Finland ahead of the Council presidency
Increased political fragmentation at the core of recent election results
Credit: Otto Ilveskero
Disappointment. Injustice. The bittersweet taste of joy that lingers in your tears as the victory you thought was yours gets snatched from your hands at the last possible moment. The proud nation of Finland was violently shaken on Sunday (14 April) when the country’s ice hockey team lost the IIHF Women’s World Championships final to the United States after having had their overtime goal disallowed by the referees. So momentous was the occasion, that the national broadcasting service YLE decided to set up a split screen during its election coverage to also show the last moments of the match. In Finland, we take hockey seriously.
In many ways, the hollowness left behind by the events on ice reflected the results of the Finnish parliamentary elections, leaving most parties in a situation where they can be satisfied with their overall performance but not really happy. The Social Democrats (SDP), for example, ended the night as the largest party in the Finnish parliament for the first time since 1999, but became the first party ever to win the elections with under 20% of the vote. The centre-right National Coalition party can be content with their one seat gain considering that their governing partner, the Centre Party, lost 18 seats and obtained the party’s worst election result since 1917 (and that the Blue Reform, a 2017 offshoot from the Finns Party, with 5 ministerial positions and 17 seats managed to lose everything in their first contested elections). Yet, the National Coalition party was also left in the third place just one seat and 0.5% behind the Finns Party, which in turn would have needed only 6,000 votes more to overtake the SDP and win the elections.
Fragmented, young, and equal – the new Eduskunta
The glass is both half full and half empty – except for the Greens and the aforementioned Centre Party. The former have now doubled their support since 2011 and become only the third European Green party to obtain over 10% of the vote share in national parliamentary elections. As a whole, the left of the party spectrum, consisting of the SDP, Greens and Left Alliance, secured 76 seats (up by 15 from 2015) to the 200-member Eduskunta in Helsinki.
Although on paper the Finns Party improved their result by only one seat compared to 2015 (from 38 to 39), in practice their gains were a serious improvement for the increasingly nativist populist party, which was left with 18 MPs in parliament after a dramatic split in 2017. From early on, it was clear that voters were not going to follow the 20 representatives who split off from the Finns to form the Blue Reform as a protest to the election of Jussi Halla-aho as the new party leader. In fact, Halla-aho was the 2019 election’s biggest individual winner with over 30,000 personal votes under the Finnish open-list electoral system.
Nonetheless, the most impressive development of the evening was provided by women and young candidates. Almost half (47.0%) of all the candidates elected on Sunday are women – a record number in Finnish parliamentary elections and second only to Sweden within the EU member states. In addition, almost one fifth (19%) of the elected candidates are under 35 years old, while two thirds (62.5%) of the representatives are aged 50 or under. Only 4% of representatives in the next parliament will be over the age of 65. Ultimately, the most important story that emerged on 14 April is how youthful and equal the next Finnish Eduskunta will be. We should also be very happy with the turnout at 72% – the highest in Finnish parliamentary elections since 1991.
The overarching message from the elections was one of increased fragmentation, which is bound to make the upcoming coalition negotiations increasingly unstable. The elections were the closest in 60 years with the three largest parties separated by just 0.7% of the votes and both the right and left flanks making gains at the centre’s expense. The people have spoken, now we just have to figure out what they said.
A pro-European coalition expected ahead of the Finnish Council presidency
From the European perspective, these elections carry particular importance as Finland prepares to assume the Council’s next six-month presidency on 1 July. If the SDP and National Coalition can form the basis of a new government with perhaps the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party of Finland (SFP), then Finland would have a fragile (108 out of 200 -majority) but pro-European government in place for the crucial presidency overseeing the elections for the new European Council and Commission presidents as well as the ongoing negotiations of the 2021-2027 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF). The next government will of course also be responsible for the nomination of the Finnish commissioner to the EU’s agenda-setting institution.
The aforementioned parties have indicated willingness in their election manifestos to support deeper EU integration in the form of swiftly completing the European banking union for stronger supervision of EU banks, for example. The Greens would also like to see the elevation of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) into a European monetary fund (EMF) to provide better financial assistance to member states in need, as well as to increase the EU’s own funding through increased member state contributions and climate-friendly taxes. On climate action, the parties share a common vision of increased and more ambitious EU cooperation. The National Coalition, for instance, specifically mentions lifting the EU’s 2030 emission reduction target to 55% from the current 40% to keep the bloc on course to climate neutrality by 2050.
Furthermore, the likely prime minister party SDP has become more openly pro-EU since their previous manifesto four years ago. From a previously more ambiguous position, the party’s current election programme wants to place Finland ‘in the frontline of deepening European cooperation’ and raise the Pillar of Social Rights as an equal to the economic principles of the EU. The centre-left group is also promising to support the creation of common EU migration policy and enforcement of a migrant quota system, as well as to strengthen the EU’s external border controls. The goals are shared by the EPP-affiliated National Coalition party in their election manifesto. The prospective governing partners also agree on deepening European defence and security cooperation.
The coalition could potentially be strengthened with the ALDE-affiliated Centre Party, despite the election beating. Much of this depends now on the replacement to the outgoing prime minister Juha Sipilä, who announced his resignation as the party’s leader two days after the elections. This would give the new government a healthy 132-seat majority, but most likely also slow down the decision-making of politically already thinly spread coalition.
Certain uncertainties: will the populist right take over after all?
In a scenario where the future coalition government would feature the Finns Party, Finland’s contributions in the Council would obviously stem from a much less integrationist source. Despite the nativist party’s expressed willingness to govern, however, it seems at the moment highly unlikely that the SDP in particular would be open to the idea of sharing governmental duties with the populists.
Yet, as political opportunism raises its ugly head and the realities of coalition negotiations emerge to the fore, it becomes increasingly more difficult to predict what will happen. Earlier this month, for instance, a right-wing populist coalition blocked the Reform Party leader Kaja Kallas from becoming Estonia’s first female prime minister, despite her party winning the elections. But what will almost certainly prove to be a damaging, short-termist move to the career of Prime Minister Jüri Ratas across the Gulf of Finland could be even worse for the centre-right in Helsinki given the size of the Finns Party. Nonetheless, this has not stopped the National Coalition leader Petteri Orpo from declaring that his party would be open to negotiating governing arrangements also with the right-wing populists.
Ultimately, the uncertain coalition talks are likely to consume much-needed media attention from the European Elections in five weeks’ time. The last time the two elections coincided in Finland was in 1999, resulting in the worst Finnish turnout on the European level (31.4%). In the worst-case scenario, Finland does not even have a government in place before its Council presidency term begins in July.
What is certain, however, is that the new Finnish government should under any configuration oppose the ratification of any future trade deal with the United States that does not include handing the Ice Hockey Women’s World Championship gold medals to their rightful owners.