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.