Monday, March 19, 2007

Figuring out the Finnish election

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Well, there really isn't much to figure out. In Sunday's national election, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen's centrist Centre Party won 51 of 200 seats in the Finnish Parliament, the Eduskunta, one more than the center-right National Coalition Party and six more than the center-left Social Democratic Party. (Finland uses a List-Proportional Representation electoral system; seats in the Eduskunta are allocated to parties according to their respective shares of the popular vote.)

Overall, the National Coalition Party picked up ten more seats than they did in the last election in 2003. The Centre Party lost four, the Social Democrats eight.

Vanhanen has governed in coalition with the Social Democratic Party and the Swedish People's Party (representing one of the country's key minority groups) since 2004, but, as the BBC is reporting, the "strong showing" of the National Coalition Party, or the "Conservatives," "could force [him] to realign his coalition".

Does this mean that Finland has shifted to the right? Not necessarily. The parties that finished fourth and fifth, with 17 and 15 seats respectively, are the leftist Left Alliance and the center-left Green League. The Swedish People's Party finished sixth with nine seats. The two right-wing parties, the Christian Democrats and the True Finns, finished seventh and eighth with seven and five seats, respectively. (The remaining seat is for Åland, a remote province in the Baltic Sea.) Moreover, in a pre-election poll, far more Finns wanted a Centre Party coalition with the Social Democratic Party than with the National Coalition Party.

Of course, it's all a matter of semantics. A centrist party in Europe, and particularly in Scandinavia, would generally be a center-left (even, on key issues like health care, a leftist) party in the U.S. By Finnish standards, however, the Centre Party leans to the right on some issues, such as decentralization and free trade, though it is by no means a conservative party. (It is a member of the European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, a loose union of European liberal parties.) Which is to say, a coalition with a rejuvenated National Coalition Party wouldn't be out of the question, even if the balance in Finnish politics still seems to be on the center-left.

(Speaking of which, to give some indication of the state of Finnish politics, the key issues in this election were health care, care for the elderly, support for students, tax cuts, and the welfare system. Which is to say, Finland is a healthy social democracy with a strong economy. There may be a reduction of income tax, but otherwise politics in Finland concerns mainly the management of social services.)

Regardless -- as is often the case in jurisdictions with electoral systems that tend to produce coalition governments, and this is widely the case in Europe -- it will be interesting to see which way Vanhanen goes.

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