Finland – modest but important gains for the political left in parliamentary elections

The Finnish parliamentary elections held last Sunday (14 April) received international media attention primarily on account of the anti-immigration and nationalist The Finns Party finishing second, winning just one MP less than the Social Democrats that emerged as the largest party for the first time in the 21st century. Overall, all three leftist parties – the Social Democrats, the Green League, and the Left Alliance – won more votes and seats than in the Eduskunta elections held four years earlier, while particularly the Centre Party suffered a major defeat.

Finland had been governed since the 2015 elections by a centre-right coalition that brought together the Centre, the National Coalition (conservatives), and the Finns Party. The top priority of the cabinet had been the reorganization of health and social services, which would have brought about both a larger role for the private sector in delivering such services (a key objective for the National Coalition) and the introduction of directly-elected regional councils (a key objective for the Centre that wins most of its vote in the rural provinces). The project had run into serious trouble in the Eduskunta, with also some backbench MPs of the governing parties voicing strong criticism and indicating that they might not support the bill. Finally, the project was buried on 8 March, with PM Juha Sipilä of the Centre Party immediately announcing the resignation of his government.

With just over a month to go before the Eduskunta elections, many speculated that Sipilä had resigned in order to focus on the campaign, especially as the Centre was doing so badly in the polls. Sipilä seemed concerned about the Centre losing its core supporters in the rural areas, and hence he defended strongly the increasing use of logging and ‘sustainable use of forest resources’. In fact, climate change and the need to address global warming became arguably the leading topic of the elections, with particularly the left-wing parties advocating bolder measures that were criticized by the political right, not least by the Finns Party. However, apart from climate change the campaign themes ranged from the state of economy and employment (with the governing parties defending their good track record) to immigration, equality, and social security. European integration and foreign and security policy did not feature at all in the debates. Surprisingly the failed social and health care reform package was also by and large missing from the debates.

The Finnish party system is very fragmented, with the largest party normally getting at most 20-25 % of the votes. This time the Social Democrats captured only 17,7 % of the votes (+1,2 % compared with the 2015 elections, the worst performance of the party after the Second World War) and 40 seats (+6 compared with the situation after the 2015 elections), the lowest-ever share won by the largest party in Eduskunta elections. While the polls had predicted a bigger victory for the Social Democrats, finishing first means a lot to the party and more broadly to the political left in Finland. The last time the Social Democrats won the elections was back in 1999, and hence Finland has not had a social democratic prime minister after the era of the ‘rainbow coalitions’ headed by Paavo Lipponen between 1995 and 2003. The inclusion of Social Democrats in the government is also crucial for the trade unions that received wide-spread criticism during the Sipilä government. Antti Rinne, the party leader and thus also the likely next prime minister, has a trade union background, and this no doubt strengthens the links between the new government and the corporatist actors. Rinne himself has been quite heavily criticized, and again there are question marks over his leadership as still between January and early April the support of the Social Democrats was according to polls around and even above 20 %.

The Green League recorded its best-ever performance, winning 11,5 % of the vote (+3,0 %) and 20 seats (+5). However, the celebrations were nonetheless quite muted, especially as the polls had predicted a larger vote share for the Greens and many party activists surely hoped that the party would achieve the next step of joining the group of large parties in Finnish politics. Pekka Haavisto, a senior party figure with long experience from both national politics and international organisations, had been appointed as the interim party chair 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. The Greens are in many ways close allies with the Social Democrats, and would thus be a logical coalition partner in a Social Democratic-led cabinet. The Left Alliance also achieved an election victory, winning 8,2 % of the vote (+1,0 %) and 16 seats (+4). Hence the combined seat share of the left-wing parties increased from 61 seats after the 2015 elections to 76 seats (38 %).

International media coverage focused strongly on the Finns Party which finished second with 17,5 % of the vote (-0,2 %) and 39 seats (+1). When interpreting the results, we must pay close attention to the recent history of the party. The ‘new’ version of the Finns Party was established in summer 2017 when Jussi Halla-aho was elected as the party chair. Halla-aho, who has been convicted in court for hate speech, and the entire new party leadership focuses strongly on immigration issues and the new leadership also advocates more pro-market solutions than the ‘old’ Finns Party chaired by Timo Soini between 1997 and 2017. The support of Halla-aho’s party increased in the months leading to the elections, but the final result nevertheless took most observers by surprise. Halla-aho himself was the vote king of the elections, winning 30596 votes in the Helsinki constituency. Also many other leading anti-immigration figures, such as Laura Huhtasaari, Juho Eerola, and Ville Tavio performed strongly in their respective electoral districts.

The election was at the same time a catastrophe for the Blue Reform, the ‘losing side’ of the Finns Party’s 2017 party congress. The Blue Reform was essentially put together by the more populist or moderate senior party figures that also were cabinet ministers, and hence many felt that they were just protecting their own ministerial positions. The Blue Reform thus continued in the cabinet and in the elections tried to defend the achievements of the Sipilä government. It managed to win only 1,0 % of the vote and failed to achieve representation in the Eduskunta, meaning also that the ministers of the party (Soini was not seeking re-election), including the party chair Sampo Terho, were not re-elected.

The two main governing parties, the Centre and the National Coalition, did their best to defend the track record of the cabinet, particularly regarding employment rate. The National Coalition managed considerably better, finishing third with 17,0 % of the vote (-1,2 %) and 38 seats (+1). While party chair Petteri Orpo and the party faithful appeared jubilant, one could also sense disappointment as the National Coalition had won the 2017 municipal elections with 20,7 % of the vote and for a long time it had seemed that Orpo might become the next PM. The National Coalition and the Social Democrats have experience from governing together (1987-1991, 1995-2003, and 2011-2015), and the current prediction is that the new cabinet would be constructed around these two large parties.

The Centre Party in turn captured only 13,8 % of the vote (-7,3 %) and 31 seats (-18), its worst performance in elections held after the Second World War. This was essentially a repeat of 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 took its toll. The market-friendly policies of PM Sipilä clearly alienated parts of the party’s electorate, many of whom lean more towards cooperation with the Social Democrats. If the Centre is not part of the next government (as appears likely), Finland may remain without directly-elected regional councils. Sipilä announced his resignation as the party chair after the elections.

Of the smaller parties, the Swedish People’s Party received 4,5 % of the vote (-0,3 %) and held to its 10 seats (including the sole representative of the Åland Islands) while the Christian Democrats won 3,9 % of the vote (+0,4 %) and also retained its 5 seats. The final MP is Harry Harkimo, the leader of Liike Nyt (Movement Now) that very much ran an ‘anti-party’ campaign and advertised itself as a new way of making politics.

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. While Halla-aho has indicated willingness to make compromises and to take part in government formation talks, it is more likely that the Finns Party will continue in the opposition. In terms of the overall direction of domestic or European and foreign policy, the election result will probably not result in any significant changes. The political left is stronger now than four years ago, and this is probably good news for those defending the welfare state and the role of the trade unions. However, concerns about the state of the economy, including reducing public debt, act as a constraint on the new Finnish government regardless of its party-political composition.

Turnout was 72,1 %, or 68,7 % when including enfranchised citizens living abroad. 94/200 (47 %) of the elected MPs are women.

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