have been quite awkward for the Centre. On the one hand, it had the duty to govern and do the right thing, but on the other they were under a hawkish scrutiny from their own voters, now probably even more Euroskeptic than they were in the mid-90s. This was highlighted last autumn when Finland held the rotating EU presidency. You had Matti Vanhanen, the Prime Minister, subscribing himself to the club of Europragmatists; and Paula Lehtomäki, the young and prominent Minister for Foreign Trade, lecturing on why freer trade is win-win; not forgetting their party colleague already in Brussels, Mr Rehn, who was busying himself arguing in favour of enlargement towards Turkey and the Western Balkans.

Or rather, that is what they were doing while abroad. Once back in the motherland, the message – to put it kindly – got somewhat blurred. If there was any discussion on Europe and Finland’s place in it, it was half-hearted and meant not to draw any serious attention. And the papers – who seemed more willing to write about the Prime Minister’s personal soap operas than his EU views – also failed to play their part. And the same non-issue attitude remained right up to the end of the election campaign.

Apart from the True Finns party – who showed that if no one is willing to explain how Finland has benefited from the membership, there will be certainly someone who can explain how it has been, at least, harmed by it; “Where there is a problem, there’s the EU”, as their slogan went. You can’t call their five seats exactly a landslide, but it reduced the Centre’s support in rural constituencies and played some role shrinking its victory over the Coalition to one single seat; many centrists may have also simply stayed home on the election Sunday.

The upcoming parliament will shed some light on things to come. The Centre’s most likely partner, the Coalition (the party) is the biggest Europhile of Finnish politics; their views being largely shared with the small Swedish People’s Party and the Green League, your federalist alternative – the rumoured junior members for the new cabinet. So the chances for the Centre’s awkward soulseeking to continue are currently rather high, if you ask me.

And the problem, of course, doesn’t concern only them, but the political establishment as a whole. If they won’t talk straight about why at the end of the day we are in the Europe Union, then those who this time explained why we shouldn’t be there will be more than glad to send new thoughts into the vacuum.

1 thought on “Finnish Parliamentary Election 2007 – Lessons Learnt

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