Finland shifts rightwards

Contrary to my expectations (see Friday’s preview here), Finland on Sunday voted for change. The shift in sentiment wasn’t large – although you might not guess that from the media coverage – but it’s come in the right place to be decisive. Putting together a new government, however, is likely to pose a challenge.

Expectations were correct in one thing: three parties again finished very close together at the head of the pack (see official results here). The gap between them and the others has become more pronounced, with all of the big three gaining support. The centre-right National Coalition came first with 20.8% (up 3.8%) and 48 seats (up ten), followed by the far-right True Finns on 20.1% (up 2.6%) and 46 seats (up seven) and the centre-left Social Democrats on 19.9% (up 2.2%) and 43 seats (up three).

Despite her party’s gain, Social Democrat prime minister Sanna Marin is unlikely to remain in office. That’s partly because of the convention that the leader of the largest party, now the centre-right’s Petteri Orpo, should get the first opportunity to assemble a coalition. More important, though, is what’s happened further down the table.

The next four parties were all coalition partners of the Social Democrats, and they all lost ground. Centre (23 seats), the Greens (13), Left Alliance (11) and the Swedish People’s Party (nine) fell from 38.0% in aggregate to 29.7%, dropping 20 seats. Adding their new total of 56 seats to the centre-left’s 43, and bringing in also the single representative of the Åland Islands, gives a total of 100 of the 200 seats: a tie.

So the present government cannot continue, but a purely right-of-centre government cannot be formed either. Even assuming Orpo is willing to work with the far right, they only have 94 seats between them; adding in the Christian Democrats (five seats) and the single Movement Now MP (broadly centre-right) also makes 100. They can only reach a majority by picking off someone from the other side, presumably either the agrarian Centre Party or the Swedes.

But while neither of those would be a bad fit with the centre-right, they’re much less likely to sit in government with the True Finns – who, having started out as a relatively moderate force, took a turn to the hard right in 2017, leading to their eviction from the then Centre-led government. And without the support of the True Finns, there’s no way to a right-of-centre majority.

That puts the Social Democrats back in the picture. Co-operation between them and the centre-right is the obvious way to avoid deadlock; together they would have 91 seats, with a range of possible junior partners to get to a majority. Neither leader sounds sounds keen on the idea, but there are plenty of precedents and Finnish politics is notoriously flexible. With this parliament, it will have to be.

Flexibility of a somewhat different sort will be required in Bulgaria, which also voted on Sunday. We’ll take a look at that tomorrow.


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