A Very Brief Attempt at Explaining the Finnish Election Results

The Centre Party (Kesk, agrarian centrists) under the leadership of Juha Sipilä won by far. Sipilä, an IT-millionaire and Laestadian, will be the next prime minister, and will form the next government.

The party is deeply divided on the issue of Russia, with an old-school movement in the party being markedly pro-Russian, to the point of Finlandization. These individuals did not score well in the elections, but Sipilä has given them some cautious support recently. On the other hand, there is also a pro-EU/Western movement within the party, led by international political heavyweight Olli Rehn.

The populist Finns Party (PS) under Timo Soini lost ground, but rose to the second largest party as others lost more. Leader Timo Soini, something as rare as a Finnish Catholic, has staunchly denied that the party is xenophobic, and although there certainly are members in the party that hold and express such views, the party as a whole seems more interested in making a big fuzz about Swedish-speakers, economic support to Greece, and the economy as a whole. They have often been compared to the Swedish Democrats in Sweden, though Soini repeatedly has slammed this as inaccurate. Has traditionally been anti-EU and -NATO, but since the Russo-Ukrainian wars have started, it has seemingly softened up its NATO-stance. What is certain is that unlike several other European right-wing populists, they do not like Russia.

The National Coalition Party (Kok, middle-right conservative liberals) was the ruling party under Alexander Stubb, and was predicted to be heading for a disastrous election. They lost quite a number of seats, but still came in as third largest party, only one seat behind PS, and can be seen as having done better (or less worse) than anticipated. The party is decidedly pro-EU, and the only openly(?) pro-NATO party amongst the four big parties.

The Social Democratic Party (SDP) under former union boss Antti Rinne had a minor disaster on election day, and was far outpaced by not only Kesk, but also by PS and Kok. While the party leadership is centre-left, party strongman Erkki Tuomioja leads a strong and vocal group of party members that are somewhat farther left (and closer to Russia) than the official party line. Tuomioja has also clashed publicly with a number of officers and researchers, and leaked e-mails indicates he wasn’t too popular amongst the people surrounding the outgoing prime minister.

Minor parties includes former defence minister Carl Haglund’s Swedish-speaking Swedish People’s Party of Finland (SFP/RKP), the victorious Green League (Vihr), the not-so-victorious Left Alliance (Vas), and the slightly-more-victorious-than-the-left-alliance Christian Democrats (KD).

The problem with analyzing what this means for Finland in the next four years is that no-one knows what the government will look like.

The Centre Party can choose to form a government with PS and Kok, something that might seem like a logical move. This could be said to be directly in support of what the people wanted on election day, and Sipilä could then force the populists to take some responsibility (while secretly hoping that they fail miserably, and that PS would be demoted back to a minor party in the next round of elections). The main problem with this is that having three strong parties means that if PS and Kok were in agreement, they could try and go against the prime minister’s party in individual questions, making the coalition hard to rule. Add to this the fact that he would have the ex-prime minister as one of his lesser ministers, and one can easily see problems, even before one starts to question whether they can agree on how the country should be handled.

SDP was widely promoted as the most likely candidate to join a coalition before the election, as it is the major party that currently stands closest to Kesk ideologically. However, due to its extremely weak performance on election day, this now seems less likely, with the party possibly choosing to go take four years off from responsibility to try and bolster its ranks until the next election. The strong point is that bringing SDP into the government might provide for better relations between the government and the labor unions.

Another opportunity is trying to create a coalition of two major parties and a number of minor. Of the minor parties, both RKP/SFP and Vihr would probably have a hard time sitting in the same government as Soini and his PS. RKP/SFP has sat in every single government since the 1970s, and are usually happy to be included as long as they can defend the status quo in the Finnish language policy. This has been a rather cheap political price to pay for whoever has been the prime minister at any given time, but the appearance of PS might change this. The main problem for the Greens is probably that Sipilä has emphasized trust, something which the Greens can have a hard time supplying, having ditched the former government half a year before the current elections…

Vas on the other hand faces the same problem as SDP. In fact, the joint Finnish left (in this case SDP+Vas) is on record-low levels at around 25%, and would probably have a hard time at the negotiating table. Vas have also been arguing a rather different economic policy than the rest of the parties throughout the election process, and might have a hard time sitting in the same coalition as Kok (or anybody else, for that matter).

This leaves KD, which might fit well in with all of the top-three parties in some sort of a conservative coalition, but their main problem is that they are the smallest party in the parliament, only bringing five seats to the table.

The National Security View

The parties that are in top are all positive to a strong Finnish Defence Force. Or rather, that has been the official policy before the elections. So far, this has not shown in any meaningful way. None of the parties are pushing for a public referendum on NATO, but all major parties would like to “keep the door open”.

If we get a coalition with three major conservative parties joining force, we might see a push for more money. However, the more likely way is unfortunately a slight raise in defence spendings, touted as a big increase, followed by a reduction in training hours, major surface vessels, and fighters. This will then be accompanied by a paragraph stating that “Finland will not currently strive for a full membership in NATO, but will continue its current co-operation, and keeps the possibility open to join at a later date.”

As a whole, the Finnish National Security policy is slowly starting to look like it is modeled after the Swedish, and unfortunately the current round of elections does not seem to change that.

An interesting point, is that both PS and Kok at least in theory openly support the idea that Finland should abandon the Ottawa Treaty and reacquire anti-personnel landmines. In practice, it is highly doubtful if they are prepared to pay the diplomatic price this would cost internationally, but at least on paper there exist a possibility.

Yes, in Finland you can actually be the second largest party and use the slogan “Landmines back, FOR FCKS SAKE!” in marketing.

The Spirit of Sälen: Sauli Niinistö’s views

Sauli Niinistö, the President of the Republic, opened the annual session of the Finnish parliament this week. His opening speech is available in full length here: swe / fin.

Finnish domestic politics is quite turbulent at the moment, with e.g. a large-scale, structural reform on municipalities. However Niinistö begins, not in Finland, but with “The Arab spring, Syria, and now Ukraine”. In all countries, a seemingly strong regime has been confronted by the opposition. In a fast changing world, what seemed unthinkable a week ago, or even yesterday, is suddenly a reality. What lasting effects these uprisings will have is still open, but unfortunately one of the common factors in all cases so far have been that extremist movements are trying to use the situation for their own purposes.

The president also points out that another common fact in all countries is that there is no “Enlightened despotism”, sooner or later, people have had enough of living under oppressive rulers.

On the underlying causes, the president notes that we, in Europe as well as elsewhere, have the large differences between the ‘have’ and ‘have nots’. He also warned against excess borrowing, and the damaging effect on public morale and social stability even minor sins can have if it is felt that the leaders of the society doesn’t care to follow the same rules as the common people.

Towards the end it gets really interesting. Niinistö spoke about what he calls the “Spirit of Sälen”. This, he explains, is the recognition by politicians and officers in both Finland and Sweden that as countries, we have common interests in the fields of national security and defence-related questions, and that we want to meet these together. New areas for co-operation are charted out by the defence ministers of both countries, and our aim is to handle these questions through the EU in coordination with each other. Also, the evolution of our respective partnerships with NATO is largely coordinated, and we strive for a common pace in this field as well.

“No cooperation can take the place of a nation’s own defence forces, and neither is that the purpose. However, through cooperation a nation’s defence is strengthened.”

The president also noted the need to meet the growing cyber-threat, and that updated legislation is needed. On the discussion on what level of funding is needed in order to maintain a credible defence, Niinistö stated that it is important that the discussion continues up until the coming parliamentary elections (April 2015), so that a solid base of information then is available for the new cabinet.

Interesting to note is also the continued emphasize on defence cooperation with Sweden, and the echoing of General Puheloinen’s views that NATO-membership would not make further cuts in the Finnish defence forces possible. Finally, the president used rather strong language with regards to Ukarine, by calling it an uprising and mentioning it together with countries such as Libya, Egypt and Syria. The intended audience was probably the Finnish parliament, in an effort to try to urge Finnish politicians (and in the long run the EU) to take a firmer stance on the issue.

To wrap it up, I think it is safe to say that the renaissance of the national security debate Sweden has seen in the last year is starting to ‘leak over’ into Finnish politics. Perhaps 2014 will be the year the Finnish defence discussion will reach a new level, and not just be the questions of Yes or No to NATO and general conscription. Although far from certain, re-adjusting the defence spending after 2015 back to level needed seems politically possible.

Puheloinen and NATO

The Finnish Chief of Defence*, General Ari Puheloinen, held the opening speech at the 208th National Defence Courset his week (20.1). The speech was widely reported in Swedish media with the headline: “Finnish C-in-C says no to NATO”. To put this statement into context, a recent study (14.01) showed that a majority of the Finnish officers supported the idea of Finland joining the alliance, with the higher-ranking officers (Colonels and above) being more in favor than the lower ranks.

The speech is found in its entirety on the Finnish Defence Forces home page in the form it was given (mostly in Finnish, with a brief ending paragraph in Swedish).

Puheloinen begins by talking about the defence cuts that are taking place, and the consequences they have had to date. He praises “his” personnel, and talks about the need to reform the defence forces as the organization changes. He also takes care to point out that the number of Generals is being lowered correspondingly, and that Finland has a rather low ratio of higher officers compared to other countries.

After this more or less expected introduction, he restates his point from a national defence course held back in 2012: If the defence budget is not raised by 2015, Finland will no longer have a credible defence by 2020. This is where he mentions NATO, once in the whole speech. “Being a member of NATO would not solve this challenge.” (fi. “Naton jäsenyys ei ratkaisisi tätä haastetta.”), after which he moves on and continues to note that neither will collaboration amongst the Nordic countries. However, Puheloinen states, we should still cooperate even if we didn’t experience financial troubles, as it has several benefits. The Finnish-Swedish relationship has received much attention recently, and is brought up as a prime example of this kind of work. In Puheloinen’s view, it is important that it is based on common needs and interests, and that both the contribution and benefits are shared equally by both participants. In spite of our differences, he strongly believes that fitting areas of collaboration will be found.

However, he also warns against expecting that all joint projects will bring financial savings, and cautions that although joint procurements are often brought forward as possible examples of collaboration, they are in fact amongst the hardest to coordinate (for an excellent summary of recent joint procurements by the Swedish armed forces, read this excellent post by Skipper).

To sum it all up, he ends by noting that “Through collaboration between Finland and Sweden it is possible to achieve good results, but it will require time, patience, being ready to move forward one small step at a time, and being prepared to make compromises.”

I noted with delight that he also brings up the importance of reservists, and that the training of these will again be brought up to the “appropriate” level.

I believe that interpreting Puheloinen’s statement as being a no to NATO is to read too much into the single sentence. Rather, I believe it is a reminder to our politicians that joining NATO will not make the need for defence spendings go away. I personally think it is a good speech. Puheloinen manages to take up several current issues in a short time, and he continues his custom of honestly and clearly speaking about the needs of the defence forces, in spite of the no doubt considerable political pressure to accept further cuts.

*Contrary to what some Swedish sources stated, Gen Puheloinen is in fact not the Commander-in-Chief of the Defence Forces, a position held by the President of Finland.