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Finnish elections: a rare moment of stability in European politics?

Finland can be considered a kind of outlier in European politics when it comes to changes in its political landscape. As a contrast to nearly every other member of the European Union, the Social Democrats (S&D) in Finland have seen gains in recent years and look like a probable candidate to be the party of the next prime minister. What’s more, also the Green League (G/EFA) and the Left Alliance (GUE/NGL) of Finland have increased their support during the last four years, hence the change in support isn’t just realignment of left-leaning voters.

Yet there most probably isn’t going to be a unified green-left government. Nor any major problems arising, like in Sweden, from the fact that no “ideological bloc” looks to be reaching a majority. Why such a distinct trend? Why are Finnish politics so different from its neighbour Sweden and other European partners?

Finnish polling average from 2015 to 2019. Image: Databyro

Conciliation and compromises

Finland has managed to stay a rather stable democracy ever since its civil war ended shortly after independence from Russia in 1918. Finland was also among the first nations in the world to introduce voting rights also for women, as well as for the “unlanded” and other disadvantaged groups in 1907. The groups in question could also run in the elections, resulting in 19 of 200 of the 1907 Finnish unicameral parliament being women: the first female MPs in the world.

Unlike in many other European countries during the interwar period, Finland’s parliamentary institutions managed to thwart the threat of anti-democratic tendencies running amok elsewhere. Even after the bitter class-based civil war in 1917-1918, the centre-left SDP (S&D) was an accepted partner for government and a short-lived right-wing uprising in the 30s was quashed.

After the Second World War, Finland experienced a number of short-lived but politically wide-ranging governments under the unprecedented 26-year presidency of Urho Kekkonen (KESK-ALDE). By the end of the millennia, Finland gradually moved away from the system centred around the president towards a more powerful parliament, but the tradition of politically wide-ranging majority governments was sustained.

Urho Kekkonen pictured with his wife and the Kennedys. (Image: Public Domain)

As a result of this tradition of “consensus democracy” in Finland, it is not uncommon that the centre-left forms a government with the centre-right across the political aisle. During the last few decades it has been customary that the core of the governing coalition would be formed by two of the three main parties, Kokoomus (EPP), Keskusta (ALDE) and SDP (S&D).

At times such compromises in a system can produce rather ‘weird’ coalitions. As there is a strong tendency to also have majority governments, the government after the 2011 elections included Vasemmistoliitto (GUE/NGL), but also Kokoomus (EPP), among four other parties. It is worth to note, however, that the 2011 elections and the following governmental negotiations were rather exceptional and broke the long-standing system of the three main parties.

Finland, in short, strives for compromise, majority governments and isn’t too committed to the orthodoxical political lines between the political right and left. Yet the Finnish political field has “Dutchified” in recent years, as it has moved from the system of few main parties to many mid-sized ones. At the time of writing, four parties are polling inside the 10-20% bracket, one a bit over it and one at a bit under it. How exactly has the political field developed, then, and what does it matter? What results should we expect from the elections?

Fragmentation within and without

As mentioned at the start of the article, the Finnish Social Democrats have been able to defy the long-running sunset of social democracy in Europe. SDP is currently leading the polls with 21%, three to four percentage points above its closest challenger Kansallinen Kokoomus (EPP)

Behind the SDP surge, according to the data gathered by the pollster Taloustutkimus during last winter, lies an influx of new SDP voters from Perussuomalaiset (ECR). Perussuomalaiset initially participated in the government formed by Keskusta (ALDE) and Kokoomus (EPP) after the 2015 elections. The strict austerity measures of the government and 30,000 migrants seeking asylum in Finland during the autumn of 2015, however, made the support of Perussuomalaiset to decrease from 18% to 10%.

The exodus of PS-ECR voters to SDP-S&D exemplifies well the turn that Perussuomalaiset has gradually taken during the 2010s. Their massive electoral victory in 2011, 19% vote share with a rise of 15% points since the 2007 elections, was forged with a multi-pronged approach that included eurosceptic rhetoric, economic policies that most consider centre-left, as well as a critique of the way Finland handles immigration. At the apex of their heyday, the distinctive feature of Perussuomalaiset setting it apart from other European parties dubbed populist was its slant of economic policies. Its leader Timo Soini even called the party a “workers’ party without socialism” in 2013.

Gradually, however, the internal group emphasising criticism of immigration superseded other elements within the party. As Perussuomalaiset was part of the government that enacted the austerity measures in 2015, it became rather clear that the party had shed its former economic policies, or at shifted under pressure from coalition partners Kokoomus (EPP) and Keskusta (ALDE) pressure,

As Jussi Halla-aho, a figure that had established himself as one of the foremost critics of immigration in recent years was elected as the new leader of Perussuomalaiset in 2017, the gradual change of the party completed its final steps towards that of a more generic right-wing party in Europe. Subsequently half of the parliamentary members of Perussuomalaiset left and formed a new party called Sininen tulevaisuus (ECR).

A second story of the last years contributing to the dutchification of Finnish politics, apart from the dynamic between SDP and PS, has been the rather drastic decrease in support of Keskusta (ALDE). The party started with 21% support and the seat of the prime minister after the 2015 elections, yet the polling average shows Keskusta at mere 14-15% support as April draws near. Finally, the rise of the Green league brings us to four parties between 10% and 20% support, as the support of Kokoomus (EPP) is nearly identical to that of four years ago. Starting with 8% after the 2015 elections, the Green league has marched on to almost double their vote share and are currently polling at around 14%.

As a result of the recent fragmentation of Finnish politics, the upcoming governmental negotiations might turn out trickier than Finns have been used to. On the other hand, the tradition of “consensus politics” in Finland makes sure that there most probably won’t be a deadlock as there has been in Sweden.

Julius is Europe Elects’ Head of Communications.