Election preview: Finland

Finland goes to the polls tomorrow to elect a new parliament, with its centre-right government apparently headed for defeat or, at best, major reconstruction.

The 200-strong single house of parliament is elected by proportional representation (d’Hondt) in each of 13 multi-member constituencies.* Representation is therefore not exactly proportional across the country, but pretty close to it. (My preview from last time gives some additional background.)

At the last election, in 2015, eight parties won seats, but they separated clearly into a first and a second division: the four big parties won almost three-quarters of the vote between them and nearly 80% of the seats. They were the liberal/agrarian Centre Party (49 seats), the far-right True Finns (38), the centre-right National Coalition Party (37) and the centre-left Social Democrats (34).

The first three, with a clear majority between them, formed a centre-right coalition government, with Centre leader Juha Sipilä as prime minister. The Social Democrats went into opposition, together with the four small parties: the Greens, the Left Alliance, the Swedish People’s Party and the Christian Democrats.

Although the True Finns (also called the Finns Party) were far right by Finnish standards, they were not particularly extreme in the broader European context – nativist and mildly Eurosceptic, but not neo-fascist. In 2017, however, when long-serving leader Timo Soini retired, his place was filled by the more right-wing candidate, Jussi Halla-aho.

Sipilä refused to continue the coalition with Halla-aho as leader, and the Finns split: the more moderate wing, under Sampo Terho, left and constituted itself as a new party, Blue Reform, which stayed in government, while the extremists went into opposition.

That meant the Sipilä government (just) retained its majority, but Blue Reform has made little impression in the opinion polls and is likely to lose most or all of its 18 seats. There’s rarely much of a market for moderate extremists. So if Centre and National Coalition, who have both been polling in the mid-teens, are going to continue in government, they’re going to have to find some new partners.

The True Finns lost support when they first went into government, but have now recovered much of that ground to be also in the mid-teens. Better than any of them, in contrast to their performance on the rest of the continent, are the Social Democrats, now leading the field with around 20% of the vote.

With Finland’s economy still in the doldrums, the Sipilä government resorted to austerity measures, so the centre-left – which probably would have done the same thing if it were in office – has benefited from being in opposition. Climate change is also a significant issue, with the True Finns making the running on climate denialism, making them an even less palatable coalition partner.

The Greens have also been making gains, being until recently well ahead of the True Finns in the polls. It’s possible that the Social Democrats, Greens, Left Alliance and the Swedes will be able to command a majority between them, or be close enough to it to be able to put together a centre-left government.

Alternatively, centre-left and centre-right may join together, as they have a number of times in the past. Either way, it’s unlikely that Finland’s consensus style of government will undergo major change.

But it will be another opportunity for voters to puncture – or not – the narrative of resurgent right-wing populism

 

* Strictly speaking, 12 multi-member constituencies and one single member for the Åland Islands – the Ålander doesn’t belong to any of the mainland political parties, but usually sits with the Swedish People’s Party.

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