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.

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