Tag Archives: Finland

Finland – Political parties prepare for late spring elections

Late spring 2019 looks set to become a busy and important period for Finnish political parties. The elections to Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature, are scheduled for 14 April, with the European Parliament elections following in late May. There is also still the chance that the first regional elections ever held in the country would take place on the same day as the European Parliament elections. However, for that to occur, the necessary legal reforms related to the reorganization of social and health services and the establishment of the new regional councils would have to be approved by the Eduskunta around six months prior to the election day. Hence the current prediction is that the regional elections will not take place in the spring.

The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. The latest poll, conducted from 10 September to 2 October, puts the Social Democrats in the first place with 22,6 % of the vote. This would be the first time that SDP would be the biggest party since the 1999 elections, and hence also the first time that Finland would have a centre-left prime minister since 2003. The party chair, Antti Rinne, has obviously criticized heavily the contested project of reorganizing social and health services, not least on account of the reform providing a bigger role for the private sector in delivering such services. Rinne, who has a trade union background, has also together with the unions been strongly questioning the government’s policies aiming at improving economic growth and competitiveness. However, for the most part Rinne and the other opposition leaders have basically been content to sit back and let the government make its own mistakes.

The reorganization of social and health services has indeed caused serious turmoil also inside the cabinet. Basically the project is a deal between the Centre Party and the National Coalition, with the former getting the regional councils (the Centre Party is likely to perform strongly in regional elections given its often dominant role in the rural parts of the country) and the conservatives wanting to increase the role of the private sector. The two parties have been questioning each other’s commitment to the project, with particularly individual MPs of the National Coalition voicing strong public dissent of the reform as they doubt its economic benefits and also are concerned that the various constitutional constraints mean that the role of the private sector would in the end be much smaller than initially planned. According to the latest poll the National Coalition would finish second with 18,9 % of the vote, while the Centre Party would come third with 17,6 %. Apart from losing support on account of leading the government, supporters of the Centre may be worried that the party is heading in a too market-friendly direction under the leadership of PM Juha Sipilä.

The third governing party, the Blue Reform, is truly anxious as its support is only 1,1 %. The party was established following the split inside the populist Finns Party in summer 2017 when the Finns elected the MEP Jussi Halla-aho as its new leader. Halla-aho, who has been convicted in court for hate speech, and the entire new party leadership focuses strongly on immigration issues, and hence Halla-aho will no doubt make his best to push immigration to the campaign agenda. The latest poll shows the Finns Party getting 9,3 % of the vote, but one has to remember that in both the 2011 and 2015 elections the party performed much better than predicted by the opinion surveys. The Blue Reform seems to suffer from lack of credibility: the party was essentially put together by the more populist or moderate senior party figures that also were cabinet ministers, and hence many feel that they were just protecting their own ministerial positions. The Blue Reform has also been struggling to find its own niche and agenda between the more outspokenly nationalist the Finns Party and the conservative National Coalition.

The support of the Green League has declined fairly consistently over the past year. Excluding European Parliament elections, it won over 10 % of the vote for the first time in national elections in the municipal elections held in April 2017 when it received 12,5 % of the vote. The party’s popularity had been on the rise under the leadership of Ville Niinistö and peaked during the summer of 2017, with the Greens finishing even second in the polls with around 17-18 % of the vote. Touko Aalto, the new party leader, took office in June 2017 and even some leading party figures have publicly questioned Aalto’s image and leadership. The past year or so has been tough for Aalto, who has been in the headlines through his divorce, new relationship with a Green League party central office worker, and through partying shirtless in a Stockholm gay night club. Aalto’s leadership style has also been considerably more cautious than that of Niinistö, who was widely praised for his critique of the government. Aalto is currently on sick leave due to work stress and exhaustion, and it is not clear when he resumes his duties. The latest poll indicates the Green League getting 11,6 % of the vote, which would nonetheless be around three percent more than in the 2015 elections.

The Left Alliance has found an energetic new party chair in Li Andersson, and the party is doing well in the polls with 9,8 % of the vote, also almost three percent more than in the 2015 elections. Of the minor parties, the Christian Democrats would get 4,1 % of the vote and the Swedish People’s Party 3,7 %. Were these predictions to materialize, it would mean a moderate shift towards the left – but of course the right-leaning parties would still hold a comfortable majority of the seats in the Eduskunta. In terms of agenda, much depends on whether the reorganization of social and health services is indeed approved by the parliament before the elections. If it is, then there is more room for other issues such as immigration, education, or the European Union. But one thing seems fairly certain: political parties will invest most of their resources into the April Eduskunta elections, meaning that the European Parliament elections to be held in May will truly be ‘second-order’ for the party leaders.

Finland – Putin, Trump, and Niinistö

By the time this blog text is published, presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump have held their high-profile ‘summit’ in Helsinki. At the time of writing (12 July), the speculations are running wild about the exact location of the meeting, the arrival times of the two foreign leaders, and the agenda of the summit. Whether the meeting will produce any meaningful results remains to be seen, but the purpose of this text is not to analyze US-Russian relations. Instead, the goal is to reflect on the summit from the broader perspective of the Finnish political regime.

Many commentators have quite legitimately argued that Finns are obsessed with the image of their country abroad. Small in terms of population, located in the northern periphery of Europe, Finnish decision-makers have been particularly concerned about whether Finland is seen as part of the ‘east’ or ‘west’ in Europe. Finland has stayed militarily non-aligned, and this ‘neutral’ status certainly was an important factor in Putin and Trump choosing Helsinki as their meeting place. Indeed, Helsinki has a solid track record of hosting such high-level summits – apart from the 1975 Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (CSCE), presidents Bush and Gorbachev met in Helsinki 1990, Bush and Yeltsin in 1992, while Clinton met Yeltsin in Helsinki in 1997.

The general verdict seems to be that acting as a host to world leaders improves the image of Finland in the international community, and also offers proof that staying militarily non-aligned – that is, not joining NATO – is a successful strategy for a country that shares a long border with Russia. Similar opinions have been voiced now before the meeting of Putin and Trump, with the domestic debate full of excitement about Finland at least for one day being in the spotlight of world politics. However, the implications of the summit for the Finnish presidency have received hardly any attention.

It is understood that president Sauli Niinistö had been offering Helsinki as a potential meeting place when talking previously to both Putin and Trump. While Niinistö may have had Finland’s interests in mind, hosting the summit should do no harm to Niinistö’s popularity either. Niinistö has proven extremely popular in the eyes of voters across the political spectrum, and he was re-elected to his second six-year term in January this year with a comfortable 62,6 % of the vote. This was the first time the president was elected already in the first round since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994. It essentially seems he can do nothing wrong, with people from the right and the left and from all corners of the country praising the work of Niinistö.

Here one needs to remember the constitutional constraints on the president. Finland used to have a very powerful presidency until the 1990s, but now presidential powers are basically limited to co-leading foreign policy with the government while domestic policy and European Union issues are handled by the government. Regarding external relations, a division of labour seems to have emerged whereby the prime minister and the government are responsible for foreign policy matters handled via the EU while the president focuses on bilateral ties with non-EU countries, particularly those led by presidents. Hence the president’s room for manoeuvre is small, but Niinistö has certainly exploited his powers to the full. He has maintained regular bilateral contacts with the Russian president, showing particular activism following Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2014. Niinistö has visited the White House and has attended various international conferences on security policy, including the NATO summit currently held in Brussels. This has ensured high visibility for Niinistö in domestic media.

Perhaps frustrated by his limited powers and encouraged by his strong popularity ratings, Niinistö has maintained an active presence in the media, giving interviews and not hesitating to comment on issues outside of his jurisdiction. This is more understandable in European Union affairs, as the foreign policies of EU member states are strongly linked to the development of the EU’s common security and defence policy. Niinistö has repeatedly argued that the Union should become stronger and more coherent in its foreign and security policy, but constitutionally EU matters fall under the competence of the government. Earlier this year during the presidential elections Niinistö offered to host talks about various pressing domestic issues, and recently when the possibility of government resignation surfaced, Niinistö commented that cabinet dissolution would not automatically result in early elections – suggesting thus that he might become involved in government formation although the understanding is that the president should only formally appoint new cabinets. Interestingly, surveys report widespread support for strengthening the presidency, with the public willing to give the president powers also in domestic and EU policies.

Hence the forthcoming high-profile summit between Putin and Trump should be seen as logical continuation of both Finnish foreign policy and of presidential activism. No doubt Niinistö will make the most of the one-day summit, with photographs of him together with the Russian and American presidents making news headlines in Finland while the foreign media probably hardly mentions Niinistö at all. Should all go well, the summit will further boost the popularity of Niinistö while the government led by PM Juha Sipilä is experiencing serious internal disputes over its key project, the reorganization of social and health services and the associated introduction of directly-elected regional councils.

When the summer is over and Finnish politics returns to normal business, the question is whether the Sipilä cabinet will indeed last until the parliamentary elections scheduled for late spring 2019. The next government will in any case have to be in charge of the rotating EU presidency in the latter half of 2019. According to the constitution the president should not intervene in government formation or EU policy – whether this division of authority is also respected in practice remains to be seen.

Finland – Niinistö re-elected in the first round with 62.6 % of the vote

In the first round of the Finnish presidential elections held last Sunday, 28 January, the incumbent Sauli Niinistö secured his re-election with a comfortable 62,6 % of the vote. This was the first time the president was elected already in the first round since the move to direct elections in 1988 / 1994. Turnout was 69,9 % (including only those resident in Finland), just below the 70,1 % achieved in the latest parliamentary elections held in 2015.
Elected in 2012 as the candidate of the National Coalition, the conservative party that he chaired from 1994 to 2001, Niinistö had announced last May that he would seek re-election as an independent candidate. The National Coalition nonetheless indicated that it would endorse Niinistö’s campaign, and the party indeed campaigned quite actively in support of Niinistö. Also the Christian Democrats had decided to support Niinistö instead of fielding their own candidate.

Niinistö was the clear favourite throughout the campaign. In all surveys conducted since last summer between 60-80 % said they would vote for Niinistö. Contextual factors favoured the president. The war in Ukraine and the overall aggressive foreign policy of Russia have increased tensions in the neighbouring area, with these circumstances facilitating presidential activism. Bilateral ties with Russia became more important, and Niinistö’s high-profile meetings with Putin and other leaders received extensive friendly media coverage. Here one needs to remember that Finns are used to seeing the president as the guarantor of national security, and the unusually high approval ratings indicate that voters appreciated Niinistö’s foreign and security policy leadership. Another, quite different, type of a boost to Niinistö’s campaign came in the form of an announcement in October by the president and his wife Jenni Haukio that they were expecting a baby in February. Niinistö, who turns 70 in August, has also two adult sons from his previous marriage.

As the voters clearly approved of Niinistö’s track record in office, the other ‘mainstream’ candidates found it extremely difficult to challenge him. The constitutional prerogatives of the president are essentially limited to co-leading foreign and security policy with the government, and the debates largely focused on familiar themes – relations with Russia, the EU and NATO. To be sure, there were some relatively minor differences, with the left-leaning candidates – Merja Kyllönen (Left Alliance), Tuula Haatainen (Social Democrats), and Pekka Haavisto (Green League) – emphasizing global issues and equality, with Niinistö and Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) in turn adopting more ‘realist’ positions. This was most evident in debates concerning relations with China, as two giant pandas donated by China arrived in Finland in mid-January. Nils Torvalds (Swedish People’s Party) in turn was the only candidate openly supportive of NATO membership.

At least some colour and ideological alternatives were brought to the campaign by Laura Huhtasaari (The Finns Party) and Paavo Väyrynen, currently an MEP and a long-standing, popular yet controversial, Centre Party politician who was now running as an independent candidate having been the presidential candidate of the Centre Party in the 1988, 1994 and 2012 elections. Both Huhtasaari and Väyrynen utilized anti-EU discourse, with Huhtasaari in particular also advocating much stronger powers for the president, including the right to dissolve the parliament. Such sentiments are shared by the electorate, with surveys reporting that the majority of the Finns would favour a stronger presidency and that the president should be also involved in domestic politics and EU affairs. The other candidates appeared by and large willing to respect the constitutional division of labour between the state institutions, but essentially all of them nonetheless flirted with the idea of an active president that would also, if needed, intervene in domestic matters.

Turning to the results, appealing primarily to the more liberal, urban, green-left younger voters, Haavisto finished second with 12,4 % of the vote. This was obviously a clear disappointment, given that six years earlier Haavisto had made it to the second round against Niinistö. The personal popularity of Haavisto combined with the recent rise of the Greens in Finnish politics undermined the prospects of Kyllönen and Haatainen. Kyllönen, an MEP known for her colourful rhetoric, finished with 3,0 % of the vote. The Social Democrats in turn had experienced major difficulties in finding a credible candidate, and Haatainen, known for her expertise in social and health policy, was clearly outside of her comfort zone. Haatainen received a dismal 3,2 % of the vote. This meant that the Social Democrats fared again really badly in presidential elections, with their more high-profile candidate Paavo Lipponen, the prime minister from 1995 to 2003, winning only 6,7 % of the vote in the 2012 elections.

The main excitement in the Centre Party was whether Väyrynen, who had severed ties with his party in the early 1990s over EU membership, would beat Vanhanen who served as the prime minister from 2003 to 2010. The race was indeed quite close, with Väyrynen getting 6,2 % and Vanhanen 4,1 % of the vote. To put it mildly, the outcome was a major embarrassment to Vanhanen and his party. Torvalds received 1,5 % of the vote.

Huhtasaari, the candidate of the populist and anti-immigration Finns Party, won 6,9 % of the vote. Her party had effectively split into two last June after the party congress had elected MEP Jussi Halla-aho, convicted in court for hate speech, as the new party leader. Immediately following the election of Halla-aho, the more moderate or populist wing of the party left the Finns and established a new party, the Blue Reform, which did not nominate a presidential candidate nor support any of the candidates. Huhtasaari was also the youngest (38) and least experienced of the candidates, having first entered the parliament in the 2015 elections. Hence she clearly performed well, and, together with Väyrynen, the combined vote share of the two Eurosceptical candidates was 13,1 %.

Overall, the results mean more of the same. Niinistö is not in favour of NATO membership, but supports the development of EU’s security and defence policy, bilateral security policy cooperation with Sweden, and maintaining close ties with NATO, views largely shared by the mainstream parties and the public. During his first six-year term Niinistö shared power with cabinets led by centre-right prime ministers, and this clearly contributed to smooth co-leadership in foreign policy. It also facilitated presidential activism, especially since the 2015 parliamentary elections as PM Juha Sipilä has proritised domestic issues such as reviving the economy and the re-organization of social and health services. Hence the results of the next parliamentary elections scheduled for spring 2019 and the personality of the next PM will be important in terms of Niinistö’s second term in office.

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.

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 – 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)