The Finnish general elections were a consensus-seeking beauty contest, where the election results, nevertheless, forecast a revival of a Finnish right-wing. In the Finnish multi-party system three big parties dominate. In 2003-2007 the government was made up of the Centre Party (Keskusta, former Agrarians) and the Social Democrats (SDP). They were challenged by the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus) who emerged as the second largest party gaining ten new seats in the 200-seat parliament. With 50 seats they are just behind the 51-seat strong Centre Party, who lost four of its mandates.
The Social Democrats suffered a defeat, losing 8 seats. This was largely due to the uncharismatic leader of the party Eero Heinäluoma, a former trade unionist, and the unsuccessful TV-advertisement campaign by the country’s largest trade union SAK. Negative campaigning against the bourgeois, was intended to make people vote in the elections, but led to public outcry, and ultimately contributed to the election success of the Finnish ‘bourgeois’ party Kokoomus.
Of the small parties, the Left Alliance (Vasemmistoliitto) lost two of its seats but with 17 mandates remain the fourth larges party ahead of the Greens who gained one seat, now totaling 15. The Christian Democrats retained their seven seats, and the Swedish People’s Party (RKP, who aligns politically to the right but also represents the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland) gained one seat. The populist True Finns with 4 percent of the votes more than doubled their mandates, bringing five MPs to the Finnish parliament Eduskunta. The communists and the pensioners’ parties were the leading non-qualifiers with mere 0.7 and 0.6 percent of the vote respectively.
The Finnish elections operate on electoral districts using proportional d’Hondt method (see e.g. Ministry of Justice Election pages http://www.vaalit.fi/38626.htm). Therefore the national percentage of support (i.e. votes counted on the national level) for the parties are distinct from the number of seats. On the national level, Keskusta remained the winner with 23.1 percent of the votes (24.7 in 2003), Kokoomus came second with 22.3 percent (18.5), leaving behind the slightly shrunken SDP 21.4 (24.5). The Left Alliance with 8.8 percent (9.9) was almost caught by the Greens now scoring 8.5 percent (8.0) of the vote nationally. The Christian democrats lost a little bit of their national support 4.9 compared to 2003 (5.3). The Swedish People’s Party gained a seat but lost a fraction of their vote 4.5 (4.6). The success story was the True Finns with 4 percent (1.6) even though they lost their votes in Helsinki as the boxer Tony Halme stepped down from the Finnish parliament.
The results, which are be confirmed on 21 March, indicate a slight but clear ranking-order between the three large parties; the rapprochement in terms of results between the middle-size Left Alliance and Greens; and the establishment of the populist True Finns among the small right-wing parties RKP and Christian Democrats.
The negotiation over the government starts now after the elections. A right-wing government is forecast, but though Kokoomus has claimed a victory it will be the PM candidate of the largest party in the parliament who will be assigned to start the negotiations. Matti Vanhanen, the sitting PM from Keskusta, did fare well in the elections which focused on the personalities rather than policies. His love-life was under public attention: his former girlfriend whom he had found through online dating and subsequently dumped with an SMS has published a book on the relationship, while just before the elections rumors about him and a pretty Green MP were spread by foreign papers and a Kookomus candidate. Vanhanen, however came second with 24.000 votes in the Greater Helsinki region (Uusimaa) electoral district. He was defeated by Sauli Niinistö, a grand old man of the Finnish politics on the right, who became very popular during the presidential election campaign in 2006. Niinistö’s score of over 60.000 personal votes was a record in Finland, and due to the d’Hondt method also drew in a lot of new and young candidates from the Kokoomus list in Uusimaa.
In Finland there are no already set party lists, but the citizens cast their votes on a candidate, where the votes accumulated to the party determine how many of the candidates who gain the largest number of votes get through in the district. Consequently, elections are highly focused on personalities. Each candidate does their own advertisement, while parties also produce common adverts. Sometimes in the personal adverts the party is downplayed to the extent of being completely ignored, as if the choice were not about politics and the party but only about the candidate. The candidate’s picture and voting-number dominate. This gives an image of a beauty contest, and, indeed, in Finland also a face voting machine has been invented. It picks up the right candidate on the basis of one’s own picture, trying to determine whose face looks the most alike with your own.
This depoliticization is in part supported by the media, who runs stories on the personalities of politics, their private life and character. The public gets an idea of what the people in politics are like rather than what policies they run. This is further contributed by the commentators of party and parliamentary politics, who are media researchers and journalists rather than political scientists – as the election night broadcasts quite clearly indicated. It may be that the journalists trust their own crowds, or it may be that the political scientists are reluctant to comment on daily and parliamentary politics. Nevertheless, this method of representing the politics contributes to the fact that politics and the political are kept out of the perceived politics.
During the election campaign and the discussions, the large parties especially did not wish to push forward a clear and specific agenda. In the discussions, almost any proposition was followed by a collective ‘we want that, too’ or a subsequent watering down of the original proposal. In these debates Timo Soini, the leader of the True Finns was an exception, and more generally the small parties had more chances to profile themselves. The large three run on the image of themselves: the Centre Party having as its slogan ‘(it’s) like you’d vote for yourself’, the National Coalition Party run a sleek campaign with a young baby-face party leader Jyrki Katainen and a wise-old-man Niinistö in the scenes and the SDP lost their flair under the uncharismatic Heinäluoma and the SAK advertisement scandal.
Now, a turn towards the right, which was anticipated during the more interesting and innovative presidential election campaign last year, seems to take place – even though policy differences between the large parties were few and value preferences largely undiscussed. One of the reasons for the revival of Kokoomus was the way in which it could target the self-image of the middle class, who feel confident about their prospects, many earn enough money to pay for services in the household (the previous government pushed through tax reduction of upto 1150 euros for household-services). Finnish self-confidence in general can be seen as improved due to international success stories such as the PISA results over the last couple of years. Thereby, the more national approach of Kokoomus and Keskusta can be seen as more attractive to the voters. Many people in their twenties to thirties, even beyond, wanted to identify with ‘upmarket’ image of Kokoomus or the nobody-anybody image of Keskusta.
Nevertheless, setting up a left-right division in Finland would be a radical move. The polity has been consensus-seeking to cover over the wounds of the civil war of 1918, which has affected many generations. It is interesting to see what effect the discourse on ‘bourgeois’ parties and the right-wing, or even ‘bourgeois Finland’ would have. The traces of this divide and the normative urge to get rid of that and also to get rid of or ignore class boundaries and social differentiation are still in the minds of people. After all, in the parliament which starts on 28 March the number of ‘old’, over 60-year-old, MPs has increased and the number of under 30-year-old MPs has decreased.
The revival of the left and right would not have to end up in a polarization, similar to Hungary, where the left and right have turned into empty words that can cover under themselves any policies and where the divide stands to distinguish two elites from each other (one of them, the right, envisions a strong nationally oriented state, and the other, the left, seeks to shrink the state). Demonstrating differences in policies and values would only benefit Finnish politics. The danger, however, is that the political elite in Finland divides into two – the left and the right – without any discussion of the values they might entail, articulate and promote.
For the middle-size parties it could be a good chance. Both the Left Alliance and the Greens have been suffering from profiling trouble and the internal divide between the left and right. The Left Alliance suffers from the traditional party-centred Maoist old guard, which impedes the younger and more liberally left wing voters and party activists to whole-heartedly support the party. The former and once extremely successful leader of the party, Suvi-Anne Siimes, got disillusioned, dramatically left the party and for a more right-wing environment in the pharmaceutical industry in 2006. Since then the drift within the party has been more openly discussed.
Similarly, among the Greens the right and left-wing of the party causes confusion. There are some who were disillusioned about the way in which the Greens did not leave the government in time when the government proposed the fifth nuclear power plant in Finland, but only in 2002, when the parliament accepted it. The co-operation between the Greens and Kokoomus in Helsinki local government that compromised many strongly felt value positions is another object of critique among the politically red-green. Many of the right-wing Greens have already deserted the party for Kokoomus, but the party seems to be still searching its position between the left and right.
A ‘true’ ‘bourgeois’ or right-wing government which would not contain the Greens would, in long term, enable the opposition parties to carry out more left wing politics. A co-operation in the opposition between the left, social democrats and greens would foster values of solidarity, social liberal diversity and multiculturalism and environmentalism, against the revival of the conservative values, ‘free-market’, tax-cutting and rearrangement of the services in ways that mainly benefit the middle classes and business.
On the other hand the rhetoric on the ‘revival of the right’ and the ‘bourgeois Finland’, which I have been reproducing here is also often countered by some of the Keskusta, Kokoomus, Green and True Finn politicians claiming to throw away the old fashioned divide, which does not fit the contemporary conditions of change from an industrial to a service society, where everyone is either an entrepreneur or precariat workforce in short-term temporary contracts. The government of the ‘middle’ that would avoid the headings of ideology and party systems would also be a possible choice in Finland in 2007, which ever combination of the Greens, Christian Democrats, RKP and the True Finns there would be sharing power with Keskusta and Kokoomus. Each option of the Government could reshape the party map and the parties understanding of their values.
What the 2007 elections, nevertheless, clearly demonstrates is that the electoral districts require a reform. The Eastern districts which at their smallest have mere 6 candidates do not suit a multi-party system as that in Finland, where, nevertheless parties in Greater Helsinki region require only 3 percent of the vote to qualify for a post, whereas the veritable threshold in Northern Karelia was 13 percent. In this district the party leader of the Greens Tarja Cronberg failed to get elected without a working electoral alliance. Historically, in the neighbouring Southern Savo district an electoral alliance between the Greens, Left Alliance and the large SDP produced only one candidate for the social democrats while a Green candidate went through. This, however indicates that the votes for the Greens were high in Southern Savo, while, nevertheless as a whole the voting turn out was low (64.5%).
The turn out was in fact low in the whole of the country (67,8%) due to the unimaginative and depoliticised campaign, that was contrary to the previous years popular presidential elections (77.2% on the second round) and to the 2003 parliamentary elections (69,7%).
Emilia Palonen, PhD, is a postdoctoral researcher funded by the Academy of Finland at the University of Jyväskylä.