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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Finland's 2007 centenary election

by Manuel Alvarez-Rivera: San Juan, Puerto Rico

Finland holds a parliamentary election on Sunday, March 18, 2007. A total of 4,292,432 electors - including 208,887 Finns residing abroad - will be entitled to vote for 200 members of the country's unicameral Parliament, the Eduskunta (in Swedish, the Riksdag). However, advance voting in Finland took place on March 7-13, and abroad on March 7-10, and according to the Finnish Ministry of Justice's elections website, 1,193,292 electors voted in advance of the March 18 poll, up from 1,044,607 (26%) in the 2003 parliamentary election.

The Electoral System

Members of the Eduskunta are elected every four years in fourteen multi-member constituencies and one single-member district - the Swedish-speaking Åland Islands; for the 2007 parliamentary election, the multi-member constituencies will return between six and thirty-four members of Parliament. As in most European countries, parliamentary elections in Finland are carried out by proportional representation, specifically by the largest average or D'Hondt rule (except in Åland, whose single representative is chosen by British-style first-past-the-post voting). Nonetheless, the Finnish system differs in a number of ways from most forms of party-list proportional representation.

First, electors in Finland vote for a candidate in a party list, rather than for the list itself, and the number of votes polled by a party list equals the sum of votes obtained by each candidate on the list. Seats won by a party list are then assigned to the candidates polling the largest number of votes within the list. Therefore, electors need not abide by the parties' preferred ranking, and may freely choose a lesser-known figure in a list over a prominent party leader.

Second, political parties may form election alliances - which may also vary (and in fact do vary) from constituency to constituency - to improve their chances of winning parliamentary seats. Although the Finnish electoral system imposes no minimum barrier to participate in the allocation of constituency seats (largely to guarantee representation to the country's Swedish-speaking minority), the D'Hondt rule creates a de facto threshold that makes it more difficult for smaller parties to win seats, particularly in the smaller constituencies. Moreover, this effect is compounded by the application of the largest average method across fourteen separate electoral districts.

Third, parties forming election alliances accumulate votes separately. However, while constituency seats are proportionally allocated among single parties and electoral alliances, seats won by an alliance are not necessarily distributed among its component parties in proportion to their voting strength. This is so because seats won by an alliance are also allocated to the candidates with the largest number of votes among all lists within the alliance, regardless of party affiliation.

The Centenary Election

The upcoming vote in Finland will be taking place on the centenary of the country's first parliamentary election. That poll, held on March 15-16, 1907, came after a major 1906 parliamentary reform, which in a single stroke replaced the ancient Diet of the Four Estates - chosen along class lines under a restricted franchise - with an unicameral, 200-seat Parliament elected by proportional representation and universal suffrage of both men and women, the latter becoming the first in the world to secure both the right to vote for and to be elected to the legislature; the first Eduskunta had a total of nineteen female parliamentarians.

The circumstances under which this political quantum leap took place were even more remarkable: since 1809, Finland had been a Grand Duchy of a decidedly autocratic Russian Empire, which had sought to "russianize" or assimilate Finland in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, the Finnish people vigorously resisted such attempts, and following a disastrous military engagement with Japan - the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05 - and a failed revolution, Russia had little choice but to placate the restless Finnish.

To be certain, reform had its limits: the Eduskunta initially had no control over Finland's government, the Russian Tsar repeatedly dissolved Parliament, and after a few years the Russians would renew their attempts to assimilate the country. Nonetheless, Finland's democratic institutions proved to be durable, and the Russian Revolution of 1917 gave the country the opportunity to establish the principle of government responsibility to Parliament, and subsequently declare its independence. Just as important, these institutions survived a brief yet bloody civil war, after which the country became a republic under a semi-presidential form of government that retained parliamentary forms, while providing for a strong head of state (whose powers were somewhat weakened by a 2000 constitutional reform).

Survival Under Russia's Shadow

The history of Finland during most of the 20th century has been to no small extent a tale of remarkable political survival in the face of adversity, which more often than not came in the form of a powerful and frequently aggressive neighbor, namely Russia.

After losing two military conflicts against the Soviet Union - the Winter War of 1939-40 and the Continuation War of 1941-44 (in which Finland was the only non-occupied democratic country to side with Nazi Germany) - and suffering the loss of over a tenth of its territory, Finland had no choice but to pursue a policy of neutrality and friendly relations with the U.S.S.R. in the years following World War II. Although a number of far-right organizations were outlawed at the behest of the Soviets after the end of the war - most notably among them the crypto-fascist Patriotic People's Movement - and the Communist Party was legalized once more (having been previously outlawed in 1930), the country retained its democratic institutions and its highly fragmented multi-party political system, which during the postwar years came to be dominated by four major parties - the Social Democrats, the Agrarians (subsequently renamed the Center Party), the conservative National Coalition Party and the Communist-dominated Finnish People's Democratic League - and a number of minor parties, most notably among them the Swedish People's Party (which seeks to represent the country's Swedish-speaking population), the Liberals (under various names) and later on the populist Finnish Rural Party (an Agrarian Party breakaway, eventually superseded by the True Finns), the Christian League of Finland (nowadays the Christian Democrats) and (since 1987) the environmentalist Green League; Elections to the Finnish Eduskunta (Parliament) has a more detailed review of Finland's political parties.

Nonetheless, during the better part of the Cold War years, the Soviets frequently interfered in Finnish domestic affairs, sometimes even influencing the formation of coalition governments to keep certain parties out, or have others included. The dominant political figure during this time period was Urho Kekkonen, a former cabinet minister and head of government who served as President of Finland from 1956 until his retirement in 1981. Kekkonen's long tenure was characterized by an undue readiness to acquiesce to Soviet meddling in Finnish internal matters - a state of affairs that came to be known throughout the West as "Finlandization".

In all fairness, Finland and Kekkonen had no practical alternatives, and the fate of the countries in Eastern Europe under Communist rule, or - closer to home - the Soviet-annexed Baltic republics served as reminders of how things might have turned out otherwise. That said, contemporary criticism of Kekkonen centers around the fact that while he may have been "a prisoner on probation" of the Soviet Union - as one prominent Finnish politician once put it - he developed an excessively close relationship with the Soviet leadership, going further than what was warranted by circumstances, and proving all too willing to get in the sauna with the Soviets, figuratively as well as literally (holding informal discussions in the sauna is a Finnish tradition). Although Kekkonen was not a Communist (he belonged to the Center Party), within a few years of his death in 1986 it was alleged the Kremlin had bankrolled his presidential campaigns.

A Quarter-Century of Cabinet Stability

Until 1983, Finland had a very serious case of Italian-style cabinet instability, in which governments succeeded each other at short intervals, at an average rate of one every year. However, since then Finnish cabinets have developed a remarkable degree of stability, and in the last quarter-century all but one of the country's successive governments have completed their four-year term of office.

Several factors appear to have played a role in this turn of affairs. The Communist-controlled People's Democratic League began to suffer a marked electoral decline after 1979, in large measure brought about by an internal struggle between reform-minded and Stalinist factions, which eventually led to a damaging split. Although the warring factions subsequently regrouped under the post-Communist Left Alliance, the new party has never been able to match the electoral success of its predecessor, and Finland now has only three major parties. Meanwhile, the Liberals went into terminal decline and in a matter of years were a spent force. As a result of these changes, the party system was somewhat simplified. This, combined with the fact that the country's political parties gradually moved in the direction of essentially centrist political positions, made it easier to form stable coalition governments.

Just as important, Soviet interference in Finnish domestic matters declined noticeably after the emergence of Mikhail Gorbachev and the advent of glasnost ("openness"), which led to improved relations between Finland and the Soviet Union. Consequently, the National Coalition Party - which had been previously viewed with extreme suspicion by Moscow because of its business-oriented views - returned to government in 1987 with very little controversy, after having spent more than two decades in opposition. In due course, the demise of the Soviet Union opened the door to Finland's entry into the European Union, and the proposal - which would have been unthinkable just a few years earlier - was decisively approved by voters in a 1994 advisory referendum.

For many years now, coalition governments in Finland have often been broad-based and consensus-oriented alliances that bring together parties that would normally be political adversaries. For example, from 1987 to 1991, and again from 1995 to 2003, the right-of-center National Coalition Party and the center-left Social Democratic Party were partners in government. In fact, the 1995-2003 administration of Social Democrat Paavo Lipponen - the longest-serving prime minister in the history of Finland - was a "rainbow" coalition that also included the Left Alliance, the Green League and the Swedish People's Party.

During the course of the 20th century, Finland's Swedish-speaking minority declined from nearly thirteen percent of the country's population to less than six percent. Nonetheless, the Swedish People's Party has not only been continuously represented in Parliament since 1906, but has also taken part in coalition governments for fifty-one of the past sixty-two years, including every cabinet formed since 1979 - up to the "Red-Earth" Center Party-Social Democratic coalition governments that have ruled Finland since 2003, first under Anneli Jäätteenmäki (Finland's first female head of government) and then under Matti Vanhanen, who replaced Jäätteenmäki as head of government when she was forced to resign after only two months in office, in the aftermath of the "Iraq-gate" scandal (she was subsequently found not guilty of charges against her arising from the scandal).

Interestingly, electoral alliances had comparatively little impact in the outcome of the 2003 Eduskunta election. Had there been no alliances, and had voters cast their ballots the same way, the Center Party would have had a net gain of two seats, and True Finns would have lost two of its three seats, but the remaining parties would have had a net gain or loss of no more than one seat, and the Christian Democrats, who would have lost most of their seats in the 1995 and 1999 parliamentary elections without electoral alliances (mostly to the benefit of the larger parties), would have retained the same number of seats they won in the election.

In fact, the result of the 2003 parliamentary election in Uusimaa (Nyland) constituency - the largest electoral district - presented a clear example of seat allocation disproportionality within electoral alliances. In that constituency, an alliance of the Christian Democrats, True Finns, the Ecological Party and Pensioners for the People secured 22,753 votes, which entitled the group to one of the constituency's 33 seats at stake. Although the Christian Democrats were by far the largest party within the alliance, with 15,936 votes, their vote was split among twenty-one candidates, and consequently the seat went to True Finns' party leader Timo Soini, who won the largest number of votes among all alliance candidates, although his party polled only 5,263 votes.

Ironically, if the Christian Democrats had run alone in the constituency and if their list had obtained the same number of votes, the party would have captured that seat (although the gain would have been offset by a seat loss in another constituency); however, had the electoral alliance polled an extra 764 votes, it would have secured a second seat, which would have gone to the Christian Democrats. Not surprisingly, the Christian Democrats won't be taking part in electoral alliances in Uusimaa for the 2007 parliamentary election.

Consensus Frayed?

Earlier this month, the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK), which represents primarily blue-collar workers, was forced to drop a controversial television advertisement which depicted a cartoonishly callous and gluttonous businessman expressing contempt towards workers' rights, and satisfaction about the supposedly lower election turnout of working-class Finns. SAK claimed the advertisement (which can be watched here) was intended to promote voter turnout among blue-collar workers, but many politicians, including some Social Democrats found the tone strayed too far from the long-accepted consensus based on negotiated wage agreements between capital and labor. Meanwhile, a couple of Social Democratic Party advertisements, in which a child and a senior citizen are denied care for want of money, have also generated some controversy, although the party has refused to withdraw them so far.

The ads in question may or may not be indicative that the long-running principle of consensus is beginning to wear out. If that turns out to be the case - and at this juncture that is a very big if - Finnish politics may well revert to more adversarial styles in the years to come.


Finland's Ministry of Justice's elections website reports definitive results of the March 18, 2007 Eduskunta election were as follows:

Center Party of Finland - 640,428 votes (23.1%), 51 seats
National Coalition Party - 616,841 votes (22.3%), 50 seats
Social Democratic Party of Finland - 594,194 votes (21.4%), 45 seats
Left Alliance - 244,296 votes (8.8%), 17 seats
Green League - 234,429 votes (8.5%), 15 seats
Swedish People's Party in Finland - 126,520 votes (4.6%), 9 seats
Christian Democrats in Finland - 134,790 votes (4.9%), 7 seats
True Finns - 112,256 votes (4.1%), 5 seats
Communist Party of Finland - 18,277 votes (0.7%), no seats
Others - 49,205 votes (1.8%), 1 seat

65% of the electorate (including Finnish citizens resident abroad) turned out to vote in the election, down from 66.7% in the 2003 election; it's also the lowest turnout in a Finnish parliamentary election since 1945.

Detailed 2007 election statistics are also available at Elections to the Finnish Eduskunta (Parliament), and Aapo Markkanen's blog has additional commentary on the election result. Meanwhile, Statistics Finland offers a definitive election results summary as well as analysis.

The most notable developments in this election have been the remarkable rise of the conservative National Coalition Party - which gained ten seats and became the country's second largest party for the first time in twenty years - and the just as spectacular setback suffered by the Social Democrats, who fell to third place and polled their second-worst election result since 1945. Although the National Coalition Party gains weren't record-breaking - in 1970 and 1979 it scored even larger seat gains, and in 1970 it had a larger vote percentage increase - the party still had its second-best showing since the end of World War II (and its best result since 1987), coming within two seats of becoming the largest party in Parliament.

As for the Social Democrats, this is only the second time in the history of Finland the party has been relegated to third place. However, it should be noted that when this previously occurred in the 1962 general election, the party faced competition from not only a still-strong People's Democratic League, but a splinter group as well - the Social Democratic Union of Workers and Small Farmers, which polled its highest vote ever in that election. Moreover, at the time the Social Democrats had been at odds with Moscow for several years, which adversely affected their electoral fortunes.

Incidentally, electoral alliances had even less effect on the distribution of seats this time around than in the preceding election. Had there been no alliances, and had parties polled the exact same results, the Center Party and the Social Democrats would captured one extra seat each, at the expense of the Greens and True Finns, which would have lost one seat apiece; the remaining parties would have obtained the same number of seats they actually won in the election.

In theory, the Center-Social Democratic-Swedish People's Party coalition government of Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen could have remained in office, but it would have commanded a parliamentary majority of only ten seats, down from thirty-two in 2003, and on that account it would have been the weakest majority coalition government in Finland since 1945 (although it should be noted that Kalevi Sorsa's first administration in 1972-75 managed to hold on to power for almost three years on the basis of a four-party, fourteen-seat majority, at a time when Finnish governments usually collapsed within a year of taking office).

As it was, Prime Minister Vanhanen chose instead to form a four-party coalition government of his Center Party, the National Coalition Party, the Swedish People's Party and the Green League. Vanhanen's new government, in which women hold a majority of twelve out of twenty Cabinet positions, has a comfortable majority of 125 seats in the newly-elected Eduskunta.