Sunday, 5 June 2011

Wot? No Government?

On 17 April 2011, Finland held parliamentary elections. Seven weeks later, the country is still without a new government!

Problem? What problem?

Now, I have to be honest here: I know very little about the Finnish political system or Finnish politics. But it does strike me as odd that a country should have such difficulty getting a government.

In May 2010, the UK had a general election that resulted in a hung Parliament, for only the second time since 1929. Following that election, it took ages to form a coalition government – a whole 6 days! It really would be unthinkable in the UK to be without a new government for weeks!

The peculiar Finnish situation arises, in the first instance, because Finland operates a form of proportional representation in its parliamentary elections. This means that elections result in multiple parties getting into parliament, with no party obtaining an absolute majority. Consequently, Finnish governments are always coalitions.

However proportional systems work in many countries, and indeed has worked in the past in Finland also. So where's the problem this time?

The answer, it seems, is Perussuomalaiset (True Finns). This populist and nationalist party has thrown a spanner in the works by winning nearly 20% of the votes in the elections. Their unwillingness to compromise on some of their radical policies mean that they have excluded themselves from the goverment negotiations. As a result, “mainstream” parties from traditionally opposing sides are now trying to form a government together. Hence the delay it seems.

This would remain a local Finnish problem if it wasn't for the key role Finland plays in a potential bailout of the southern European economies, most notably Portugal. Finland is one of the 6 Eurozone countries with a top (triple-A) credit rating, which allows the EU to borrow money cheaply to help out other economies. Finland is also the only Eurozone country that requires parliamentary approval for such bailouts. The Perussuomalaiset party have made it clear they will vote against any bailout (their success in the elections is in part a result of public resentment of earlier bailouts).

All this does not really seem to phase the Finns or their politicians. On June 1st, foreign minister Alexander Stubb tweeted: “New dynamic in government negotiations. Socialists and the Left Alliance walk out. Politics is an intersting [sic] trade. Right?”

I have been wondering though: what about the current ministers? Presumably, quite few of them will lose their job when the new government is eventually formed. How motivated must they be right now? Imagine being told you are being made redundant: how much effort would you put into your job? Could politicians be different? Would they have so much integrity that they would keep working hard?

Mmmm, politicians, integrity?


  1. I have just been reminded that Belgium has not had a government for nearly one year now. Question: do we need governments at all?

  2. "As a result, “mainstream” parties from traditionally opposing sides are now trying to form a government together."

    That's nothing new. It has been done before.
    The (former?) big three in Finnish politics are SDP (Social Democrats), Keskusta (Centre Party, former Maalaisliitto, Agrarian League) and Kokoomus (National Coalition).
    The government has traditionally been formed by two of these.

    "Question: do we need governments at all?"

    Yes, because the alternative is to put all issues through a general vote in the parliament. While that is a good idea for voting on issues, it is an insane way to govern the country, because the legislative work and all the work leading to voting simply is cut out for that.

  3. Good points well made. As I said, I am not very familiar with Finnish politics, so I am looking at it from an outsider. My question then is: why is it taking solong to form a government, esp. if these parties are used to working together?

    As for the "do we need a government" question, it wasn't meant to be taken seriously!

  4. *the work leading up to voting simply isn't cut out for that.

  5. The situation is a bit funny. Everybody lost except True Finns.

    The elections results were somewhat of a vote of confidence for the current government. Keskusta dropped hard. Vihreät (Green League) also lost seats. However, Kokoomus became the largest party because people voted them to counteract True Finns. Despite Kokoomus, the current government is now in minority.

    So, how come a vote of no confidence?
    Well, SDP bounced back to being the second largest party, Vasemmistoliitto (Left Alliance) lost only 3 seats (Vihreät lost 5) and then there's True Finns. They have nationalist views and racist overtones, which would make them right populists, but many of their other positions are leftist and their voters could traditionally be considered leftist (protest voters, old industrialist working class, other underclasses, etc.) if only they ever voted.

  6. The negotiations have been slow so far.

    The rise of True Finns really stirred the pot and were seeing the effects of that. (I'd like to see them change the face of politics. The more change, the better.) Previously there were essentially only three possible majority governments. Now there's technically more possibilities and moreover two major parties no longer form a majority in parliament.

    I think Kokoomus has tried to push their views a bit too hard considering how they are now in minority. I also think the left is also finally catching up to how much the right has pushed through their agenda in recent years and are finally starting to push back.
    (Note that politics in general has taken couple of steps to the right *globally* after the collapse of the Soviet Union.)

    The chairman of Kokoomus was appointed as the negotiator as they "won the elections". On the election night Keskusta voluntarily dropped out, as the results were that bad. Vihreät also initially expressed their doubts.

    True Finns (Perussuomalaiset) essentially kicked themselves out of the negotiations because of their position on Portugal. Kokoomus initially linked that issue to the negotiations. It was later decided by the whole parliament (as opposed to the government backed by the members of parliament of the parties forming it).

    SDP demanded that Vasemmistoliitto be let into the negotiations, because, of the remaining parties, Vihreät has been pushing economic policies of the right on the current government and both Kristilliset (Christian Democrats) and RKP (Swedish People's Party) are also considered to be on the political right.

    Things started to drag and it really seemed as though nothing was even being properly negotiated yet.

    Kokoomus (or Jyrki Katainen, to be specific) kicked SDP and Vasemmistoliitto out because of their opposite views on taxation. Apparently it was a surprise to the party negotiators. SDP and Vasemmistoliitto refused to accept raising VAT in any conditions and wanted steeper progression on taxation in general. Kokoomus, being on the political right, has the exact opposite view and wants to decrease tax progression and raise VAT, which would hit the poor.

    So now Kokoomus is trying to get True Finns and Keskusta back on the negotiations - mainly Keskusta, I think. (True Finns is still the pariah. Although to be fair some of their members of parliament are not exactly minister material.)
    Keskusta has been reluctant, though, since the drop was huge and another term on the government, essentially being lead by Kokoomus, could be catastrophic for them. They are pushing to get True Finns back on the negotiations as well.

    To spice things up, Vihreät already before the elections positioned themselves against True Finns and refused to be in the same government with them.
    True Finns have returned the favour, but if Vihreät weren't so high-handed and offensive, they could probably be brought around. There's an ideological conservative-liberal strain between them on many issues, but, to me, it seems that they could find a lot of common ground on the actual policies implemented.

  7. Keskusta will decide on Monday ("tomorrow") whether to enter the negotiations.

    It would also seem that unless something finally starts happening, the negotiator (hallitusneuvottelija) will be changed some time soon. SDP (or the chairman Jutta Urpilainen) would be the next in line, I think.

    Here are the election results.
    See also the Google translation with some notes:
    "No." should be "count"
    "Places" should be "seats".
    "E-07" and "K-08" refer to '07 parliamentary and '08 municipal elections, respectively.

  8. Glad I wrote that post. I have learnt so much about Finnish politics in 24 hours! Thanks to Anonymous(es)!

  9. To answer to the comparison with Belgium, in Belgium the difference is that the country is a federal state with the national government actually holding not so much power, and the previous government has constitutionnally the right to continue ruling the country on every day tasks (those powers have been extended by the new parliament). So it all functions rather better than anyone would have thought, although the situation is alarmingly not democratic. In Finland this kind of patch-up thing would not work, they need a government soon.

    Another difference is, in Belgium the problem stems from one party that was very successfull in the northern part of the country and therefore must be part of the next government. Only that party's main goal is the dissolution of Belgium. So they're playing against the clock in order to have the citizen's minds ready for it, and they have no interest at all in forming a government at any point.

    So while I'm confident Finnish negotiators will end of finding a common ground soon enough, because they have to, I don't have any idea how Belgium is going to get out of this situation.

  10. Wow, that was a pretty good quick lesson in what's going on out here in Finland. I've struggled to really understand much of it.

  11. Heather, I guess it's a bit like a school playground football team being formed. Everyone wants to play in their favourite position or not at all, and no-one wants the grumpy obnoxious kid on their team.

  12. Ok, the Vihreät dropped out of the negotiations based on the old government. Keskusta accepted but expects True Finns to get invited as well.

    True Finns are actually now needed for a (political-right) majority government as Kokoomus + Keskusta + RKP + Kristilliset + Vihreät would have had 105 seats and without Vihreät only 95. Unless, of course, SDP gets invited back to negotiate forming a centrist government. They won't invite Vasemmistoliitto (14 seats) back since they are to the left of SDP.

    In case you're interested, here is the current sitting order in the parliament. It is somewhat based on left/right division.
    Of course, RKP (r) is not extreme right as it would seem, but a liberal party pretty much only interested in swedish-speaking minority rights. (It is essentially funded by swedish-speaking businessmen and foundations, though.)
    Greens (vihr) are liberal, Kristilliset (kd) obviously very conservative. Keskusta (kesk) and True Finns (ps) conservative. Vasemmistoliitto (vas) was formed on by two communist parties (=conservative) but the communists left it and the party has now repositioned themselves as liberal left.

  13. To beat a dead horse, on the election results, the seat in "Muut ryhmät"/"other groups" refers to the 1 seat quota of Åland representative, who is seated with RKP and joins their group.

  14. Woohoo, Finland has a government, 2 months after the elections! And this new government even has a slogan: "Liberal, fair and brave Finland". Possibly not ththe most inspiring, but it is a coalition slogan...