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)

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