Author Archives: Tapio Raunio

Presidential profile – Sauli Niinistö, the president of Finland

Any potential candidate considering whether to seriously challenge the current office-holder Sauli Niinistö (born 1948) in the next Finnish presidential elections scheduled for January 2018 must be having second thoughts. Niinistö, elected to the post in 2012 with a comfortable margin as the candidate of the conservative National Coalition party, is yet to announce his plans, but should he decide to run his chances of re-election are very high indeed. Enjoying popularity ratings normally achieved by leaders in North Korea and other non-democratic regimes, it appears Niinistö can do nothing wrong.

Following on from his 2006 campaign, when he advertised himself as the ‘president of the working class’ and reached the second round of the presidential elections only to lose narrowly to the incumbent social democrat Tarja Halonen, Niinistö has very much sought to distance himself from his conservative party-political background. He has repeatedly emphasized that no one should be left behind, and that the well-being of the country depends on unity and the will to act together. Whether this discourse has any effect is not known as the president no longer enjoys any legislative powers in domestic policy. However, Niinistö has given generously to various charitable causes and has consistently reminded that politicians and other elites should lead by example. When he was the speaker of the Finnish parliament, Niinistö demanded that MPs travel in second class and stay in standard hotels, a policy that attracted widespread criticism among the deputies.

The remaining powers of the president are in the areas of foreign and security policy. Considering that Finland shares a long border with Russia, foreign and security policy is always a salient issue in Finland. People appreciate solid leadership in external affairs and by all accounts Niinistö has met such expectations. While the government is alone responsible for EU matters, foreign policy leadership is shared between the president and the government. Before his presidency Niinistö was critical of moves to further reduce the prerogatives of the president, and since elected he has certainly shown activism in foreign affairs. Here Niinistö’s leadership has been facilitated by developments in neighbouring Russia, whose aggressive foreign policy has created unwelcome tensions in eastern and northern Europe. During recent years Finland has maintained active bilateral relations with Russia, with regular meetings between presidents Putin and Niinistö in a central role in this dialogue. Niinistö has also benefited from the fact that the current prime minister, Juha Sipilä of the Centre Party, is clearly preoccupied with revitalizing domestic economy, leaving thus foreign affairs other than those handled via the EU more to Niinistö.

Finland had three consecutive social democratic presidents between 1982 and 2012, and hence Niinistö is the first right-wing head of state in a long while. Niinistö has shared power with cabinets led by the National Coalition and the Centre Party, but he is also used to working with the political left. He served as the minister of finance in the five-party ‘rainbow’ government led by social democratic prime minister Paavo Lipponen from 1996 to 2003 (he was first the minister of justice for a brief spell from 1995 to 1996). During that time he developed an image as a man keeping the purse strings tight. Niinistö was simultaneously also the leader of the National Coalition, a position he served from 1994 to 2001. Very popular inside his party, he nonetheless received criticism for trusting only a close group of friends and not paying sufficient attention to the views of the party members. Between 2003 and 2007 Niinistö worked as the Vice President of the European Investment Bank and from 2007 to 2011 as the speaker of the Finnish parliament.

With a degree in law from the University of Turku, Niinistö worked as a lawyer in his home town of Salo before elected to the parliament in 1987. In the 1995, 1999 and 2007 parliamentary elections he was the vote king of the elections, receiving the highest number of votes of all the candidates (in the Finnish parliamentary elections voters choose between individual candidates). His vote total from 2007, 60 563, is the record in Finnish parliamentary elections. He is married to Jenni Haukio, who is 29 years younger than Niinistö. The couple has no children, but Niinistö has two adult sons from his previous marriage.

Finland – Troubled times for the left and the unions

Following the long reign of President Urho Kekkonen (1956-1981), Finnish voters elected three social democratic heads of state into office between 1982 and 2012. Four years ago this succession of left-wing presidents came to an end when Sauli Niinistö, the candidate of the conservative the National Coalition, was elected with a comfortable margin. Niiinistö enjoys strong support among the electorate, and he is a clear favourite should he seek another term in the next presidential elections scheduled for January 2018.

This change reflects a broader and much more important trend in Finnish politics: the gradual decline of the left-wing parties and their close partners, the trade unions. The 2015 elections to the Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature, were disastrous for the left. The Social Democratic Party finished fourth with 16.5 % of the vote, its worst-ever performance in Eduskunta elections, while the more radical left party, the Left Alliance, managed 7.1 % of the vote. The collective vote share of the leftist parties has declined dramatically in recent decades. Whereas Social Democrats and the predecessor of Left Alliance, the Finnish People’s Democratic Union, won over 45 % of the vote between them in all but one election between 1945 and 1966 (when they won together 48.3 % of the vote), by 2015 the electoral strength of the left had decreased to 23.6 %. After the 1966-1970 electoral period the centre-right parties have held the majority of Eduskunta seats. The prospect of a government consisting of only left-wing parties has not been realistic for several decades, and all cabinets formed after the 2003 elections have been led by centre-right parties.

The dilemma facing the left, and particularly the Social Democrats, is of course typical for centre-left parties across Europe. At its core are two interlinked questions: whether to defend traditional leftist economic goals or endorse more market-friendly policies, and who the party represents. The Social Democrats have definitely moved to the right since the 1990s, and this has frustrated many of its left-leaning supporters. Such frustrations surfaced in spring 2014 when the party elected its current leader, with Antti Rinne beating narrowly the incumbent party chair Jutta Urpilainen. Rinne was very much the ‘trade union candidate’, and his victory was interpreted by many as reflecting a yearning on the part of the rank-and-file for a return to more leftist politics after two decades during which the party has, both voluntarily and under strong external and budgetary constraints, embraced more market-friendly policies.

The Left Alliance is in a largely similar situation. Bringing together a variety of leftists and former communists, the party is internally divided on the left–right dimension, with the party leadership advocating ‘green left’ ideological moderation, while the working class voters more closely linked to trade unions oppose such centrist moves. The entry of the Green League, who won 8.5 % of the vote in the 2015 election, offers partial compensation, but the party is quite centrist and itself refuses to be categorized as a left-wing party. Nonetheless, following the 2015 elections party chair Ville Niinistö lamented the decline of the left as the Social Democrats and Left Alliance share many of the values or concerns of the Greens, especially fight against poverty and in moral questions such as gender-neutral marriages. The Greens are in many ways sympathetic towards trade unions, but the party is obviously rooted in the environmental movement and associated interest groups whose policies often are at odds with trade union interests. The Greens perhaps also view trade unions as old-fashioned and too hierarchical.

The rise of populism further complicates the situation. The three core parties of recent decades – Social Democrats, the Centre Party and the National Coalition – have largely held on to their vote shares, but the rise of the Finns Party means that Finland now has four quite equally-sized large parties. Hence the traditional left-wing parties are competing for the working class vote with the Finns Party. In particular, there is no party offering a natural home to the people employed in the large services sector which includes a wide variety of occupational groups ranging from waitresses, teachers, and sales personnel to nurses. While the Finns Party is not organizationally strong inside the main blue-collar confederation SAK (the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions), in terms of party choice the Finns was the largest party inside SAK in the 2015 elections. Moreover, in 2015 SAK members were more likely to identify with the Finns Party than with either of the two traditional leftist parties.

The vanishing electoral strength of left-wing parties means serious trouble for trade unions, whose influence has largely depended on especially the Social Democrats leading or being at least a partner in the ruling coalition. In comparative studies Finland is usually ranked as having one of the most corporatist systems of governance. The main employers’ organization, the Confederation of Finnish Industries (EK), decided unilaterally to abandon tripartite collective wage talks in 2007 when Finland was governed by a centre-right coalition. However, since 2011 centralized wage agreements have been re-introduced, no doubt thanks to the fact that Social Democrats re-entered the government after the 2011 elections. While the system of collective wage talks is not as comprehensive as before, many labour market agreements and laws are effectively decided in tripartite negotiations between the employers’ federations, the trade unions, and the government. Trade union density has also risen over the decades, reaching its peak during the severe recession of the early 1990s, and over 70 % of the workforce now belongs to unions. When left-wing parties are not in the government, trade unions are immediately hurt. This is again very much the case now under the current Centre-led government, which together with EK has forcefully argued that centralized wage talks are incompatible with competitiveness and economic growth.

Overall, leftist parties and the unions are increasingly on the defensive in Finland, with initiatives and discourse of the centre-right parties and business interests dominating the agenda. The global and European uncertainty together with serious domestic fiscal challenges have brought about increasing criticism of leftist economic solutions. Whereas from the 1960s onwards leftist parties and the unions were often behind important and popular socio-economic reforms, today they mainly focus on defending the status quo. The current economic climate, including large national public debt and the associated need to cut public expenditure, is far from ideal for advocating traditional left-wing policies and the situation is unlikely to change in the next few years or at least not before the next Eduskunta elections scheduled for 2019.

Finland: weak presidents and the power of speech

Literature on semi-presidentialism is full of examples of constitutionally weak presidents using the strategy of ‘going public’ to influence politics. This applies certainly to Finland. Stripped of direct legislative powers and most weeks enjoying a fairly empty calendar, recent office-holders have actively resorted to more indirect avenues of influence. The current President Sauli Niinistö meets various political actors from foreign leaders to domestic interest groups and gives interviews and speeches. The impact of these activities is essentially impossible to measure, but surely they are motivated by re-election and/or policy influence.

Two high-profile annual speeches are particularly relevant here: the New Year’s speech and opening of the annual session of the Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature. The latter speech took place last Thursday. In his speech Niinistö, who was elected in 2012 as the candidate of the conservative National Coalition party, focused on the refugee situation. Niinistö questioned whether the international agreements on asylum-seekers were outdated, and offered the opinion that ‘the flow of immigration into Europe and Finland is largely a case of migration rather than a flight from immediate danger’. Niinistö’s views were particularly welcomed by the populist and anti-immigration the Finns Party, with the leader of the party’s parliamentary group, Sampo Terho, declaring that ‘the President’s speech was a real piece of statesmanship’ and that it was ‘the most significant and the best presidential speech in my lifetime’.

Media covered the speech widely, with the main newspapers and TV channels basically just reporting what the president had said. Some more liberal organisations and individuals were clearly agitated by Niinistö’s words, and comments spread quickly in social media, but politicians’ response was in line with established behavioural norms. Apart from some individual left-wing MPs that defended the value of international rules and cooperation in solving the refugee problem, most ministers and parliamentarians either praised the speech or at least did not criticize it. This reflects the usual practice: while the speeches of prime minister and other cabinet ministers are scrutinized carefully, with obviously the opposition parties in particular attacking the government, the president’s speeches seem to be beyond public criticism. This may in part be explained by the fact that the president has so limited powers, but more likely it reflects the political culture where the president, as the head of state, is both respected and above party politics.

Whether one agrees with Niinistö’s world-view or not, the question we should ask is are such presidential addresses needed anymore? If you ask the public, the answer would probably be yes. Another benefit is that they can contribute to public debate, especially if the speeches are on topical and divisive issues. The refugee crisis is definitely topical and also an issue where the ideologically heterogeneous government – bringing together the Centre Party, the National Coalition, and the Finns Party – has really failed to articulate a coherent policy line. But problems are also easy to see. President’s speeches, particularly as they seem to focus on policy areas outside of his jurisdiction, can lead to misperceptions of presidential powers. Here we need to remember that Finland was a strongly president-led society until the 1990s, and many people may not understand the current division of powers between the government and the president. The refugee crisis is of course indirectly linked to foreign policy which the president co-directs together with the government. Immigration, however, belongs to the competence of the government as does EU policy. Considering that any effective solutions to the crisis probably require European level measures, it is thus more important to know the position of the government – and particularly the preferences of the prime minister and the minister of the interior – that ultimately decides these matters and represents Finland in EU bargaining.

More importantly, it can be argued that such high-profile addresses are a thing of the past. In the Cold War era, the whole society had good reasons to listen carefully to the president. Vested with significant powers, his preferences genuinely mattered. Before the Internet, the public did not have access to as varied sources of information as today, and these kinds of traditional communication methods were more prominent in shaping societal debate. Nowadays anyone can find easily a wealth of information on matters like the refugee crisis, and hence the standard argument about the president being an ‘opinion leader’ seems rather outdated. It is perfectly understandable that in the United States the president’s State of the Union address is important: the president has significant policy-making authority and the speech enables him to outline his legislative and foreign policy priorities. In countries where the president is weak, no similar justification exists. Obviously the president is free to give as many interviews as he likes, but are these types of high-profile ‘institutionalized’ speeches really needed anymore?

Finland – When a constitutional reform really works as intended

Earlier this month the Finnish president Sauli Niinistö visited Turkey where his host was Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president. While Niinistö’s trip to Ankara made headlines mainly on account of the state of democracy and human rights in Turkey, the meeting of the two presidents provided a good example of the current role of the Finnish president.

Finland has experienced significant constitutional change since the late 1980s. The objective of these reforms was to strengthen parliamentarism after a long period of presidential dominance that reached its peak during the reign of President Urho Kekkonen (1956-1981). Finland was from the Second World War until the 1990s a president-led polity, but the current constitution, in force since 2000, completed a period of far-reaching constitutional change that curtailed presidential powers and parliamentarised the Finnish political system. However, it became very soon clear that the majority of political elite, not to mention constitutional lawyers, were somewhat unhappy with the constitution, arguing that it contains many articles which can produce unnecessary frictions between the government, the Eduskunta (the unicameral national parliament), and the president.

Indeed, the presidency of Tarja Halonen (2000-2012) was plagued with both open conflicts and behind-the-scenes tensions between the two executives. In EU matters, Finland was known for its policy of ‘two plates’, referring to the dual representation of both the prime minister and the president in European Council summits despite the fact that according to the constitution EU policy belongs to the competence of the government. Many felt that through participating in the European Council meetings, Halonen was acting against the spirit of the constitution. The government acquiesced to the situation, but was seemingly relieved when the Lisbon Treaty and the resulting changes to the European Council’s rules of procedure offered an external solution to the problem through allowing each country to be represented in the summits by either the prime minister or the president. The government wasted no time in dictating that the president would no longer attend European Council meetings. This was subsequently given constitutional status in 2012: ‘The Prime Minister represents Finland on the European Council. Unless the Government exceptionally decides otherwise, the Prime Minister also represents Finland in other activities of the European Union requiring the participation of the highest level of State.’

According to the constitution ‘The foreign policy of Finland is directed by the President of the Republic in co-operation with the Government.’ Such a dual leadership would naturally be tested in case of strong opinion differences between the president and the prime minister. Overall, the system has functioned rather smoothly thanks to regular exchange of views between the PM, the foreign minister, and the president. However, the constitutional amendments from 2012 also included a new conflict-resolution mechanism, with the position of the Eduskunta decisive in cases of disagreements between the president and the government. While only a small share of foreign policy matters, basically those issues necessitating formal decision-making, would probably be decided under that procedure, its symbolic value is important. Through underscoring the position of the Eduskunta, it further consolidates the government’s authority in foreign policy.

Turning to domestic matters, the president has retained the suspensive veto in legislation (the president has three months to confirm a law approved by Eduskunta but the latter can override president’s potential veto). However, whereas under the old rules the president formally determined that a bill shall be introduced in the Eduskunta, since 2012 the government is responsible for initiating the parliamentary processing of legislation. This change was logical as the involvement of the president was purely symbolic given that she could not really prevent cabinet’s legislative proposals from being introduced in the parliament. More importantly, the president’s appointment powers were further reduced in 2012 – a change motivated no doubt by the fact that President Halonen several times vetoed government’s proposals, appointing instead persons of her own choice to leading civil service positions. Most significantly, the president no longer appoints permanent secretaries who are the leading civil servants in the ministries.

The constitutional amendments from 2012 appear to have produced the intended results: the president is excluded from domestic policy, EU matters are now strictly reserved for the government, and the last remaining area of presidential powers is foreign and defence policy. Here a logical division of labour seems to have emerged: the government is responsible for those issues handled through the European Union, whereas the president focuses on bilateral ties with non-EU countries, especially those lead by presidents.

The on-going crisis in Ukraine has certainly given Niinistö much exposure, with the president engaging in active talks with his Russian counterpart. Since Finland joined the EU, one of the major issues in foreign policy has been finding a balance between maintaining bilateral links with the eastern neighbor while contributing to the EU’s common foreign and security policy. When Halonen was in office her activism towards Russia was not always welcomed by the government, but now the cabinet has not stood in the way of Niinistö. The more comfortable relationship between the two executives is no doubt facilitated by party politics, as Niinistö is from the conservative National Coalition and governments appointed since 2011 have been led by centre-right prime ministers. Halonen, a social democrat, in turn had to share power from 2003 onwards with centre-right PMs. However, more important are the new constitutional rules that have reduced the potential for conflicts through carefully delineating the remaining powers of the president.