To move the scope back to Finland, I believe it is appropriate to give my foreign readers a brief overview of the battle over the Finnish defence budget and the NATO-debate.
For a number of years, Finnish politics have had three major parties: the Social Democratic Party (SDP), the Centre Party (Kesk, agrarian centrists) and the National Coalition Party (Kok, middle-right conservative liberals). For the last governments, the usual modus operandi has been that the largest party receives support from one of the other three major parties, with the third leading the opposition. Then some of the smaller parties join the government, with the rest joining the opposition. This way a stable majority government is formed.
In the last round of parliamentary elections held in 2011, the populist Finns Party (PS) gained ground, and rose to the position of third largest party, meaning that we suddenly had four major parties. Both the Centre Party and the Finns Party decided to go into opposition, but Jyrki Katainen (Kok) managed to the social democrats and all minor parties onboard, leading to a six-party government. Trying to please everybody made for quite a number of compromises, but the coalition has been surprisingly stable. This situation lasted until the beginning of 2014.
During this year, we have had a number of changes. First, the Left Alliance (Vas.) jumped over to the opposition. According to their own statement this was due to decision to cut social welfare programs, but cynics noted that the timing coincided with the running up to this spring’s European elections.
Down to five parties, and against the backdrop of an ever more unstable Europe, both the National Coalition Party and the Social Democratic Party changed leaders. In the case of the National Coalition Party, former Prime Minister Katainen stepped down, and in a three-way race Alexander Stubb beat his competition to become the new party leader and Prime Minister. Stubb maintains a people-friendly image, being an avid tweeter and sports enthusiast, to the point that he received criticism for being too “common”.
For the Social Democratic Party the shift was markedly different. Here, the outgoing Minister of Finance Jutta Urpilainen did not leave voluntarily, but was defeated by Antti Rinne at the party congress. SDP has bled voters both left and right, and the election of Urpilainen back in 2008 was seen as a move to modernize the party, as she was both the first female leader and the youngest in the history of the party. Six years later, this apparently was all forgotten, as Rinne is more of an archetypical social democrat, being a 51 year old male with a background as a labour union boss.
The fact that the two largest parties had changed leadership, as well as to resolve the issue about what to do with the portfolios left by the leftist, lead to a brief round of negotiations dubbed “mini-coalition formation”. The result was more or less that status quo continues, and a declaration that what is best for Finland is a stable political landscape up until the next parliamentary elections, to be held in 2015.
While this settled everything on paper, it was rather clear that Rinne would have to try something to make his impact felt, or else he would go into the coming elections with the image that he had only followed the trail created by Urpilainen four years earlier. The budget discussion of the coming autumn was mentioned as his best (and perhaps only) chance of making a real statement.
And right they were, as Rinne came out with a bang, having drafted a larger-than-agreed-upon budget proposal. This immediately drew fire from the other ministers, mainly defence minister Carl Haglund of the Swedish-speaking Swedish People’s Party of Finland (SFP/RKP) and Minister of Economic Affairs Jan Vapavuori (Kok). This quickly developed into a round of political battle-royale, with Rinne countering with the argument that all, including Haglund and Vapavuori, were free to make their own proposals. A senior MP from SDP was happy to further explain that of course Haglund and Vapavuori were free to make cuts in the pensions and benefits of the poorer parts of the population if they felt that was appropriate. Vapavuori in turn stated that the government is unable to function properly if agreed terms and conditions aren’t held. PM Stubb noted that “some” are more aroused by the coming elections than other, while Haglund critiqued Rinne for the way things had been handled, stating that changes of these magnitudes were not to be taken by a single minister.
The total sums involved are rather small, compared to the budget as a whole. Still, they are large enough to force the other coalition partners to protest, or leave it to Rinne to seemingly dictate how the country is lead. If they attack his proposal, the hope on the SDP-side is probably that the right will be seen as austerity fanatics who only care about money and not the elderly.
In this, Rinne’s further cuts in the defence budget has received relatively little attention, in spite of the fact that our new Chief of Defence, General Jarmo “Charles” Lindberg, has pushed for more money to the defence forces, or else, changes to the mission of the defence force (defending the whole country), our stance with regards to NATO, and/or general conscription has to be taken into consideration.
NATO has been something of a hot topic in Finnish politics since the end of the Cold War. It has usually been seen as something of a proverbial third rail: touch it and die (politically). This has radically changed since the Crimean crises this spring, with both Stubb and Haglund now openly supporting Finland joining the alliance. Of perhaps greater interest is the fact that first vice-chairman (and docent of military history) Jussi Niinistö of the usually stubbornly independent Finns Party in late July demanded an investigation about the pros and cons of a Finnish NATO-membership. The SDP on the other hand seems to try and steer away from the whole issue, with foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja immediately shooting down Niinistö’s proposal, and Rinne stating that the rise in support for NATO-membership amongst the Finnish public “doesn’t change anything”.
Finnish support for a membership has risen during the war in Ukraine, but it is still at only 26% (up from 17% last November). However, polls have also shown that a majority of Finns would support a membership, if the political leadership was in favor. This is something that Stubb has taken up, saying that what is needed is strong political leadership to guide Finland into NATO. Currently, Stubb seems to be the next prime minister, meaning that the program of our next government will be a key document to watch.
For a more detailed analysis on the legal aspects (ie. who can decide if Finland should pursue a NATO-membership), read James Mashiri’s “NATO-medlemskap kräver folkomröstning”. However, while his argumentation might be technically correct, I believe two things strongly points to another path. First and foremostly, Finland has a strong tradition of relying on indirect democracy as opposed to direct elections. This is also seen in the polls about NATO quoted above. Secondly, if the abovementioned provides the will, the way might be provided by the fact that Finland lacks a constitutional court, meaning that political decision that are of dubious legality can be passed as long as the Constitutional Law Committee, made up of MP’s, are in agreement with the government. Do note that I am NOT saying that the Finnish government has a free card to pass whatever laws they want, but the burden of proof certainly feels lower as the laws are only judged by the ones who created them (this is completely my own interpretation of how the political/juridical system works, it might be that I have misunderstood it, as I am by no means a law expert).
As an ending note, the notion that Finn’s does not feel threatened by Russia has been raised in the Swedish debate. This is not correct, as a poll by state broadcasting company YLE showed this month, with 56% saying that the developments in Russia creates a threat towards Finland, see Swedish article on YLE here: Putins Ryssland skrämmer finländarna.