Finland heading for another coalition between Social Democrats and the conservatives?

In Finland the elections to Eduskunta, the unicameral national legislature, are scheduled for 14 April, with the European Parliament elections following in late May. Unfortunately this also means that European elections will definitely be ‘second-order elections’, with the political parties and the media investing their resources in Eduskunta elections and in the government formation talks that follow them.

With just over a month to go, it appears that the Eduskunta election campaigns will be dominated by a single topic – the reorganization of social and health services. It is essentially a deal between the two main coalition parties, Centre Party and the National Coalition, with the former getting directly-elected regional councils (the Centre wins most of its votes in the rural areas of the country) and the latter in turn ensuring a larger role for the private sector in delivering social and health services. However, the process with all its twists and turns has dragged on, and it is becoming increasingly clear that all the required legislation cannot be approved before the April elections. In fact, the whole package may fail, especially as there is stronger criticism from within the governing parties, with several of their MPs already indicating that they will vote against the laws in the Eduskunta. Recently there has also emerged a wave of scandals concerning nursing homes and other facilities operated by private companies: public authorities have intervened, reprimanding companies for inadequate staffing and overall poor treatment of the occupants, and even enforcing the closure of some of the facilities.

It is perfectly understandable that the project has produced heated debates within and between parties, not to mention in the society at large. Finns are used to a high level of social protection and to health services being delivered mainly by the public sector, with the welfare state regime enjoying strong support among the population. To be sure, municipal councils that are responsible for providing the services have increasingly been purchasing them from private companies, but as the above-mentioned scandals indicate, there are genuine concerns about the quality of social and health services. The government has been arguing that the new system would be cheaper, but economists are not convinced. Also the introduction of directly-elected regional councils would involve a significant transfer of decision-making authority from municipal councils upwards to the regional level, and hence many fear the erosion of local democracy.

Whatever the merits of the planned reform, the timing could not have been worse for the cabinet. The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. The latest poll, conducted by the leading daily newspaper Helsingin Sanomat from 14 January to 14 February, puts the Social Democrats in the first place with 20,8 % of the vote. If the SDP holds on to its lead, this will be the first time that the Social Democrats are the biggest party since the 1999 elections, and hence also the first time that Finland would have a centre-left prime minister since 2003. In the 2015 elections SDP captured only 16,5 % of the vote, its lowest share ever in Eduskunta elections. Social Democrats have criticized heavily the planned reorganization of social and health services, not least on account of the reform providing a bigger role for the private sector in delivering the services. However, for the most part SDP and the other opposition parties have basically been content to sit back and let the government make its own mistakes. But whether the Social Democrats manage to keep their pole position depends on the final weeks of the campaign and on how the party leader Antti Rinne performs in the main television debates. Rinne just returned from a two-month sick leave, and there is general agreement that his past appearances in such debates have left considerable room for improvement. Rinne has a trade union background, and SDP will no doubt also emphasize employment and other labour market issues in its campaign.

The National Coalition came second in the poll with 18,6 % of the vote. The party is seen as the ally of large private companies, and thus it is logical that leading party figures, including party chair Petteri Orpo, have tried to divert attention to other issues. The Sipilä government has by and large achieved its main goals regarding employment and competitiveness, and the National Coalition has warned about the potential economic consequences of a SDP-led cabinet. While the National Coalition and the Social Democrats are currently fighting hard for the position of the prime minister, the two parties have also considerable experience from governing together (1987-1991, 1995-2003, and 2011-2015).

The Centre Party is in serious trouble, with the Helsingin Sanomat poll predicting the party winning only 14,7 % of the vote. This would be major loss for the party – it emerged victorious in 2015 with 21,1 % of the vote – and in line with the setback experienced in the 2011 elections. Back then the Centre had held the position of the prime minister for eight years, and also now the burden of governing seems to take its toll. The market-friendly policies of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä have clearly alienated parts of the party’s electorate, many of whom lean more towards cooperation with the Social Democrats. Hence it is not surprising that over the past few weeks Sipilä has focused in his speeches on issues close to the heart of rural voters, not least on the question of forest harvesting where Sipilä has defended increased use of forest resources. If the Centre is not part of the next government, Finland may remain without directly-elected regional councils.

The third cabinet party is the Blue Reform, formed after the split inside the Finns Party in the summer of 2017. The party has found it difficult to establish an identity somewhere between the hard-line anti-immigration views of the Finns and the mainstream centre-right parties, and according to the Helsingin Sanomat poll its support was only 1 %. The support of the Finns Party has meanwhile been on the rise, with the recent poll giving it 11,4 % of the vote. Party chair and MEP Jussi Halla-aho is surely hoping for immigration and multiculturalism to become the main topic in both the Eduskunta and the European Parliament elections. Here the party may benefit from recent multiple abuse cases involving iimmigrants, with the victims including under-age girls. Halla-aho himself is seeking a return to the Eduskunta in the April elections.

Of the other opposition parties, the Green League appointed Pekka Haavisto, a popular and senior party figure with long experience from both national politics and international organisations, as its interim leader in November when Touko Aalto was forced to resign as party chair due to health issues. Haavisto, who was also the Greens’ candidate in the 2012 and 2018 presidential elections, intends to step down in June when the Greens have their next party congress. Under Haavisto the Greens have improved their ratings, with the Helsingin Sanomat poll indicating 13,6 % of the vote. This would mean a substantial victory for the Greens, as the 8,5 % achieved in the 2015 elections was their best-ever performance in Eduskunta elections. Climate change and education are the pet themes of the party, and such topics are likely to appeal to particularly urban, younger voters. The Left Alliance also has a popular party chair, the energetic Li Andersson. Under her leadership, the party’s election manifesto centres around equality, justice, and the need to prevent poverty. In the Helsingin Sanomat poll the party’s support was at 8,7 %. The Swedish People’s Party received 4,3 % and the Christian Democrats 4,0 % of the vote in the Helsingin Sanomat poll.

At this stage it appears most likely that the new coalition will be formed between the Social Democrats and the National Coalition, and that it will include also smaller parties such as the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party. The centre-left parties (Social Democrats, Left Alliance, and arguably also Greens) look set to perform much better than four years ago, and this is potentially also good news for the trade unions that have been the target of strong criticism during the reign of the Sipilä government. However, in terms of the overall direction of domestic or European and foreign policy, the elections will not produce any significant changes. This applies also to foreign policy leadership which constitutionally is shared between the president and the government. None of the prime ministerial candidates are known for their expertise or interest in foreign affairs questions, and hence the highly popular President Niinistö is likely to retain his strong position in Finland’s foreign and security policy.

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