EU policies developed in response to the ongoing financial and debt crises across Europe have become a crucial issue in the build up to Finland’s 17 April general elections.
By Teija Tiilikainen for ISN Insights
Finnish party politics has traditionally been characterized by a strong consensual spirit. The Finnish political system is a typical multiparty system with a long tradition of majority governments. The party political setting has remained relatively stable since the 1970s consisting of three major parties and a number of small and medium-sized parties.
Since the mid-1990s, Finland has been governed by broad coalitions composed of two out of the three major parties with the support of several smaller parties. Since 2003, the coalition has been led by the Centre Party, a center-right party mainly supported by the rural population. The Centre Party has traditionally been the least internationally oriented of all the three main parties. As the primary representative of the Finnish farmers’ community, which is critical of Finland’s EU membership, the Centre Party had to balance between its constituencies and the strong support for the country’s EU membership in other parts of Finnish society. Until 2007, the Centre Party formed a coalition with the Social Democrats; since then, it has ruled together with the conservative National Coalition Party.
The National Coalition Party has been leading the opinion polls since 2006, and gained good results in all the recent elections, including European and local elections. The party was boosted by the surprising success of its candidate and former party chairman Sauli Niinistö in the Finnish presidential elections of 2006, when he nearly prevented the incumbent Social Democratic President Tarja Halonen from being elected to a second term. The National Coalition Party is a center-right party promoting the social market economy and a full-fledged Finnish participation in the EU as well as in NATO.
Like its many European counterparts, the Finnish Social Democratic Party has suffered from a lack of credibility during the past few years, resulting in a decreasing level of support. In the case of Finland, the party has had a hard time finding a suitable party leader after the strong and charismatic Paavo Lipponen, who has been prime minister in two successive coalitions since 1995. As the 2011 general elections approach, support for the Social Democrats is at its lowest in many decades. In this situation, the party has gone as far as to attack the government’s policy regarding the EU’s economic stability mechanism and has thus deviated decisively from the party’s policy under Lipponen’s leadership.
Due to the lack of a true liberal party, this role has been taken up by the Swedish People’s Party of Finland, which promotes the role and rights of the country’s Swedish-speaking minority. With its broad liberal program, it has served as junior coalition partner almost without interruption since the 1970s. Two middle-size parties, the Green League and the Left Alliance, have also gained experience in government.
‘True Finns’ shake political consensus
The 2011 general elections (to be held on 17 April) will take place in a somewhat turbulent European context due to the ongoing financial and debt crises, although the Finnish economy has been performing strongly. Unusually, the EU’s policies have become a crucial issue in the electoral debate. Another development affecting the pre-election climate has been related to funding problems, particularly with the Centre party. Party funding has turned out to have been highly intransparent, and the relations between politicians and the private sector have become and object of close media attention. Many leading party figures have come under scrutiny due to suspicions that they have misused their position. Both of these phenomena have been politically utilized by the populist True Finns party, whose gigantic success in the opinion polls since summer 2010 has become the single most important development affecting the political field before the elections.
The True Finns party has its roots in the old Finnish Rural Party, which lobbied for the interests of small farmers in the 1970s and 1980s. The current chairman of the True Finns party, the charismatic Timo Soini, is himself a former member of the old Rural Party. In 1995, Soini established the True Finns party, which has since developed around his strong personality. The party has never had a serious political program: it is driven by populist patriotic rhetoric characterized by a Euroskepticism and criticism of liberal immigration policy. The True Finns’ electoral support has varied between two and four percent. In the general elections of the year 2007, it gained five out of 200 seats in the Finnish Parliament.
The implications of the financial crisis and the EU’s rescue packages (the Greek loan and the later stability mechanism) have unexpectedly developed into a highly controversial and polarizing issue in Finland. The True Finns’ critical campaign has dragged down the Social Democrat Party’s ratings and has generated a bruising conflict over a political issue that used to be among the least controversial. The True Finns’ credibility has been boosted significantly, with notable gains in support for the party. The party’s main message in the economic crises has been that the Finnish government should not use Finnish taxpayers’ money to pay for the self-inflicted debts of other EU members. The modernization of Finland’s traditionally very restrictive immigration policy under the leadership of a liberal minister from the Swedish People’s Party, Astrid Thors, has been the second main target of the True Finns’ campaign. In the currently dominant conservative climate in Finland, this criticism has gained traction.
As a result, in the lead-up to the general election, Finnish opinion polls show quite confusing results. Support for the True Finns party has been steadily rising and has now surpassed the Centre Party and the Social Democrat Party, which figure as the second and third-strongest parties, respectively. One of the main questions regarding the current support of 17 to 18 percent for the right-wing populists is whether voter turnout among their supporters, which is usually at a lower level than among the other parties’ constituencies, will increase. In any case, the True Finns seem to be on track for an historical electoral victory, and the debate over its ability to assume governmental responsibility has already started.
The National Coalition Party is still leading the polls, although its support has somewhat decreased from past years. The party is the strongest candidate to lead the coalition government, implying that its chairperson Jyrki Katainen would become prime minister. Support for the two other main parties, the Centre Party and the Social Democrats, has been decreasing equally, although there is one factor that favors of the Centre Party: In her first year in office, current Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi has become a very popular figure, which might ultimately push the current leading government party ahead of the Social Democrats.
Dr Teija Tiilikainen is Director of the Finnish Institute of International Affairs and Editor-in-chief of the Finnish Journal of Foreign Affairs. Published by International Relations and Security Network (ISN)