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Finnish Parliamentary Elections: Government Popularity Highest in Decades—Yet Will Not Continue

There has been an iron law in politics of Finland during the last few decades: the party of the Prime Minister consistently has lost support in the next parliamentary elections. The previous exception to this was in 2003 when the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of the centre-left S&D succeeded in increasing their vote share. Likewise, it is SDP which has the chance to repeat the feat under Sanna Marin, the Finnish Prime Minister and the leader of the party. Finns go to the polls on 2 April to elect their national 200-seat unicameral parliament. The election happens in 13 election districts across the country with proportional D’Hondt method, there is no artificial electoral threshold.

The plural government coalition consisting of SDP, Keskusta (RE), Vihreät (G/EFA), Vasemmistoliitto (LEFT) and SFP (RE) has benefitted from the so-called ‘rally round the flag effect early in the term—during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet the effect dissipated already during 2021 as was the case elsewhere in Europe too. Whether you attribute the continuing popularity of the government to this artificial effect or the government’s policies and general competent performance is up to viewpoint, yet hardly anyone can deny that the government and especially Sanna Marin is exceptionally popular and visible—both nationally and abroad.

It is now, however, already clear that the coalition will not continue: the agrarian Keskusta has repeatedly fought especially with the green Vihreät in government and has ruled out continuing the uneasy existence for another four years. Such tensions, especially on climate-action and urbanism, were already visible back in 2019, but the intensity of the disagreements has taken their toll. Keskusta has further been continuously in government since 2015 now, first with Kokoomus of the centre-right EPP and Perussuomalaiset of the right-wing ID, later with the current rather leftist combination. During that time the party’s support in polls has gone from over 20% to less than 10%, as being in government in Finland generally makes your support dwindle.

The party leader Annika Saarikko has indicated the party will be heading to opposition to be renewed and revived, barring a bump in support ahead of the elections. And why wouldn’t they? Keskusta has practically realised its short-term and medium-term goals during the last eight years, ranging from regional reform benefitting them to obstructing the most green and urban policies of the government. It might be an opportune timing for them to catch their breath and increase support in opposition. They can perhaps even address the problem of dwindling agrarian voter base in the face of urbanisation and age. Polling has lately offered the much-needed few percentage point bump in support in latest polls for Keskusta, we’ll see if it is enough to lure them to third consecutive government.

The frontrunners & the smaller parties

There are three clear frontrunners for the election, almost even, polling at 19%–20%. The centre-right Kokoomus might be a tad ahead of the other two, having received a large bump after Finnish NATO-application back in last spring. The party vouched for Finnish membership as one of the only parties doing so prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Finnish voters rewarded the party accordingly when it became topical. At best Kokoomus peaked at 25%, but the lead has since dissipated as voters consider other choices more thoroughly ahead of elections. Kokoomus likes to concentrate on the economy rather than social values mainly because the party has historically functioned as an umbrella for the Finnish right, leading to there being more traditionalist and more progressive wings embedded within the party.

Conversely, Perussuomalaiset of the right-wing ID have been on the rise during the last year. They bottomed at 14% at the height of Kokoomus’ NATO bump early in 2022, but have since recovered and are a contender for being the largest party, polling at slightly above 19%. The polling averages of the two have been inversely correlated ever since. And also conversely, contrasted to Kokoomus, the party holds (traditionalist) social values a nudge more important than economic stance. The voters of the party have moved economically to the right in recent years and the party is contesting Kokoomus voters more and more. Yet it remains economically a bit heterogeneous, more so than its competitor.

The third party competing for the first place is the incumbent prime minister Marin’s SDP. The support of the party has remained rather stable during the last few years, the party was at 19% already in spring of 2021, just where the polling puts the party currently.

Like Kokoomus, SDP historically is the ‘economic’ party of its political half, although the party has moved towards socially liberal values during the last two decades, following a wider European trend. SDP’s crux already in the last election of 2019 was the distinctly old average age of its voter base—oldest of the parliamentary parties, narrowly ahead of the agrarian Keskusta. SDP polling two points higher than they did at the last election shows promising signs for them, as the average age probably comes down a bit. Prime minister Sanna Marin as the face of the party has to a limited degree succeeded in alluring younger voters. To what extent this happened will be more clear after the election day.

Smaller parties—to which category above-considered Keskusta has now succumbed after its 100 year existence—remain rather stable in polling. Leftist Vasemmistoliitto might do a backflip, endorse theocratic government or socialise the means of production, yet its support will always stay at seven to nine per cent, whatever they do. Green Vihreät has slowly decreased to where they were during 2005–2015, to single digits and around eight to nine per cent.

Similarly the liberal Swedish linguistic party SFP remains at five per cent and Christian democratic KD at four per cent, like they have for the whole term. Of minor parties, the leader of the personalist Liike Nyt (~NI) Hjallis Harkimo—although marred by dealings with Russian oligarchs on the ice hockey team Jokerit and its KHL venture—looks to be retaining his seat.

Leader-centred Valta kuuluu kansalle (*)—whose leader Ano Turtiainen was expelled from Perussuomalaiset in 2021—will not be electing anyone. Rather interestingly a small new classically liberal party Liberaalipuolue (*) might be on the verge of electing one MP in the largest electoral district of Uusimaa. A new party that is not a breakaway from old parties has not managed to elect anyone in decades in the stable political scene of Finland.

Government composition

Finnish political culture is extremely coöperative—and Finns want it to be so. There are no stringent blocs like in the other Nordic countries and it is not uncommon for SDP and Kokoomus to form a government together despite representing the opposing halves of political spectrum. A limited exception to this is Perussuomalaiset, with which SDP will likely not form a government even if the majority arithmetically is there.

With Keskusta likely heading to opposition without a rebounce in polls, the most probable combination for government coalition forms around Kokoomus and SDP, with the addition of Vihreät and possibly SFP for robustness. Some questions remain about the will of Vihreät to participate in the government—this term’s continuous infighting with Keskusta in government has left them exhausted and they are polling back to their long-term normal of around nine per cent, down from the nearly 12% they clocked in 2019. The leader of Vihreät has voiced hesitations accordingly, yet the centrist government combination would ideologically suit the centrist, liberal and urban Vihreät.

The main alternative to the Kokoomus–SDP–Vihreät combination revolves around Kokoomus and Perussuomalaiset. If the duo can somehow lure Keskusta to join its third consecutive government, we might see a repeat of 2015 when the three formed a coalition of the right. A possible alternative to Keskusta is to get Christian democrats (KD) and liberal linguistic party SFP in, yet the latter party’s leader has stated SFP will not join a government which ‘makes policy based on the ideology of Perussuomalaiset’. Even with SFP their majority would be smallest in decades according to most seat estimates—around 105 of the required 100—which together makes the Kokoomus and PS based alternative practically dependent on Keskusta joining—itself not the most probable option.

Whichever combination ultimately gathers a majority of the 200 MPs behind it—the only thing that matters in the end—government negotiations will go relatively quickly in European (or at least Benelux) standards. The negotiations will be over by May or at the latest by June, with the investiture vote shortly after. The pragmatic and coöperative culture of Finnish politics ensures that.