19/02/2007 - Analysis
On 18th March next the Finnish will be renewing the 200 members of their Parliament. The electoral campaign started late due to the Presidency of the European Union, which Finland held from 1st July to 31st December 2006. According to political analyst Tapio Raunio, at the University of Tampere, the main parties comprising the present government coalition - the Centre Party (KESK) and the Social Democrat Party (SPD) - like the Prime Minister should reap the benefits from the high profile they enjoyed during this period. The Finnish will be able to vote early between 7th and 13th March; those living abroad will be able to fulfil their civic duty between 7th and 10th March.
The Finnish Political System
The Eduskunta/Riksdag, (the Finnish and Danish names for the Parliament) comprises 200 MPs elected every four years by proportional voting according to the Hondt method. Finland is divided into 15 constituencies. The number of MPs elected depends on the number of inhabitants in each of the latter; at each election the number of citizens in each constituency is divided by the country's total population and the result obtained is then multiplied by 199 to achieve the number of MPs elected per constituency. This number varies between 7 and 32.
Finnish voters choose both a party and a candidate. The candidates are appointed by the political parties or by electoral associations. To take part in the general elections a party has to collate a minimum of 5,000 citizens' signatures in order to be recorded by the Interior Ministry. The electoral law also obliges the political parties to organise primary elections if the number of candidates selected by the local branches of the party go beyond the number they are entitled to put forward, ie the number of seats in each constituency.
The government comprises 13 ministries and a maximum of 18 ministers. The MPs appointed as ministers maintain their seat in Parliament with most of them accumulating two mandates. The country has been led since the elections on 16th March 2003 by a so-called ochre-red coalition (ochre, colour of the earth for the Centre Party - KESK- successor to the Agrarian Party, and red for the Social Democrat Party, SPD) in which the Swedish People's Party also takes part. Matti Vanhanen (KESK) leads this coalition. As the country has three main parties sharing almost equal support governments traditionally rally parties from opposite ends of the political scale. Finally the Eduskunta/Riksdag includes 76 women, ie 38% of MPs. The country lies second in the European ranking (behind Sweden 47.3%) and fourth in the world in terms of women's representation within political organisations. The re-election of Tarja Halonen as President of the Republic on 29th January 2006 also coincided with the anniversary of the granting of the vote and eligibility to Finnish women, the first in Europe to have benefited from this right.
8 political parties are represented in the Eduskunta/Riksdag at present:
- the Social Democrat Party (SPD), a party created in 1899 (the Workers' Party of Finland) and led by the present Finance Minister, Eero Heinnäluoma, since June 2005. The SPD has been the country's main party for the last few decades. It has 55 seats;
- the Centre Party (KESK), successor to the Agrarian Party founded in 1906, lies to the right of the political scale. The KESK has taken part in nearly half of the governments (32 out of 68) and has 53 seats;
- the Conservative Assembly (KOK), born of the nationalist movement of the 19th century has been led since June 2004 by the young 35 year old Jyrki Katainen, who has often been compared to the present Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt. The KOK is the main opposition party and has 40 MPs;
- the Left Alliance (VAS), a party lying on the extreme left of the political scale was founded in 1990 and been led since last May by Martti Korhonen who succeeded Suvi-Anne Siimes, who left the party she had led since 1998 after an internal dispute on Finland's integration into Europe; she subsequently joined the association of pharmaceutical industry employers. The party has 19 seats;
- the Swedish People's Party (SFP), founded in the last quarter of the 19th century, represents the interests of the Swedish minority. The party, which is led by Jan Erik Enestam, a permanent minister in various governments for more than 12 years, is extremely pro-European and rallies personalities from various origins. It has eight seats;
- the Greens (VIHR), entered the political arena in the 1980's and is led by Heidi Hautala with 14 seats ;
- the Christian Democrat Party (SKL), has been represented in Parliament since the 1970's and is led by Paivi Rasanen. It has 7 seats;
- the True Finnish (PS) is a former rural party founded in 1995 and led by Timo Soimi. The party fights against immigration and is mostly euro-sceptic. It has 3 seats.
Finland, a Bilingual State
Finland is home to 300,000 Swedish speakers, i.e. 5.6% of its population living mostly on the southern coasts and in the west of the country. The latter are the descendants of Swedish pioneers who settled in the provinces of Uusimaa, Turunmaa and Ostrobothnie from the 12th century on. Since 1919, the Constitution has stipulated that both Finnish and Swedish are the country's two official languages. In addition to this the Swedish speakers have their own education system (extending from nursery to university), newspapers (11 dailies) and two radio stations. Television programmes in Swedish also represent one tenth of airtime on the two state channels (YLE). During elections three quarters of Swedish speakers vote for the Swedish People's Party. However in the fight against an ageing electoral base the party is now trying to win over the 100,000 Finnish living in Sweden and who take part in the Finnish national elections.
The other minority in Finland are the Sami (around 7,000 people half of whom live in the communities of Inari, Enontekiö, Utsjoki and Sodankylä) enjoy cultural and linguistic autonomy and since 1996, they have a Parliament of 21 members elected for a four year period with a budget of 1.2 million euro. The Sami believe themselves to be the government's "forgotten ones", stressing that they take part in working groups with the governments of Sweden and Norway, the latter country even having a Secretary of State for Sami Affairs. They are however greater in number in the two other countries: 40,000 in Norway and 20,000 in Sweden. Pekka Aikio, president of the Sami Parliament maintains that has been waiting for over a year to be received by the Minister of Justice, Lena Luhtanen (SPD).
Finally there are the Aland Isles, an archipelago lying between Finland and Sweden is home to 26,000 Swedish speakers who have enjoyed the specific administrative status of Free Associate State since 12th October 1951. After the First World War when the population requested its annexation to Sweden the Society of Nations decided that the islands would become an autonomous, demilitarised Finnish province. Both Sweden and Finland signed a convention along with eight other European nations. The islands' institutions legislate in the areas of education, social affairs and healthcare, security and culture etc... In 1995 the European Union allowed the Aland Isles to remain exterior to the European Customs Union. The islands maintained Swedish as their official language. To date the Aland Islands comprise a constituency, which only elects one MP in the Eduskunta/Riksdag. Since 1922, they have had their own government and parliament (Alands lagting or Lagtinget). The Centre Party of Aland (AC) dominates the present parliament, elected on 19th October 2003 along with the Liberals of Aland (LPA) that have 7 seats each. The Social Democrat Party has 6 seats. The Independent Party has been growing continuously for the last ten years; it won 7% of the vote and three seats in the last elections in 2003.
Matti Vanhanen's government results (2003-2007)
Four years after its appointment the government rallying the Centre Party, the Social Democrat Party and the Swedish People's Party enjoys a high popularity rate, an all time first in a country where no government coalition has achieved as great a number of positive opinions about its achievements just before a general election. A month before the elections three quarters of the Finnish say they are satisfied with their government and 80% believe the policy undertaken by the Prime Minister to be a positive one.
Matti Vanhanen who "accidently" came to power on 24th June 2003 (after the resignation of Anneli Jäätteenmäki (KESK), appointed on 17th April 2003 after the general elections and forced to resign after being accused of having delivered compromising documents about Paavo Lipponen (SPD), former Prime Minister, to the press during the electoral campaign), has been able to produce good economic results. During his term in office growth has increased to reach nearly 6% in 2006, buying power has increased by 4% per year on average and employment figures have improved (the country had 272,000 unemployed four years ago in comparison with 175,000 at present; only the region of Lapland is still badly affected by the phenomenon; unemployment rates rose to 10.9% in 2006), taxation has decreased likewise public debt. The government, which has benefited from international growth has decreased taxes (to a total of 2.8 billion euro) and abolished wealth tax in order to boost consumption, ultimately applying the opposition's fiscal programme. Indeed whilst the Centre Party and Social Democrat Party's programmes only offered low tax reductions the Conservative Party had been accused of promising fiscal rebates that were impossible to achieve during the electoral campaign of 2003.
Finland now comes second in the European Union with regard to productivity just behind Ireland. In addition to this four Finnish in five have a full time job. Professional mobility and the flexibility of working hours are exceptional in a country where 130,000 people move from one region to another every year. Amongst Europeans the Finnish are alongside the British and the Spanish, the ones who change jobs most easily during their professional career; the Finnish on average have five different jobs in their lifetime.
Matti Vanhanen's government reformed retirement pensions in 2005 producing results beyond original expectations. Since 2005 the retirement aged has been raised from 59.1 years in 2004 and 2005 to 59.5 years in 2006. The employment rate of people over 60 continues to grow: +10 points since 2004.
The Centre Party and the Social Democrat Party want to continue to work together leading the country. However some political analysts are quick to warn the two main parties in the government of what happened in Sweden during the general elections on 17th September 2006 when the ruling Social Democrat Party (SAP) that was proud of its socio-economic results was beaten by the opposition for having underestimated the concerns expressed by the Swedish population notably with regard to the development of the labour market. Although according to the government the country only has 7.7% unemployed (2006 figures) i.e. the lowest level in 15 years, in reality this figures lies at 11% according to some economic analysts. The number of dismissals increased in 2006 (7,536 people were affected versus 6,692 the previous year). In addition the working population increased by 50,000 over the same year. Finally the Conservative Party insists on the fact that the number of hours worked in the country has decreased and that the instability of work has become more acute. In fact although the number of hours worked indeed dropped in 2003 and 2004 it increased over 2005 and in 2006 for the first time it is higher than the figure recorded in 2000. The specific nature of the political system makes a comparison with the situation in Sweden somewhat hazardous.
Another danger for the ruling government coalition lies in the abstention rate. The participation rate, which is clearly lower in Finland than in the other Nordic States of Europe, has constantly decreased over the past few years; during the last general elections on 16th March 2003 it was 10 points lower than the rate recorded in the 1970's. In addition to this the latest opinion polls show that Centre Party voters and Social Democrat voters are far less motivated than those voting for the Conservative Party. The Justice Ministry, which is aware of the decreasing participation rate, recently launched a campaign to counter abstention amongst the young (and notably amongst young men under 30 living in the major cities), people of foreign descent and the 141 communities where the participation rate in the 2003 general elections was lower than 65% (69.6% nationally). Concerts and various events are to be organised over the next few weeks and voters under 30 will receive a letter encouraging them to vote in the general election. Minister Lena Luhtanen (SPD) would like to achieve a 75% participation rate on 18th March next. The upcoming general election will be the first where the average age of voters will rise beyond 50 - with the retired representing nearly half of the votes. Since the eldest voters have a greater tendency not to swap parties this might play in favour of the parties in the present government coalition.
A poll undertaken by Suomen Gallup and published at the beginning of February by Helsingin Sanomat, reveals that 59 % of the Finnish say they are certain about going to ballot. The youngest are undecided: only one third of those interviewed aged 18 to 25 said they were definitely going to vote. With regard to whom they support those voting for the Conservative Party and the Left Alliance are the most motivated.
The Electoral Campaign
According to tradition in Finland the battle is raging between the Centre Party and the Conservative Party with regard to which one will be the country's leading liberal movement after the election. "We are fighting the government. If voters want change they must vote for us," maintains Taru Tujunen, secretary of the Conservative Party, which is resolutely positioned in the opposition camp; it has chosen the following motto for the electoral campaign "A party which listens".
The very popular Sauli Niinistö, who was the unfortunate candidate in the presidential election on 15th and 29th January 2006 in which he achieved an extremely honourable result (48.2%, versus 51.8% for Tarja Halonenin in the second round after having beaten Matti Vanhanen by 5.5 points in the first round: 24.1% of the vote in comparison with 18.6% for the Prime Minister), first said that he was giving up taking part in the general elections before changing his mind. The present Vice-President of the European Investment Bank (EIB), Sauli Niinistö will be running as the Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen in the constituency of Uusimaa, the biggest in the country (34 MPs) and as such it is considered the most "decisive" in the election by the head of government.
According to a poll undertaken in January health, aid to the elderly, energy prices and the ageing of the population are the most important themes for the Finnish. However the issues of employment, pensions, and taxation are at the heart of the electoral campaign alongside environment, climate change and energy.
Taxation was the most discussed theme during the first electoral debate organised at the end of January by the three main unions: the Central Organisation of Finnish Unions (SAK), the Finnish Wage Confederation (STTK) and the Confederation of Finnish Academic Professional Unions (Akava). Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, who wants to reduce VAT on food products, has not however provided figures with regard to any future tax reductions planned for by his party but he has said that they should include all revenue bands. "I would like to avoid making excessive promises. The reduction of income tax should target the most modest and average incomes," said the chairman of the Social Democrat Party and present Finance Minister Eero Heinäluoma. For his part Jan Oker Blom, chairman of the parliamentary group for the Swedish People's Party has suggested the abolition of the inheritance tax and a reform of energy taxes in order to encourage environment friendly behaviour. "Taxes cannot decrease indefinitely," maintained Anni Sinnemäki, Vice-President of the Greens, arguing that money is necessary to ensure quality public services. This opinion is shared by Matti Korkonen, leader of the Left Alliance, who although planning for fiscal "adjustments" would like "social services to come before tax reductions."
The first televised electoral debate organised in a derelict factory in Turku took place on 1st February on TV1. The chairmen of the eight parties represented in Parliament spoke of economic subjects; globalisation, relocations, employment and taxation.
In an article published by Suomenmaa, a paper run by his party, the Prime Minister announced that the Centre Party was suggesting an increase in expenditure totalling 1.5 billion euro, versus 1 billion for the Conservative Party and 2.4 billion for the Social Democrat Party. According to Matti Vanhanen, "the increase in spending put forward by the Conservative Party totally insufficient." As for that put forward by the Social Democrat Party he says that, "it leaves no margin for tax reductions and leaves us no opportunity to promote economic dynamism. The facts are as follows: if the GDP continues to grow by 2.5% per year during the entire term of office and if the effects of the salary agreement lie at around 2% we shall have room to manoeuvre to a total of between four and five billion euro. This has to be enough for an increase in expenditure, a reduction in taxation and the excess necessary for the national economy on a yearly basis," maintained the Prime Minister. "The Centre Party is proposing tax reductions based on a maximum of one billion euros (VAT on foodstuffs, the taxation of pensioners, inheritance tax etc ...) as well as a decrease in income tax which would notably concern small and medium incomes. The level of the reduction on income tax cannot be decided before we know how the economy will develop and the level of salary increases. A decrease of around one or two billion euros is necessary at least," he wrote.
On 8th February the leaders of the three main political parties -Matti Vanhanen, Eero Heinäluoma and Jyrki Katainen- met for a debate on the private TV channel MTV3. Eero Heinäluoma warned against the possibility of the creation of a bourgeois government, the name given to a coalition rallying the Centre Party and the Conservative Party after the elections in March. Two days later the Social Democrat leader said that a group of Centre Party leaders were campaigning for the establishment of a "non-socialist" government after the election and the application of a policy to lower taxes that would be a disadvantage to public spending.
According to a poll after the programme 60% of viewers said that Matti Vanhanen was the most experienced politician to manage foreign and European policy. His two direct opponents achieved less than 10%. Over one third of those interviewed (36%) define the Prime Minister as the most convincing with regard to the economy, versus 17% who were in favour of Eero Heinäluoma and 14% for Jyrki Katainen.
Just one month before the election Matti Vanhanen rides easily ahead in the polls and his party is ahead of both the Social Democrat Party and the Conservative Party.
According to a poll undertaken by Taloustutimus, published on 12th February by MTV3, 39% of the Finnish want the Prime Minister to govern again versus 11% who favour Jyrki Katainen and 10% Eero Heinäluoma. The appointment in June 2005 of Eero Heinäluoma as leader of the Social Democrat Party, the youth and problems experienced by Jyrki Katainen in really making a breakthrough within his own party against Sauli Niinistö, pose a real problem for these two men in the face of Matti Vanhanen.
According to a poll by Taloustutkimus, published in the Tampere daily Aamulehti on 15th February more than one third of Social Democrats say they prefer the present Foreign Minister Errki Tuomioja to take over the position of head of government (38%, versus 24% who say they are in favour of Eero Heinäluoma). The same observation can be made amongst the Conservatives: 60% approve of Sauli Niinistö as Prime Minister versus 18% for Jyrki Katainen.
Results of the General Elections on 16th March 2003 in Finland
Participation rate: 69.6%
Source Helsingin Sanomat