09/03/2007 - D-7
On 18th March next the Finnish will be renewing the 200 members of the Eduskunta/Riksdag (the Finnish and Swedish names for the Parliament). 2004 candidates (60% men and 40% women) from 18 parties are running to win the electorate's vote in these general elections. The Social Democrat Party (SDP) lists have almost equal numbers of men and women: 49.1% women and 50.9% men. The Greens who have been exemplary in this area are presenting 52% of women and the average age of the candidates is 40.
Between 7th and 13th March it has been possible to vote early in 862 polling stations in post offices, libraries, town halls and also shopping centres, hospitals and prisons.
According to the polls between 30 and 40 MPs are due to lose their seat. Electoral statistics show that for the last forty years around a quarter of the candidates running for re-election do not maintain their seat since each general election leads to a renewal of around one third of the total number of MPs. In the last elections on 16th March 2003 this number rose to 62. Candidates who have been part of the political scene for several decades and who have already occupied high ranking positions as leaders of the State like for example former ministers Erkki Tuomioja, Pertti Salolainen, Paavo Väyrynen and Cales Andersson or former European Parliament ombudsman Jacob Söderman are enjoying a high profile in the campaign.
On 18th March the Social Democrat Party hopes to win its first victory in the Aland Islands with the election of Barbro Sundback, the present president of the archipelago's Parliament. Neither a Social Democrat nor a woman has ever won the only seat in the constituency of the Aland Islands. Barbro Sundback faces Magnus Lundberg (KESK), Roger Eriksson (Liberal Party of Aland, LPA) and Elisabeth Naucler (independent candidate).
The parties in power at present, the Social Democrat Party and the Centre Party are the favourites in this general election and all polls forecast the re-election of the present government coalition (Apart from the SPD and the KESK this also includes the Swedish People's Party, SFP). As the campaign has progressed tension has emerged between the two parties as well as between them and the main opposition party, the Conservative Assembly (KOK).
The president of the Centre Party's parliamentary group, Timo Kalli warned voters against a possible "leftwing trend" in Finland if the Social Democrat Party leader, Eero Heinäluoma is appointed Prime Minister. "Eero Heinäluoma's recent declarations remind us of the Social Democrat Party of the '70's when it thought it could solve all problems by increasing State spending," he stressed. The Centre Party has accused the SPD, via its Secretary General Jarmo Korhonen of wanting a return of the rainbow coalition (SPD-KOK-Greens-Left Alliance, VAS and the SFP) which ruled in the previous government. These comments have irritated the Conservative Assembly which believes that the two ruling parties cannot hide the fact that they have already come to an agreement on the creation of the next government. Both parties which lie to the right are each nurturing a hope to work together with the Social Democrat Party and neither of them has mentioned the possibility of a rightwing government – a perspective that the Social Democrats have no hesitation in highlighting in order to mobilise the electorate.
During the end of work session in Parliament Timo Kalli and his Social Democrat Party counterpart, Jouni Backman, said how pleased they were with the co-operation that had existed between their parties during the government over the last four years. "We have a firm basis and we shall easily be able to continue working together in a future government," declared Timo Kalli. This provoked a violent reaction on the part of Jyrki Häkämies, president of the Conservative Assembly's parliamentary group. He declared, "it is a novelty to see that the elections will be a simple formality for the future coalition government between the Social Democrats and the Centre Party." The Conservative Assembly is standing as the only party for change and is calling on all Finns who want another type of policy to vote for them.
All of the parties are promising reductions in tax and an increase in public spending. The three main parties (Social Democrat, Centre Party and the Conservative Assembly) are suggesting a decrease in taxation on retirement pensions, employment, inheritance rights and an increase in family allowance. The Centre Party and the Social Democrat Party are also hoping to increase employment rates in the area of services provided to the elderly, as well as loans for transport infrastructures.
As for the "small" parties, the Left Alliance has focussed its campaign on employment. The party is critical of the government's tax policy that has favoured the rich whilst employment has not increased as much as the economic growth rate should have enabled it to. The Christian Democrat Party (SKL) programme is focussed on family policy, the elderly and young people. Unsurprisingly the Greens are stressing the importance of the environment. "The government has had four years to act. Now just before the elections they have woken up and are talking about energy and climate problems," says Iiris Kivimaki. Finally, True Finnish (PS) is fighting for a new immigration policy and a more critical approach to the EU.
Unusually NATO membership, a dreaded spectre in the political arena, has not enjoyed a high profile during this electoral campaign. The Conservative Assembly is in favour of Finland joining NATO but ultimately would like the issue to be settled by the population; the Centre Party and the Social Democrats say they are open to discussions on NATO. The Swedish People's Party, who until recently appeared to be in favour of joining, are now more reticent; the Greens, the Left Alliance, the Christian Democrat Party and the True Finnish are against joining NATO.
According to a poll by Suomen Gallup in November 2006, published by the Helsingin Sanomat, most of the population is against the country joining NATO (59%, + 4 points in one year). Finland's involvement in conflicts which do not concern the country directly is the main reason for this rejection. Many of those interviewed are against the increase in military spending that would come as a result of joining NATO; others say that belonging to the EU is sufficient guarantee for the country's security. Conservative Assembly supporters are the greatest in number in terms of wanting Finland to join NATO (53%, - 6 points in comparison with 2005). The youngest however are the most reticent: 70% in the 15 to 24 age group are against Finland joining NATO (+ 12 points in one year). Most of the population would like the question to be submitted to referendum.
A survey undertaken amongst candidates standing in the elections revealed that three quarters of them (70%) defend Finland's neutrality. However half of the candidates say they are in favour of increasing the defence budget, a figure that has increased significantly in comparison with that recorded just before the general election on 16th March 2003. Most Conservative Assembly candidates say they are in favour of the country joining NATO (82%), whilst 80% of the Centre Party and Social Democrat candidates are against likewise 90% of the Green or Left Alliance candidates.
Finnish MEPs have said they would like Europe to have a higher profile in the electoral campaign. "The potential Prime Ministers should at least be able to speak on the subject," said Piia-Noora Kauppi (PPE-DE). "MPs too often believe that European Union issues do not concern them," added Riitta Myller (PSE). The three main parties share similar views on the constitutional treaty, future enlargements and the importance of the European Union. The European issue was addressed during a televised debate on March 1st which brought together Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, Social Democrat Party leader Eero Heinäluoma and Conservative Assembly leader Jyrki Katainen – the show was hosted by Jorma Olilla, former General Director of Nokia and present chairman of the Economic Life Delegation. When asked during the programme about with which part of the world Finland ought to develop its relations Matti Vanhanen said Asia, Eero Heinäluoma spoke of Africa and Jyrki Katainen, the USA.
For its part the Central Organisation of Unions (SAK), one of three in the country launched a campaign against electoral abstention. We should note that the organisation decided not to take any stance with regard to the elections on 18th March saying that the aim of its campaign was to promote participation and to "have MPs in Parliament who understood the employees' cause."
The most recent poll undertaken by Taloustutkimus for the TV channel YLE, credits the Centre Party with the majority of the vote: 24.6%, versus 22.13% for the Social Democrats and 21.9% for the Conservative Assembly. The latter is however forging ahead according to the previous poll pour (+ 1.6 points) whilst the SPD has recorded a slight decline (- 1.5 points), the Centre Party remains stable. Polls also show that the Finnish want, in their majority, Matti Vanhanen to be re-elected as Prime Minister. The Centre Party leader said that he was confident about the general elections on 18th March: "I feel that the three parties in the present government will achieve good results. This will enable us to provide the right conditions to continue working together and to agree on a new programme." The Prime Minister thinks that the Centre Party's position – which he hopes will become Finland's leading party – comprises the true stakes in this election.