Finland: a left-leaning five-party government shares power with a conservative president

After the latest Eduskunta election in Finland, held on 14 April, it seemed almost self-evident that the new government would be formed around the Social Democrats and the National Coalition (conservatives). The Social Democrats had won the election by a narrow margin and would thus be leading the government formation talks. Yet Antti Rinne, the chair of the Social Democrats, managed to essentially surprise everyone by announcing that he would try to form a five-party government that includes the Social Democrats, the agrarian / liberal Centre Party (that had suffered a massive defeat in the elections), the Green League, the Left Alliance, and the Swedish People’s Party.

Rinne’s background is in the trade union movement, and it is probable that his experience of tough bargaining in that environment contributed to the relative ease of the government formation process, with President Sauli Niinistö appointing the new government on 6 June. The Rinne cabinet controls 117 out of the 200 Eduskunta seats, thus continuing the Finnish tradition of ideologically heterogeneous surplus majority coalitions. The two main opposition parties are the populist / nationalist the Finns Party and the National Coalition.

The programme of the Rinne cabinet is very long indeed, 214 pages, a record for Finnish governments. Critics have argued that the programme is despite its length frustratingly vague, with a something-for-everyone approach that leaves many points open. Another line of criticism concerns the economic optimism of Rinne: unlike the previous Centre-led right-wing coalition that had introduced budget cuts, the programme of the Rinne government is full of promises about public sector investments. Indeed, during its first weeks the government has already announced more money for things like rail infrastructure and education. Rinne has defended this line by commenting that many of the public sector investments will depend on the health of the economy: if economic growth slows down, the government will re-think its strategy.

The April elections resulted in an important victory for the political left: the combined seat share of the Social Democrats, the Greens (which achieved their best-ever result in Eduskunta elections with 11,5 % of the vote), and the Left Alliance rose from 61 seats in 2015 to 76 in 2019. Notably all three leftist parties are included in the Rinne government. This is surely appreciated in the trade unions, as their societal legitimacy and influence is strongly dependent on the inclusion of Social Democrats in the cabinet. The government programme also contains many elements that were found in the election manifestos of the three leftist parties: investments in job creation, education, social and health care, and in preventing societal exclusion, and at least ambitious plans for tackling climate change.

Whether those ambitious plans will translate into concrete action remains to be seen. The same applies to the future of social and health services and social security. It was in the end the failure of the social and health reform package that brought down the Sipilä cabinet a month before the Eduskunta elections, and now the Rinne cabinet has taken a more cautious approach by not starting the whole project completely from scratch. Instead, it will utilize the preparatory work of previous governments and according to the government programme Finland will also get directly-elected regional councils, an important question for the Centre Party, but the timing of the first elections remains undecided. Overall, the Rinne government intends to re-introduce broad-based parliamentary committees to look into various issues.

In terms of EU and foreign policy, the government is definitely pro-EU but will most likely follow the line of previous cabinets in being lukewarm towards the deepening of economic integration, for example through creating an additional budget for the Eurozone or through changing the rules of the European Stability Mechanism. Finland will hold the EU presidency during the latter half of 2019, so Rinne will surely get a busy and demanding start to his premiership. The new foreign minister is Pekka Haavisto of the Green League who has long-standing experience from international organisations. It is unlikely that either Haavisto or Rinne will publicly challenge the highly popular President Niinistö who in recent years has strengthened his role in foreign and security policy (according to the Finnish constitution foreign policy is co-directed between the president and the government while EU policy is in the competence of the government). Yet this is the first time since 2012 that Finland will have divided government, with President Niinistö – elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition and in 2018 as an independent candidate but with strong backing from the conservatives – sharing power with the social democratic prime minister.

For outside observers the Rinne government may look like a strange beast, bringing together parties from the left and the right. Yet this is what Finns are used to: cabinets are typically oversized cross-bloc coalitions. While the media will no doubt keep a close eye on the government, an equally interesting question concerns the parliamentary opposition. Disappointment is quite widespread inside the National Coalition, as around two years ago it seemed likely that the party would win the 2019 elections. The party will hold a leadership election in the summer of 2020 and it is by no means certain that the current chair Petteri Orpo will emerge as the winner. The seating order in the Eduskunta was changed after the elections so that the Finns Party will sit next to the National Coalition at the right end of the chamber. Most National Coalition supporters want the party to keep a healthy distance to the Finns Party, but at least in economic issues the two parties have very similar positions. Given that the Rinne government will probably adopt liberal positions towards both climate change and immigration, the National Coalition will have to strike a delicate balance between pursuing liberal policies and joining forces with the Finns Party in attacking the cabinet.

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