Election preview: Finland

Finland goes to the polls on Sunday for parliamentary elections that are likely to bring a change of government without disturbing the country’s broad consensus model of governance.

At the last election, four years ago, four parties were quite evenly matched, winning about 75% of the vote and 80% of the seats between them. Three were the country’s traditional three big parties: the Social Democrats (mainstream centre-left), and two that could reasonably be called liberal-conservative, the Centre Party and the National Coalition Party. Historically the former was liberal and the latter conservative, but these days they are separated more by geography than ideology: Centre is rural-based and National Coalition urban.

The fourth big party, and the only one to make gains, was a newcomer to the major league: the True Finns*, representing the far right. This being Finland, however, they are not all that far right – nationalist, eurosceptic and anti-immigrant, but hardly in the fascist camp. (Their members in the European parliament sit in the same group as Britain’s Conservatives.)

Four small parties took the remaining fifth of the seats: Left Alliance (hard left), the Greens, the Swedish People’s Party (representing Finland’s Swedish-speaking minority) and the Christian Democrats.

Voting is proportional (d’Hondt system) within large multi-member constituencies, so seats reflect voting strength fairly well. With each of the big four parties having between 35 and 44 seats, out of a total of 200, a majority coalition was going to have to either include three of the majors, or two of them plus a strong uptake from minor parties.

The latter route turned out to be the one taken in post-election negotiations. The True Finns didn’t want to deal with the old parties, and the Centre Party, having suffered the biggest losses, was resigned to a term in opposition. So National Coalition and the Social Democrats teamed up with all four minor parties, for a healthy majority (at least on paper) of 126 to 74. Jyrki Katainen, leader of National Coalition, became prime minister.

Not surprisingly, such a diverse bunch didn’t stay together. Left Alliance departed first, just over a year ago, followed by the Greens. That left the government with just 102 seats, a bare majority.

In addition, all the big parties except the True Finns have changed leaders. Alexander Stubb took over as National Coalition leader and prime minister last year, and he seems to have enjoyed a poor relationship with the new Social Democrat leader, finance minister Antti Rinne. Stubb is pushing pro-market reforms, while Rinne is more sceptical about the country’s previous strong support for austerity. But with Finland entering its fourth year of recession, there’s general agreement that something needs to be done.

As in neighboring Estonia, security policy has also come to the fore with the greater assertiveness of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. The Centre Party strongly supports Finland’s traditional neutrality, while Stubb (a former foreign minister) is more willing to talk about the hitherto-unmentionable prospect of NATO membership. (Security and economics are not unrelated, with trade suffering from EU sanctions against Russia.)

The polls are unanimous in predicting that the Centre Party will benefit from having been out of government and become the largest party in the new parliament. Its leader, IT millionaire Juha Sipilä, is a hot favorite to be prime minister. But with National Coalition, Social Democrats and True Finns all running between 15 and 20%, the shape of a new government remains highly uncertain.

With a general expectation that Stubb and Rinne won’t sit in the same government again, the Centre Party looks like having a choice of allies. In either case, the True Finns are a potential third partner: their nationalism is a better fit with the centre-right, but in economic policy they are closer to the centre-left. Once again the minor parties (who all seem to be roughly holding their 2011 levels of support) may play a crucial role – particularly the Swedes, who contrive to be always in government regardless of its complexion.

*At least that’s the traditional translation of their name. They now prefer to be known in English as just “The Finns”, but Wikipedia suggests that something like “Ordinary Finns” would be more accurate.

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