General elections in Finland, 16th march 2003


Corinne Deloy,  

Fondation Robert Schuman,  

Helen Levy


16 March 2003

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Deloy Corinne

Corinne Deloy

Author of the European Elections Monitor (EEM) for the Robert Schuman Foundation and project manager at the Institute for Political Studies (Sciences Po).

Robert Schuman Fondation

Fondation Robert Schuman

Levy Helen

Helen Levy

Since 1995, ie two terms of office, Finland has been governed by a coalition that brings together five parties: three lie on the left of the political chess board, Social Democrat Party (SDP), Left Alliance (VAS) and the Greens (VIHR) ; one on the right (National Assembly, KOK) and the last being the Party of the Swedish People (SFP). This government is led by the present leader of the Social Democrat Party, Paavo Lipponen.

Finland has suffered a severe weakening in its economy in 2001 due to the slowing of the American economy that was accentuated by the terrorist attacks on 11th September. The growth rate of the GDP dropped from 6.1% in 2000 to 0.6% the following year. This drop was all the stronger since the economic expansion during the 1980's had led the Finnish to being accustomed to a regular improvement in their standard of life. In 2002, the growth of the GDP was to reach 1.5%. However recovery will depend mostly on the revival of international trade, especially in terms of telecommunications and IT's, that are key sectors in the Finnish economy.

On 16th March, the Finnish will vote in their mono-cameral Parliament: Eduskunta/Riksdag, that is always called by both of its names, in Finnish and Swedish, both official languages in Finland. The Swedish speakers represent 5.6% of the Finnish population, ie 300,000 thousand people who live mainly along the coast (Nyland, Aboland and Osterbotten) and in the islands of Aland. The country has 385 Finnish and 21 Swedish speaking town councils, 42 are bilingual. The reform the linguistic legislation that is to be passed rapidly obliges civil servants to provide their services in the user's mother tongue ie in Finnish and in Swedish.

The Finnish Political System

The Eduskunta/Riksdag, comprises 200 MP's elected for a four year mandate by proportional vote. Finland is divided into 15 constituencies - the number of MP's per constituency varies from 7 to 32. The distribution of seats depends on the number of inhabitants in the constituency. During each election the number of citizens in each constituency is divided by the country's total population, the result obtained is then multiplied by 199 to gain the number of deputies per constituency. The vote is not for a party but a candidate. Once the votes have been counted, a quotient calculated according to the Hondt Method (division of the number of votes cast in a constituency by the number of seats available) is established. The lists then win as many seats as the number of times they achieved the electoral quotient. If there is an electoral union the order of the candidates is defined by the number of votes won personally by each, since the total number of votes won by each of the movement are not taken into account.

The candidates are appointed by the political movements or by constituents' associations. In order to stand during the elections a party has to be recognised by the Home Ministry; to do this it has to find a minimum of 5,000 citizens' signatures. As for constituents' associations they have to include a minimum of 100 members. Finnish electoral law also obliges the political movements to organise a primary election within the parties just in case the number of candidates appointed by the movements' local sections transcends the number of candidates that they are allowed to put forward, ie the number of seats in each constituency.

Nine political movements are represented in the Eduskunta/Riksdag at present:

The Social Democrat Party (SPD), Paavo Lipponen the Prime Minister's party, leading movement in Finland since the general elections in 1995;

The Centre Party (KESK), successor to the Agrarian Party founded in 1906, a movement that has participated in nearly half of the Finnish governments (31 out of 67) and a major loser of the last two general elections;

The Conservative Assembly (KOK), heir to the Finnish Nationalist Movement of the 19th Century;

Left Alliance (VAS), successor to the Finnish Communist Party that was one of the strongest in Western Europe for many years but which is now in decline;

The Swedish People's Party (SFP), representative of the interests of the Swedish minority;

The Greens (VIHR), who appeared recently on the political scene (in the 1980's);

Christian Union (SKL), a Christian Democrat movement represented in Parliament since the 1970's and that recently changed name to become the Christian Democrat Party;

The Real Finns (PS), former rural party;

And the Reform Party (REM).

It should also be stressed that in April 2002 with the upcoming general elections in mind Olavi Maeepaeae created "Blue-White of the Finnish People", an extreme rightwing movement (named after the colours of the national flag). Until now Finland had not had an extremist movement. Anti-immigration, anti-European Union and populist, the party is led by a controversial personality from Finnish political life, who has been condemned in the past for racist remarks about young immigrants of Ethiopian origin.

The particular status of the Aland islands

The population of the Aland islands is totally Swedish speaking. At the end of the First World War just as the population requested its unification with Sweden, the Society of Nations decided that the islands ought to be an autonomous, demilitarised Finnish province. Sweden and Finland signed a convention along with 8 other European countries to this effect. Today the Aland islands comprise a constituency that only elects one MP to the Eduskunta/Riksdag. They have their own Parliament that includes 31 members. The present Assembly, elected on 17th October 1999, is dominated by the Aland Centre Party (AC) and the Aland Liberals (LPA) who each have nine seats. The Social Democrat Party has three MP's.

The electoral campaign

In 2002 the debate on Finland's membership to NATO became topical since the Atlantic Alliance wanted to draw closer to Russia and also include three neighbouring Baltic countries within its fold. Finland's official doctrine has always been military non-alliance in times of peace and neutrality during war. At the end of February 2002 Jan Erik Enestam, Defence Minister, declared that Finland might decide to join NATO after the general elections in 2003. Simultaneously Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen re-iterated the country's policy of non-alignment and reminded the world what he had promised to Russian president Vladimir Putin; that Finland would remain neutral officially for at least two more years. The remarks by Martti Ahtisaari, the former President of the Republic (Social Democrat Party) in November 2002 in favour of Finland participating in NATO started the debate up once more just a few weeks from the general elections.

The question of joining NATO is dividing the Social Democrat Party at present. "I provide the Social Democrat position" declared Paavo Lipponen recently, but avoided however to say anything about the subject in the same way as the President of the Republic Tarja Halonen, who, during her New Years address on 2nd January, stressed that Finland's policy should continue to be founded on popular approval: "In a democracy a credible security policy is founded on the support of the people. The present policy takes advantage of that and so it should continue in the future."

All of the opinion polls show that the majority of Finns (around 80%) are still very much attached to their country's neutrality. The same percentage of Finns say they are in favour of a referendum on the subject. Most members of the Conservative Party say they are in favour of Finland joining NATO, the members of the Green Alliance are most opposed. "The question of membership might be evaluated in the next defence report in 2004. It is not in our interest to stick to a position that would prevent us from taking a decision," stressed Paavo Lipponen on 17th February, adding that in the present electoral campaign he thought each party was playing, purely for electoral reasons, at the one who would be the most opposed to the Atlantic Alliance.

Paavo Lipponen's government is attacked regularly for its employment policy. The Prime Minister did in effect promise to halve the unemployment rate during the last elections on 21st March 1999. At present the number of people out of work represents 9.1% of the active population, ie still a very high figure. In the face of the attacks that the Social Democrats are subject to they reply that the 300,000 workplaces promised have been created and that the figures revealed by the experts about the entry of 80,000 people onto the labour market between 1994-2000 are incorrect; in reality the offer of additional labour rose to 120,000 people thereby explaining why the unemployment level remains high. Although these reasons do not convince the opposition they seem to suit the Finns who, after eight years of being governed by the Social Democrat Party, say they are satisfied (68%) with the policies led.

However, according to the opinion polls, the Centre Party is at present in the lead in terms of intention to vote during the general elections on 16th March. In a survey undertaken in January by Suomen Gallup for the newspaper Helsingin Sanomat, the movement is credited with 24.6% of the vote against 23.5% for the Social Democrat Party, 20.3% for the Conservative Assembly, 9.6% for the Left Alliance, 8.8% for the Green Alliance, 4.8% for the Swedish People's Party and 4.5% for the Christian Democrat Party.

As always in Finland, the three main movements are running neck and neck. Satisfied with their government coalition, will the Finns choose to re-elect the Social Democrats a third time round as the head of State or will they decide that the cure on the opposition benches undergone by the Centre Party has lasted long enough and will they vote in their favour? The answer will be revealed on 16th March.

Reminder of the general election results of 21st March 1999:

Participation : 65.2%

Source : La Documentation Française

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