Category Archives: Finland

Finland – Niinistö the clear favourite to win the presidential elections

The first round of presidential elections in Finland is set for 28 January, and the likelihood of the incumbent Sauli Niinistö getting re-elected is very high indeed. According to the latest survey conducted earlier this month by Helsingin Sanomat, the leading national daily, 68 % would vote for Niinistö. This suggests that Niinistö has a good chance of winning the election already in the first round, something that has not happened since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994.

Contextual factors have clearly favoured Niinistö. The war in Ukraine and the overall aggressive foreign policy of Russia have increased tensions in the area, with these circumstances facilitating presidential activism. Bilateral ties with Russia have become more important, with Niinistö’s high-profile meetings with Putin receiving extensive media coverage. The current cabinet, led by prime minister Juha Sipilä, has also concentrated on its big projects in domestic politics, particularly the reorganization of social and health services, with the government seemingly happy to allow Niinistö to lead foreign and security policy – or at least relations with non-EU countries. Niinistö has consistently reminded the voters that we are living in unstable and turbulent times, and whether the use of such discourse is strategic or not, the heightened tensions have indeed highlighted the role of the president. Here one needs to remember that Finns are used to seeing the president as the guarantor of national security or even survival, a role associated especially with Urho Kekkonen who ruled the country for a quarter of a century between 1956 and 1981.

Elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition, the conservative party that he chaired from 1994 to 2001, Niinistö announced in May that he would seek re-election as an independent candidate. The move came out of the blue, with Niinistö simply stating that the president represents the entire nation instead of any specific political party. Independent candidates are obviously common, for example in several Central and Eastern European countries, but Niinistö’s decision nonetheless came as a big surprise, not least to his old party who is now without a candidate of its own. The National Coalition nonetheless indicated that it would endorse Niinistö’s campaign.

The constitutional prerogatives of the president are limited to co-leading foreign and security policy with the government and to being the head of the armed forces, but it looks certain that the campaign will also focus on domestic issues. This would probably not hurt Laura Huhtasaari, the colourful candidate of the Finns Party known for her outspoken nationalist and anti-immigration views. Her party effectively split into two in June after the party congress had elected MEP Jussi Halla-aho as the new party leader. Halla-aho, who has been convicted in court for hate speech, and the new party leadership looks set to take the party economically further to the right whilst engaging in hard-line attacks on immigration and multiculturalism. Huhtasaari will no doubt try to steer the debate in that direction. In the survey her support was just 3 %.

Immediately following the election of Halla-aho, Timo Soini, who had chaired the Finns Party since 1997 and had been the key to the phenomenal rise of the party, drew his own conclusions and the more moderate or populist wing of the party left the Finns and established a new parliamentary group of their own, the Blue Reform. This enabled Soini and his colleagues to remain in the government, but the future of the group looks very uncertain at the moment. The Blue Reform is yet to nominate a presidential candidate.

Of the other candidates, Pekka Haavisto of the Green League lost to Niinistö in the second round of the 2012 elections. A calm, analytical man with a strong background in UN and EU duties, the former environment minister came second in the Helsingin Sanomat survey with 13 % of the vote. Haavisto will no doubt appeal again to the more liberal, urban, green-left younger voters. This simultaneously undermines the prospects of MEP Merja Kyllönen, the candidate of the Left Alliance, whose support in the survey was 2 %. The Social Democrats in turn had clear difficulties in finding a good candidate, with Tuula Haatainen in the end nominated in early September. Her support was also extremely low, 3 %.

Moving to the centre-right parties, the candidate of the Centre is Matti Vanhanen, who served as the prime minister from 2003 to 2010. In the survey he garnered 2 % support. The candidate of the Swedish People’s Party is another MEP, Nils Torvalds. The Christian Democrats decided to support Niinistö instead of fielding their own candidate.

The popularity and media visibility of Niinistö raises serious problems for the other candidates. According to the public Niinistö has without a doubt performed well, particularly in foreign and security policy where his actions seem beyond criticism. This implies that at least some of the candidates have an incentive to steer the debate into policy areas not falling under the jurisdiction of the president. This would surely not be a good thing, especially as a large section of the population probably does not understand the division of competences between the government and the president.

Presidential profile – Tarja Halonen, the first female president of Finland

When Tarja Halonen (born 1943) was elected as the first female president of Finland in 2000, many interpreted that as the culmination of gender equality in Finland. Yet more critical voices pointed out that her election coincided with the entry into force of the new constitution that radically reduced presidential powers in favour of a more parliamentary regime. Indeed, to this day Finland has only had two female prime ministers for a combined spell of around one year (Anneli Jäätteenmäki in 2003 and Mari Kiviniemi in 2010-2011). Halonen was re-elected in 2006 and served thus as the president for two full six-year terms.

Large section of the electorate considered the social democratic Halonen as too ’red’ – which is also the color of her hair. Indeed, Halonen, who was a highly active speaker during her presidency, consistently focused on themes close to her heart – gender equality, the plight of women in developing countries, especially their right to education, democracy and the health of civil society, the United Nations, and human rights in general. These were themes that clearly resonated with particularly younger female voters – many of whom had in other elections voted for centre-right parties – and also reflected the gradually changing cleavage structure in Finnish politics. While the Finnish president co-leads foreign policy with the government, Halonen thus also had a personal, more ‘globalist’ agenda, but whether that had any impact on the preferences or knowledge of Finnish citizens is difficult to measure.

These interests reflect her professional and political background. With a degree in law, Halonen worked from 1970 onwards as a lawyer for the main blue-collar confederation, the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions. She joined the Social Democrats in the early 1970s and was first elected to the Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature, in 1979. She served as an MP until her election as the president in 2000. Halonen also held three ministerial portfolios: as social and health minister from 1987 to 1990, as justice minister from 1990 to 1991 and as foreign minister from 1995 to 2000. Within the Social Democratic party Halonen was estimated to belong to the more leftist wing of the parliamentary group.

Internationally, Halonen is probably best known for her work in the United Nations, an organization she clearly cares about very much. From 2002 to 2004 Halonen served as co-chair of World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, appointed by International Labour Organization ILO. From 2009 to 2014 she in turn was the Chair of the Council of Women World Leaders. In 2010 Halonen was appointed co-chair of the UN Secretary-General’s High-level Panel on Global Sustainability and she is currently the co-chair of the High Level Task Force for International Conference on Population and Development. In the 1990s she was also active in the Council of Europe, first as Deputy-Chair of the Finnish delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly from 1991 to 1995 and later in the Ministerial Committee. In 2012 the TH Global Sustainability Foundation was established to promote the work of Halonen in the field of sustainable development.

Halonen was by and large very popular during her presidency, enjoying high levels of trust among the citizens. This is not surprising, as the Finnish presidents consistently enjoy stronger support than prime ministers or other politicians. However, while some prefer to remember Halonen through her interest in social causes and her global activism, others perhaps remember mainly her power struggles with the government – conflicts which she was destined to lose. In a way these intra-executive conflicts were inevitable and would most likely have taken place irrespective of who was the president.

The new constitution from 2000 was hailed as the end point 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 contained many articles which could produce unnecessary frictions between the government, the Eduskunta, and the president. Indeed, the presidency of Halonen 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 the European Council despite the fact that according to the constitution EU policy belongs to the competence of the government. Many felt that through participating in the summits of the European Council, 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 member state 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. Halonen protested but to no avail. This change 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.’

Also the president’s appointment powers were further reduced in 2012 – a change motivated no doubt by the fact that 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. Through her active use of powers vested in the presidency, Halonen thus contributed to the further parliamentarization of Finnish politics.

Halonen lives in Helsinki with her husband, Pertti Arajärvi. More information on her past and current activities is available at https://presidenthalonen.fi/en/.

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.

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2017

This post marks the third time that I have written about selected presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents (see 2015 and 2016 here), so that it is now becoming a tradition of its own. This year’s speeches differed only little in focus from last year, as the refugee crisis and security concerns continue to determine the public debate, yet speeches took a more political tone in a number of countries. At the same time, this year also saw some ‘firsts’ – newly-elected Estonian president, Kersti Kaljulaid, gave her first New Year’s address and Austria (for the first time in decades) had no New Year’s address at all.

Slovak president Andrej Kiska reading out his New Year´s Day Address | © prezident.sk

Presidential Christmas and New Year’s Addresses tend to be a mixture of reflections on the political and societal events of the last year and general good wishes for the festive period or the new year. While the previous year had already seen an increase in political content, this year even more presidents referred to concrete events and policies – first and foremost the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016. German president Gauck’s Christmas message was clearly dominated by the attack, yet stressed the need for compassion, highlighted efforts by volunteers both after the Berlin attacks and in helping refugees, and called for unity over sweeping judgments. Slovak president Andrej Kiska dismissed xenophobic sentiments in his New Year’s address even more directly, acknowledging a deviation from usual end-of-year reflection and highlighting his disagreements with the government over the issue. The Slovak government has not only strongly opposed taking in any refugees, but also includes the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS) and recently passed a more restrictive church law specifically targeting Muslims (which was promptly vetoed by Kiska). Quite in contrast to these conciliatory words, Czech president Zeman used the opportunity claim a ‘clear link between the migrant wave and terrorist attacks’. In his 20-minute address – far longer than any other presidential holiday speech – from the presidential holiday residence at Lany, he also attacked the governing coalition, spoke about banning internet pornography and expressed his admiration for Donald Trump and his ‘aggressive style’.

The Christmas speech of Polish president Andrzej Duda also took an unusually political turn as it started off with much praise for government reforms. Although the Polish government, too, refused to accept refugees under the EU compromises, references to EU crises remained relatively vague. Remarkable, however, was Duda’s call to ‘respect the rules of democracy’ which was clearly aimed at the parliamentary and extra-parliamentary opposition which criticised what they in turn perceived as the unconstitutional behaviour of the governing party (see here). The address by Duda’s Croatian counterpart, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was also in remarkable as she devoted the entirety of her speech to condemning recent increases in intolerance and the simultaneous glorification of past fascist and communist regimes which she then linked to the fact that “busloads of young people are leaving the country each day” and called the government and all parties to action. Italy’s president Sergio Mattarella likewise urged parties to take action  to avoid the ‘ungovernability’ of the country, yet mostly focussed on listing the concerns of citizens and various tragic deaths rather than providing a very positive message.

Bulgarian president Rosen Plevneliev used his last New Year’s address as president to highlight more positive achievements, such as the ten year anniversary of EU accession (also mentioned by Romanian president Iohannis in his very brief seasons’ greetings), a rise in GDP and successful completion of the presidency of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. While stressing the need for further reform, President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades also provided a more positive message focused on the progress in the negotiations about a reunification of the island, also thanking people for their sacrifices in implementing the financial bail-out completed in 2016.

Hungarian President Ader with sign language interpreter (left); Latvian president Vejonis with his wife (right)

On a different note, Hungarians and Latvians might have been surprised to see additional faces in the recordings of presidential messages: Hungarian president Janos Ader’s speech was simultaneously interpreted into sign language by deaf model and equality activist Fanni Weisz standing in the background, whereas Latvian president Raimonds Vejonis even shared parts of the address with his wife. For those interested in ‘pomp and circumstance’, the address by Maltese president Marie-Louise Coleiro is highly recommended as the recording features a praeludium and a postludium by a military band in gala uniform inside the presidential palace (Youtube video here).

Last, for the first time in decades Austria lacked a New Year’s address by the president. Although Alexander Van der Bellen was finally elected president in early December, he will only be inaugurated on 26 January 2016. His successor, Heinz Fischer, finished his term already on 8 July 2016 and the triumvirate of parliamentary speakers (which incidentally include Van der Bellen’s unsuccessful challenger, Norbert Hofer), who are currently serving collectively as acting president, did not provide any New Year’s greetings.

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A full list of speeches is available for download here.

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?

Happy New Year? Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European presidents for 2016

In the first blog post of 2015, I explored the origins of and various customs and conventions surrounding the Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state. This year, I will look more closely at the content of these speeches (although focussing – for the sake of brevity – only on presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state this time).

Finnish Niinistö records his New Year's speech for 2016 | photo (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

Finnish president Sauli Niinistö records his New Year’s speech for 2016 | (c) Office of the President of the Republic of Finland 2016

As I noted in my post last year, Christmas and New Year’s addresses rarely rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies and often include a short summary of the last year’s events in the country. Common themes (apart from holiday wishes) are relatively rare. This year, however, many presidents directly addressed the refugee crisis in Europe. The presidents of Austria and Germany who have had to deal with extraordinary refugee streams both called for compassion and tried to strengthen the ‘can do’-spirit that has so far characterised the reactions of Federal Chancellors’ Merkel and Faynmann and volunteers in both countries. Presidents of other countries hit by the surge of refugees did not address the issue so clearly. Hungarian president Ader referred to it among other unexpected events of 2015, while the Slovenian and Croatian presidents Pahor and Grabar-Kitarović in their – significantly shorter seasons’ greetings – did not raise the issue at all apart from vague references to difficulties.

The refugee crisis featured more prominently on the other hand in the speeches of Slovak president Kiska and Czech president Zeman – yet taking almost diametrically opposed positions. Kiska largely downplayed the issue stating Slovakia was much less affected than other countries and the issue should not dominate the national agenda. Zeman on the other hand, called the influx of refugees as “an organized invasion” and called for young male refugees to return to their country to fight ISIS. Given Zeman’s previous statements this is hardly surprising, yet it is generally unusual for a Christmas message to include such controversial material. The refugee crisis also took centre stage in speeches by Finnish president Niinistö as he justified the steps taken by the government to limit the number of people receiving help.

Another theme in presidential speeches were national tragedies and the security. The Paris attacks featured strongly in French president Hollande’s speech, so did the Germanwing air crash in German president Gauck’s Christmas message. The ongoing Ukrainian crisis and potential conflict with Russia as well as the war in Syria were included in a number of speeches. Yet presidents also focussed on the economic situation and way of the recession – most prominently included in the messages of the presidents of Greece, Portugal and Iceland. The latter’s speech was however mostly reported on due to the fact that president Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson announced that he would not run for a sixth term as president.

Overall, this once again highlights that presidential Christmas and New Year’s addresses can be important indicators of the political situation or the importance of particular events throughout the year. Until now, there has nevertheless been only very limited academic research on presidential statements on these occasions. So far, I could only find an analysis of the role of religion in new year’s addresses by Swiss Federal Presidents – showing an overall decline in biblical references throughout the years. [1] In most European republics appear to follow this trend – explicit biblical references beyond a mere reference to the holiday can only be found in the speeches of the presidents of Malta and Hungary.

Christmas - NY presidents 2016 + Wulff 2011

From top left to bottom right: Presidents Higgins (Ireland), Duda (Poland), Wulff (Germany; 2011), Coleiro Preca (Malta), Iohannis (Romania).

Last but not least (and partly inspired by the DailyMail’s analysis of the photographs on Queen Elizabeth II’s desk), I think it is worth looking at the setting of presidents’ speeches. Where speeches are broadcast on TV (or recorded and then put on youtube), the setting is surprisingly similar with the president usually sitting or standing in front of flags or a fireplace. In Germany, this set-up had so much become the norm that Christian Wulff’s walking speech among a group of surprisingly diverse citizens (see centre image of above collage) caused great excitement among editors trying to fill the seasonal news slump. More unusual however was Swiss Federal President Adolf Ogi’s address of 2000 – he stood in front of a railway tunnel (watch the video here).

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[1] Kley, Andreas (2008). ‘”Und der Herrgott, Herr Bundespräsident?” Zivilreligion in den Neujahrsansprachen der schweizerischen Bundespräsidenten’. In: Kraus, Dieter et al. Schweizerisches Jahrbuch für Kirchenrecht. Bern, Switzerland, 11-56.

A list with links to the 2015/2016 speeches can be downloaded here.

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.

Tapio Raunio – In Finland, a conservative government supported by a conservative president

This is a guest post by Tapio Raunio, Professor of Political Science at the University of Tampere

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When Sauli Niinistö, the candidate of the conservative National Coalition, was elected the Finnish president in 2012, he became the first non-left head of state in 30 years. The Social Democrats had controlled the presidency since the long reign of Urho Kekkonen (1956-1981), with Mauno Koivisto (1982-1994), Martti Ahtisaari (1994-2000) and Finland’s first-ever female president, Tarja Halonen (2000-2012), all representing the Social Democrats. The Eduskunta elections of 19 April continued the decline of the left in Finland, and on 29 May the new Centre-led coalition that includes also the Finns Party and the National Coalition was appointed by Niinistö. Indeed, the elections were a massive blow to the Social Democrats, and the two leftist parties (the Social Democrats and the Left Alliance) won together a meagre 23.6 % of the vote, the lowest ever showing for left-wing parties in Finland.

Commanding a comfortable majority with 62 % of the Eduskunta (the unicameral national legislature) seats, the Sipilä government is unusual in three respects. First, it contains ‘only’ three parties, whereas most Finnish cabinets in recent decades have included four or even more parties. Secondly, the Swedish People’s Party ended in opposition after a continuous run in the government since the 1979 elections. And thirdly, the number of ministers is down to 14, the lowest number since the 1950s and five less than in the cabinet appointed after the 2011 elections.

But how should we define the government ideologically? Calling it a centre-right coalition is not exactly correct, given the mixed ideological profile of the Finns Party. While Timo Soini’s party is internationally known mainly for its anti-immigration and Eurosceptic views, on the left-right dimension the party is firmly centrist, or even centre-left. The core of the party’s vote comes from people with lower levels of income and education, and, in line with its populist ideology, the Finns have blamed the ‘old parties’ for corrupt and cartelised practices and for forgetting the needs of ordinary citizens.

The coalition is instead quite socially conservative, with the electorates of the Finns Party and the Centre, in particular, and a sizeable minority in the National Coalition leaning towards more traditional values and Euroscepticism. When the Eduskunta voted on the law allowing gender-neutral marriages in November 2014, almost all of the Finns Party and the Centre MPs and roughly one-third of National Coalition MPs voted against the proposal. The situation is thus new in Finland: a conservative government ruling the country, and a conservative president that is bound to support the cabinet in its challenge of reviving Finnish economy.

Presidential support for budget cuts

Economic policy may indeed cause a serious headache for the cabinet. The election campaign focused very much on the worsening state of the national economy, and when putting together his government, Sipilä strongly emphasised a commitment to budgetary and social policy cuts. While there is rather broad societal consensus about the necessity to curb the public debt and introduce austerity measures, the implementation of various reforms contained in the government programme – many of which are predicted to hit low-income citizens especially hard – will be particularly troublesome for the Finns Party.

One of the key targets for the government is removing barriers to employment and implementing more flexible labour market rules, and hence Sipilä has been courting the powerful trade unions to sign up to a ‘societal contract’ that would bind unions to the reforms. The first attempt at such a contract failed in May, but a new deal is being attempted over the summer. It is surely no accident that the new minister for employment is Jari Lindström from the Finns Party. A former paper worker and trade union activist, Lindström may be the right person to woo the unions, but the price may be lower support for his party among working class voters. The question is also very difficult for trade unions themselves, and particularly for the main blue-collar confederation, the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK), that has received a lot of criticism in recent years for standing in the way of economic recovery.

Perhaps the most interesting portfolio choice was that made by Soini. It is commonly acknowledged that the second most important post in the cabinet is the finance minister, and hence it was assumed that the chair of the Finns Party (that finished second in the elections) would occupy that role. However, in the end Soini opted for the minister for foreign affairs instead, with the new finance minister being Alexander Stubb, the previous prime minister and leader of the National Coalition. Soini, who chaired the Eduskunta’s Foreign Affairs Committee in the 2011-2015 electoral period, justified his decision by citing his personal interest in foreign policy, but many inside his party feel that he intentionally avoided responsibility and influence. Foreign affairs are surely important, but now the government’s economic policy is steered by the Centre and the National Coalition.

While the president has no constitutional authority in economic policy, Niinistö has quite frequently commented on the health of the economy, reminding of the necessity of introducing fiscal reforms for curbing public debt. Niinistö of course has relevant experience, having served as the finance minister in the Social Democratic-led ‘rainbow governments’ from 1996 to 2003. To be sure, Niinistö is by no means a hard-line market liberal, but he is likely to offer consistent support to Sipilä – support which the prime minister may well need given the difficult road ahead.

More bilateral foreign policy?

With the government in charge of domestic and European matters, the last remaining area of presidential powers is foreign and defence policy. According to the constitution foreign policy is co-directed by the president and the government. Relations with Russia provide a good example of the challenges involved in this set-up, as Finnish-Russian relations are increasingly influenced by the EU, not least because trade policy is in the competence of the Union. When Halonen was in office her activism towards Russia was not always welcomed by the government. During the Ukrainian war the division of labour appears to have functioned smoothly, with the prime minister representing Finland in the EU and Niinistö engaging in bilateral talks with his Russian counterpart. While the sanctions imposed by the EU are hitting the national economy particularly hard, Finland has supported EU’s line, with the government and Niinistö underlining that there is no other option.

When in opposition, both the Centre and the Finns Party emphasized the need to safeguard bilateral ties with the eastern neighbour, and it is likely that the government will not stand in the way of Niinistö’s active role. However, European policy may result in tensions both inside the cabinet and between the cabinet and Niinistö. The European section of the government programme is certainly quite critical of integration, wanting the EU to be reformed (although not through Treaty changes) and explicitly stating that the government ‘is opposed to increasing Finland’s liabilities in handling the euro crisis’ and that ‘if the European Stability Mechanism must still be used, it should be done only within the framework of the mechanism’s current capacity and capital structure’.

Overall it feels that such a critique of the EU is primarily aimed at domestic audiences. The Finns Party has been consistently opposed to the EU since the party was established in the mid-1990s, and hence Soini needs to signal this stance to voters. Potential bailouts for Greece or other euro area countries may prove very challenging, given that both the Finns Party and the Centre were against such measures in the 2011-2015 Eduskunta. Finland may also be one of the EU countries showing most sympathy toward David Cameron’s attempts to re-negotiate Britain’s terms of EU membership. European policy may well produce heated conflicts inside the government, especially when considering the starkly opposing EU positions of Soini and Stubb. Niinistö appears to sympathize with the ‘German’ austerity approach to Eurozone problems, but should the government go too far in its critique of EU, he will surely intervene, reminding the cabinet of the importance of European integration for Finnish economy and security.

Tapio Raunio is professor of political science at the University of Tampere. His research interests include national legislatures and political parties, the Europeanization of domestic politics, the European Parliament, semi-presidentialism and the Finnish political system. He has published articles in journals such as Comparative European Politics, European Journal of Political Research, European Union Politics, Journal of Common Market Studies, Journal of European Public Policy, Party Politics, Scandinavian Political Studies, and West European Politics. Raunio is the co-author of Finland in the European Union (2003, with Teija Tiilikainen), and the co-editor of National Parliaments within the Enlarged European Union: From ’victims’ of integration to competitive actors? (2007, with John O’Brennan) and Connecting with the Electorate? Parliamentary Communication in EU Affairs (2014, with Katrin Auel). He is currently leading with David Arter a research project that examines the links between Nordic parliaments and MPs and their electorates. (tapio.raunio@uta.fi)

…and a happy New Year! Christmas and New Year’s addresses by European heads of state

Every year millions of Britons gather in front of their ‘tellies’ to watch the Queen’s annual Christmas message. This year, over 7.8m viewers saw and heard her speak on the topic of reconciliation in the light of the WW I centenary and were delighted by references to her visit to the set of ‘Games of Thrones’, making it the UK’s Christmas TV highlight (it attracted 1.5m more viewers than the ‘Doctor Who’ Christmas special and 2m more viewers than the Christmas episode of the period drama ‘Downtown Abbey’). Given that this blog deals with presidents, i.e. non-hereditary heads of state, writing about the Queen’s Christmas message might be peculiar for some readers. Nevertheless, the tradition of addressing the nation has – in the European context – first been documented for monarchs, with presidents continuing this tradition.

Queen Elizabeth's (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas address by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only two presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas.

Queen Elizabeth’s (left) Royal Christmas Message is one the most watched Christmas addresses by a head of state worldwide; German president Gauck (right) is one of only three presidents in Europe to deliver his holiday address on Christmas Day.

British monarchs have only addressed the nation at Christmas since 1932 (on proposal of the BBC’s founding director). Earlier examples of public addresses to the nation on the occasion of Christmas or the New Year have been documented for Kings of Denmark and the German Emperor since the late 19th century. Starting with general well-wishes for the New Year and/or Christmas, holiday addresses have now developed into more elaborate speeches which are designed to reach a wide audience. Apart from general remarks about the holiday season and a short review of the last year, heads of state also often highlight specific themes in their message. Thereby, the degree to which the content is ‘political’ tends to vary with the constitutional position of the head of state. In the European monarchies the content is often coordinated with the government (although much this process – like so many interactions between constitutional monarchs and elected representatives – remains shrouded in secrecy) and themes or highlights tend to be rather uncontroversial. Likewise, indirectly elected presidents – with some exceptions – only rarely include strong political statements or use speeches to express entirely new opinions. In Switzerland, New Year’s Day coincides with the inauguration of a new Federal President (the head of the collegial executive), so that the president’s New Year’s Address is simultaneously an inaugural address and does not necessarily follow this pattern. Popularly elected presidents are generally more likely to use this annual tradition to talk about (specific) policy. For instance, French president Francois Hollande spoke about economic reforms (several of which take effect 1 January 2015) and Cypriot president Nikos Anastasiadis outlined plans for modernisation of the state.

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Apart from this divide, a less relevant albeit interesting division between presidents and monarchs appears in Europe. Apart from Germany, the Czech Republic and Malta, presidents address the nation on New Year’s Eve/New Year’s Day (the Irish president provides a combined message), while the majority of monarchs (with Norway, Denmark and Monaco being the exception) deliver their message on Christmas Day. Hereby, it needs to be noted that German presidents until 1970 delivered their speech on New Year’s Day (which means they switched with the Chancellor). Czech presidents also gave New Year’s addresses until president Zeman returned to the pre-1949 tradition of delivering his speech at Christmas after his inauguration in 2013. I have tried to find reasons for the divide between presidents and monarchs, yet have not found any palpable evidence. Monarchs’ tendency to deliver Christmas messages might be related to their role in national churches (although this does not explain the Danish and Norwegian exceptions). Presidents on the other hand, deliver messages on the relatively world-view-‘neutral’ New Year’s Eve/Day. In Central and Eastern Europe, Communist leaders naturally avoided giving speeches on or related to Christmas Day. After the fall of Communism, this tradition was retained by the new democratic leaders. The Lithuanian and Romanian president form the general exception from all other European heads of state. While both issue short press statements to wish their citizens a happy Christmas and New Year, neither gives a specific speech. The Prince of Liechtenstein does not even that.

Although Christmas and New Year’s messages rarely belong to the most important political speeches in European democracies. Nevertheless, they reflect – although in varying degrees – not only the institutional arrangements of European democracies. Furthermore, they shed light on how political traditions develop (be it formally or informally) and can carry on from one regime to another (monarchy to republic; autocracy to democracy).

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A list with links to this year’s Christmas and New Year’s Addresses can be found here (if available the link is to an English version) –> Links to speeches 2014-2015
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Should you know more about the history and practice of Chrismas/New Year’s messages by heads of state in the countries discussed above, please let us know in the comment section below.