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Election Few sweet promises in the Finnish parliamentary elections 2015

The economic recession characterises the Finnish parliamentary elections that are held on Sunday April 19. The political parties compete about the support of the voters by promising economic austerity during the upcoming legislature.

Published on balticworlds.com on april 14, 2015

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The economic recession characterises the Finnish parliamentary elections that are held on Sunday April 19. The political parties compete about the support of the voters by promising economic austerity during the upcoming legislature. Four years have passed since the True Finns (PS Perussuomalaiset) made Finnish parliamentary history by five-folding its electoral support between two consecutive elections. With anti-establishment appeals, anti-EU and immigration policies the party increased its vote from 4 to 19 per centin the parliamentary elections of 201l. The backdrop against the PS electoral breakthrough was the European economic recession and the crisis of the Eurozone combined with cases of domestic high-level political corruption that fuelled political distrust among the Finnish voters against the established political parties. The PS, with roots in agrarian populism, had since mid-2000 radicalised with more pronounced anti EU and -immigration and ideologically embedded nationalist ideas and can presently be characterised as a populist radical right party.[1]Whereas many other European nationalist parties moderate their policies in order to raise their popular appeal and governmental credibility, for example the Sweden Democrats and the Front National, the PS has radicalised. The PS success hasimpacted on the government formation, political competition and governmental policy making, in particular in relation to the EU bailouts, during the past legislature.

The six-party coalition government, popularly called the “six-pack”, formed after the parliamentary elections in 2011 has been plagued with internal disagreement, and an inability to pass legislation.According to Finnish parliamentary practice the political party receiving a plurality of the vote, which in the last elections was the Conservative National Coalition party KOK (Kansallinen Kokoomus), is appointed government formateur. After lengthy and complicated negotiations a broad-based coalition government including the two poles of the socio-economic left-right political dimension was formed.  The government coalition included from left to right, the Left Alliance (VAS Vasemmistolitto), the social democratic party (SDP Suomen Sosialidemokraattinenpuolue), the Green League( VIHR Vihreä Liitto), the Christian Democratic party (KD Suomen Kristillisdemokraatit) the Swedish People’s party (SFPSvenskaFolkpartiet) and the National Coalition party KOK controlling the Prime Minister position. A second informal norm guiding Finnish government formation is that the party with the largest increase in its vote should be included in the governmental negotiations. Accordingly, the PS was invited to the governmental negotiations following, but decided to remain in opposition since governmental participation would, among other things, have resulted in assuming responsibility for the EU economic support, which the party had vociferously campaigned against. The Finnish mainstream political parties have not taken a principled distance to the PS as a consequence of the party’s radicalised anti-immigration policies and racist and intolerant statements of individual PSMEPs, of which some have been sentenced for hate-speech.[2]An explanation might be the party’s historical origin in agrarian populism, and its status as successor party of a former party of government, i.e., he Finnish rural party, which was in government between 1983-1990.[3] The PS enjoy a so-called ‘reputational shield’ that political parties with roots in outright nationalism is lacking, as for instance the Sweden Democrats and Front National.

The Centre party KESK accompanied the PS in opposition. The parliamentary opposition was consequently positioned in the centre of theideological party political space: The government did not include the median legislator party, which is odd considering that according to standard government coalition theory such a party is likely to be included in government. Three clusters of political parties can be discerned in the Finnish party system when they are placed along the left-right socio-economic dimension and the value-based liberal-authoritarian dimension.  The socio-economic left-right dimension taps party positions on state-market relations, welfare, social justice and enterprise. The liberal-authoritarian dimension taps issues related to democratic rights (minorities), morality (religion) authoritarianism (law and order) and post-materialism (cosmopolitanism, anti-growth). The three cluster are firstly, a left-libertarian party group consisting of SDP, VAS and VIHR; secondly, the economically right-wing and value-centrist KOK/SFP duo; and thirdly, a centrist authoritarian cluster containing the Centre Party KESK, the Christian Democrats KD and the True Finns PS. Polarisation along the vertical axis is relatively low, but the saliency of the value-based dimension has increased in Finnish politics.

Figure 1.The Finnish party space (parties sized by vote share in latest election)
Source: CHES 2010 (Chapel Hill Survey)[4]

Oversized and ideological non-compact governments have bridging ideological gaps have been common. Half of all Finnish cabinets during the last thirty years have contained both the Social Democrats and the Conservatives, and all cabinets but one have been oversized majority coalitions[5]Whereas previous surplus majority governments often were capable of balancing divergingpartisan interests, and successful inincluding the social partners in broad-based agreements, the six-pack coalition was from the outset characterised by internal conflicts and tensions, which aggravated with the unfolding of the economic crisis. The distrust in the government has increased steadily over its lifespan. The ideologically broad-based coalition government has not been able to counter the aggravating economic situation during the legislature, nor has it delivered promised reforms aimed at rendering the regional structures more efficient (reducing the number of municipalities) or reforming the social and welfare structure (for instance, the SOTE-reform). The Left Alliance withdrew from government in March 2014 as it could not accept the austerity measures aimed at curbing the ballooning public debt. In September 2014 the Green Alliance marched out as it refused the building of the Russian-built Fennovoima nuclear plant. This was a threshold question for the greens that had announced that no more nuclear power plants was a condition for their staying in government. The broad parliamentary majority of the government vanished and in from September 2014 the government had the backing of 101 out of 200 parliamentarians. The government was increasingly challenged by the parliamentary opposition with interpellations and votes of confidence. The impopularity of the government gained further momentum when the foreign Minister Alexander Stubb replaced Jyrki Katainen as the Prime Minister in June 2014. Katainen chose to leave the government for a position as a Member of the European Commission.  The exits from government by individual Ministers and political parties less than one year in advance of the next parliamentary elections indicate a reluctance to assume responsibility for decision taken, or not taken.

The Finnish economy has not recovered after 2008 economic recession since the economic growth has been weak after the Lehman Brothers crash. The Bank of Finland estimates that the growth rate on the long term will remain low, on average, one per cent, until 2030. According to the present Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb the Finnish ”golden” economic era with strong economic growth led predominantly by the high-tech sector, came to an abrupt end in 2008. For the export-dependent Finnish economyindustrial exports have slowed down more than in any other OECD country. The economic recession has meant lower overall demand for Finnish products, and the core export sectors, such as the forestry industry and electronics are in sharp decline.  The economic situation in Russia has further aggravated the economic downturn. Russia is Finland’s largest trading partner and the EU sanctions imposed on Russia, which Finland supports, have impacted negatively on the Finnish economic growth. The unemployment has increased slightly to eight per cent, but is not as bad as during the last economic recession in the mid 1990s when it was around 20 per cent. The public economy is obviously affected by the economic downturn. The budget deficit grew to 3,2 per cent of the GDP in 2014 and Finland is for the first time since 1996 breaking the rules of the European stability and growth pact, which prescribes a budget deficit of maximum 3 per cent. The public debt has increased and is presently around 60 per cent of the GDP, but in this respect Finland finds itself in good company with other EU memberstates. All things considered, the question is whether the gloomy forecast of the Financial Times columnist Tony Barber of Finland becoming the sick man of Europe 2015 will be proven right? (Financial Times 2014-12-02). Barber considers the Finnish case as an illustration of “how prejudices and oversimplifications fail to capture the complex economic realities of the eurozone”, that is, “a northern bloc of creditors countries supposedly characterised by economic efficiency, fiscal rigour and respect for law;  and a southern bloc of debtors states supposedly characterised by economic weakness, profiligate public finances and art-ful rule bending”. Barber states that Finland is as northern as it can be geographically and culturally speaking, but that the country being firm on austerity measures towards the euro-countries in crisis, now finds itself in deep economic trouble.  The economic recession has uncovered structural problems in Finland.The population is ageing more rapidly in Finland than in other OECD countries, which further impacts on the public financial situation[6].

Not surprisingly, the Finnish economic situation is the dominating theme in the electoral campaign for the political parties as well as for the voters. The main concerns of the voters are employment and the public debt in addition to the availability and the quality of the welfare provisions, such as health-care, social services and education.[7] Environmental issues, immigration, the European Union and a possible NATO-membership are less important. Therefore theelectoral campaign revolves around classical left-right socio-economic questions as how to stimulate economic growth and maintain the welfare state by means of taxation, public spending and privatisation, and structural reforms of the labour market. However, the differences between the political parties are quite small. All the political parties promise to invest in job creation, but are unequivocal on that new jobs are to be realised by increasing foreign demand, and not by stimulating domestic demand by public spending. This implies that heavy cuts are ahead in the public sector as the political parties rule out tax increases (except for the Left Alliance). Broad agreement prevails that the overall tax level cannot be raised, but there are differences on how the taxes are to be targeted in order to stimulate growth. Despite growing security concerns in the close neighbourhood – the Russian invasion of Crimea, the war in Ukraine and several incidents in the Baltic Sea Area – foreign and security policies are not at the forefront. Also here broad agreement prevails on the need of defence cooperation in the Nordic region, and in particular with Sweden as a response to a transformed international environment. A future membership in the NATO is not entirely ruled out, but neither prioritised in the short run.

Looking ahead at the elections on Sundaythe domestic economic situation is consequently at the forefront in the 2015 parliamentary campaign whereas the European economic crisis dominated the previous parliamentary elections. However, the True Finns have according to the opinion polls not been able to capitalise from the economic recession and once again mobilise a disaffected electorate: The PSwill receive around 15 to 17 per cent of the vote according to the most recent polls. Rather, it is the second party of the opposition, namely the Centre party KESKUSTA that if the support given in opinion polls materialiseswill make one of its best elections: Around 25 per cent of the voters state that they give their vote to the Centre party. The Centre is as an old and established political party with governmental experience considered a more trustworthy alternative than the True Finns for the handling of a Finnish economy in crisis. The True Finns have with little success tried to direct the public attention to immigration,  which together with EU-criticism are theircore issues by publishing a report on the costs of immigration. The party leader TimoSoini has also repeatedly requested the other political parties to state their opinions on immigration.

The two larger political parties of the incumbent government will be punished the voters:The Conservative National Coalition party KOK (Kansallinen Kokoomus) that has held the Prime Minister and the social democratic party (SDP Suomen Sosialidemokraattinenpuolue) will both decrease their shares of the vote to around 16 to 17 per cent. This means that the Social democratic party will make its worst elections since 1907 and from this perspective the Finnish social democrats are facing the same challenge of a shrinking electorate and competition of populist radical right parties like other European labour parties. The Christian Democratic party (KD) and the Swedish People’s party SFP will according to the opinion polls experience minor changes in their electoral support.Of thetwo political parties that left government coalition prematurely the Greens are likely to increase their share of the vote, whereas that of the Left Alliance is stable. The voter turnout will according to the opinion polls be similar to that of the previous elections, according to the most recent opinion poll: 69 per cent state that they will vote. The electoral turnout was 70 per cent in the 2011 parliamentary elections. The share of undecided voters is 39 per cent, and is larger than in 2011: In less than one week before the election day 32 per cent said that they hadn’t decided yet whether to vote at all or which party to vote on in 2011, whereas almost 40 per cent still are undecided at the same point of time in 2015. The last week of the electoral campaign is thus crucial for the political parties and their candidates to get their voters to the voting stations and win their votes.

Table 1: The results of the parliamentary elections 2011, and the support for the parliamentary political parties in March ((YLE/Taloustutkimus).[8] and April opinion polls (Helsingin Sanomat/TNS Gallup[9] 2015
Party Vote in parliamentary

elections 2011

(per cent)

Opinion poll

(March 2015)

Opinion poll

(April 2015)

Difference between parliamentary elections and opinion polss
VAS Left Alliance 8,1 8,5 8,5 +0,4

19,1 16,1 17 -2.0 -3,0
PS True Finns 19,1 14,6 16 -3,0-4,5
KESKUSTA (Centre) 15,8 24,9 23 +7 – 9
KOKOOMUS 20,4 16,1 17 -3-4
Christian Democrats 4,6 3,9 3,7 -0,7 -0.9
Green League VIHR 7,3 8,9 8,1 +1,2 -1,6
SFP Swedish People’s party 4,3 4,5 4,6 +0,2 – 0,3

The Centre will become the undisputed winner of the elections, but the competition about being the second or third largest parties is close. The differences between the three larger political parties have decreased during the electoral campaign and in the latest April opinion poll the differences between them are within the margin or error. In the graph below (from Helsingin Sanomat 2015-04-14) one can see how the support of the four larger political parties has varied considerably during the past four years, whereas the electoral support of the smaller parties is stable. The electoral outcome in terms of number of parliamentary seats can vary considerably and relatively small changes in per cent support affects the distribution of mandates. The electoral turnout

The government formed after the 2015 parliamentary elections willwith great likelihood be formed and led by the Centre party leader Juha Sipilä, who is a former businessman and entrepreneur. He was elected party leader as late as 2012 having been a MEP only since 2011. He is popular not only among his own party supporters, but also among those who sympathise with other political parties: He is perceived as a talented businessman and a leader capable of uniting dissenting interests simultaneously as his lack of experience in foreign affairs and security policies is acknowledged. [10]Juha Sipilä represents a new phenomenon in Finnish politics as an outsider that in a short time has made a career within an established political party.

The more interesting question is which political partiesthe Centre party will share government with: Will the Centre make a so-called “punamulta” or red-earth government with the socialdemocrats, or a more right wing-leaning government with the conservatives? None of the afore-mentioned two-party constellations will control a sufficientparliamentary majority by their own, but need to include some of the smaller parliamentary political parties, or the True Finns. In a coalition government with three of the larger all the political parties will be in position to blackmail the others in negotiation by threatening to withdraw their support, and thereby making the government vulnerable.  Surplus parties, as a rule (small) political parties that are unnecessary for the attainment of a parliamentary have been included in Finnish governments in order to prevent the veto power of a single party.  The supporters of the Centre partyprefer to share government with the social democrats, and vice versa.[11]The SDP was in opposition between 2007 and 2011, whereas the KOK has been a party of government since 2007. If the SDP experiences its lowest electoral turnout since the party formation this is likely to impact on the willingness to assume governmental responsibility as hard budget cuts in the welfare are ahead.

The True Finn party leader Timo Soini has fervently repeated that the party aims for ministerial portfolios after the 2015 elections, but with the shrinking electoral support some party representatives have aired some concerns over assuming governmental responsibility while not being able to get the party’s policies through.  Many PS voters had expected the PS to join government after the earthquake 2011 election, and were disappointed over the PS decision to remain in opposition. The question is whether the PS once again can refuse government without upsetting its electorate? According to the party leader Timo Soinia minimum 35 MEPs, or a position as the third largest party are the preconditionsfor True Finn participation in government.[12]As usual the party leaders of the political parties are reluctant to formulate any clear priorities with whom they prefer to share government with, or to state any clear-cut threshold questions. The habit is to keep all doors open until after the elections, and when the vote have been counted firstly to decide whether the electoral result permits a place in government, and secondly to consider the policy outcome of the governmental negotiations.This will also be the case when the electoral results have been presented on Sunday evening.


[1]Jungar, A.-C. &Jupskås, A.R. (2014). Populist Radical Right Parties in the Nordic Region: A New and Distinct Party Family? Scandinavian Political Studies 37(3): 215–238.

[2]One MEP, Juhani Hirvisaari, of the PS has been exluded from the parliamentarygroup and the party in 2013.

[3] Jungar, Ann-Cathrine, 2011, “The Finnish version of populism” http://balticworlds.com/finnish-version-of-populism

[4]Bakker, R., Vries, C.D., Edwards, E., Hooghe, L., Jolly, S., Marks, G., … Vachudova, M.A. (2012). Measuring party positions in Europe: The Chapel Hill expert survey trend file, 1999-2010. Party Politics. Retrieved from http://ppq.sagepub.com/cgi/doi/10.1177/1354068812462931

[5]Jungar, A.-C. (2002), A Case of a Surplus Majority Government: The Finnish Rainbow Coalition. Scandinavian Political Studies, 25: 57–83. doi: 10.1111/1467-9477.00063

[6]OECD Economic Surveys Finland, February 2014.

[7]Ken on maassajämäkin? EVAs Arvoja Asennetutkimus 2015, Eva Rapporti 1/2015 Helsinki, “Kansalaistenkärkihallitukselle: Sosiaali- jaterveyspalvelut, kuntatalousjatuotantotapojenuudistaminentärkeintä”, Kunnallisalankehittämissäätiö, 2015.


[9]http://www.hs.fi/kotimaa/a1428901475456 (14.4.2015)

[10]Ken on maassajämäkin? EVAs Arvoja Asennetutkimus 2015, Eva Rapporti 1/2015 Helsinki,

[11]“Enemmistöhaluaakeskustan ja SDP:nseuraavaanhallitukseen”Suomenmaa15.3.2015, see also

[12]“Timo Soini roimiikokoomusta: ”Kampanja sellaisessaepätoivossa, ettäedes Angela Merkel eipelasta”, HelsinginSanomat 30.3.2015.

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