Image via FinnishGovernment, Wikimedia Commons

As I began to write this article, which argues that Finland today constitutes the best expression of the Nordic model, I received a discouraging note from a Finnish friend. A new government had finally been formed almost two months after the April election. The negotiations resulted in what he described as Finland’s most conservative government since the war, dominated by the centre-right Conservatives and the right-wing, nationalist Finns Party. It planned to restrict the rights of immigrants, downplay the green transformation, make it harder to strike and easier to sack employees, tighten criteria for most social benefits and increase police and military budgets while reducing development aid by a third.

Was my friend, a longtime activist with the Finnish Left Alliance, justified in his fears that this could constitute a Zeitewende, a turning point away from the Nordic model? So far, there is no indication that, although it is tightening the rules, the new government is challenging this country of 5.6 million people’s expectation of receiving high-quality universal public services. What its program does call into question is the inclusiveness of the model – its welcoming and integrating newcomers. However, recent events suggest that such a turnaround is unlikely.

The election result was unexpected. For the sixth straight year, Finland was designated the world’s happiest country by the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. For several decades, election outcomes have reflected overall popular satisfaction, producing oversized multiparty coalitions transcending right-left polarization. The expected outcome of the spring election was thus of outgoing Prime Minister Sanna Marin’s Social Democratic Party leading another such coalition. But it was not to be. Unexpectedly, the surging Finns won more votes than the Social Democrats (20.1 versus 19.9 per cent), making it possible for the Conservatives (who came in first with 20.8 per cent) to look to their right for a coalition partner.

This development is all the more disappointing since in the last decade, Finland had been replacing Sweden as the fullest incarnation of the Nordic model. In Sweden, criminality surged in the wake of the uncontrolled opening of its doors to migrants between 2013 and 2015. This brought a backlash in the form of the rise of the anti-immigration Sweden Democrats, who won more than 20 per cent of the vote in 2022 and are now influential in the policies of the Conservative-led government.

Especially given the closeness of the vote, I am hesitant to see in the recent election results a parallel development in Finland. Finland is not like Sweden. To see this, we need to take a brief look back at Finland’s unique past. But first let us draw from a recent detailed analysis of the election campaign and results by Kimmo Grönlund and Kim Strandberg.1

No questioning of democracy

After finishing first in the election of 2019, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) formed a coalition government with the Centre Party, the Green League, the Left Alliance and the Swedish People’s Party (SFP). The three left-green parties were ideologically coherent and their cooperation in government went smoothly, as was the case with the SFP, which habitually works with coalition governments, left and right. This was not the case for the more conservative Centre Party, which forced Antti Rinne, who had led the SDP to the 2019 election victory, to resign after less than six months in office. Sanna Marin was chosen to replace him as SDP leader and proved a popular Prime Minister.

In the 2023 election campaign, the main opposition parties, the Conservative National Coalition Party and the populist, right-wing Finns Party took the initiative and came in first and second, slightly above the SDP. The SDP in fact gained votes over 2019 as a result of Marin’s popularity, but at the expense of its smaller coalition partners. Thus, unexpectedly, the Finns found themselves in a coalition with the Conservatives.

Interestingly, according to Finnish researcher Fredrik Malmberg, overall trust in political institutions actually rose compared to 2019. On a ten-point scale,

The lowest level of trust in both the current and the previous surveys can be found for politicians (x̄=5.39) and political parties (x̄=5.49), where responsibility becomes more personified compared to institutions such as the parliament (x̄=6.48) and the government (x̄=6.62) … The highest level of trust can be found for the president (x̄=8.41) … (who) does not partake in the same way in daily politics … The European Union has been the least trusted institution in previous FNES studies (x̄=4.95 in 2015 and 5.09 in 2019), but average trust levels were significantly higher (x̄=6.00 in 2019 and 6.21 in 2023) … a development argued to be a consequence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.2

Nothing in the vote suggested any questioning of democracy, with 96 per cent of the respondents expressing a preference for a democratic type of governance in Finland. Support for liberal democracy was confirmed when the Finns faced a challenge to their participation soon after the new government was formed.

First, Economy Minister Vilhelm Junnila was forced to resign over repeated references to Adolf Hitler and the Nazis on social media and in campaign ads, which he described as jokes. Then, an old blog post was made public in the Finnish media in which the (then anonymous) Finns leader Riikka Purra – Finance Minister in the new government – wrote, “If I was given a gun, there’d be corpses” after a child of migrant background had mimicked shooting her with his fingers. Purra apologized for making inappropriate comments in the past, but added that the media took many statements out of context, exaggerated and misquoted others and failed to recognize sarcasm.

The government was forced to issue a statement affirming strong support for human rights and equality. Prime Minister Petteri Orpo said, “Every minister in the government will renounce racism and commit to active work against racism in Finland and internationally.” Purra added that “I and the Finns Party and everyone else will stand behind this announcement as a whole.” These statements reassured the centrist Swedish People’s Party, which had contemplated leaving the coalition.

Something deeper than election results

I first went to Finland in 1991 for a four-month research visit based in Turku/Åbo on its southwestern coast and returned to teach on several occasions afterward. This was just as the Soviet empire was coming apart. Unlike neutral Sweden, which emerged strengthened after World War II, Finland found itself much weakened and vulnerable. After signing the Nonaggression Pact with Germany in August 1939, the USSR sent troops into Finland and captured the eastern province of Karelia. The Finns attempted to regain the territory from Russia when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in 1941, but after heavy losses Finland was forced to accept a costly peace in 1944. It suffered further losses in joining the war against German troops in the north.

When World War II gave way to the Cold War, Finland had no choice but to be bound by an agreement with the USSR that imposed strict neutrality on its foreign policy. It was only in 1995, after the demise of the USSR, that Finland was able to join the European Union, and now, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to seek and gain admission to NATO.

My first arrival coincided with a challenging time for Finland. With the disintegration of the USSR, Finland had to overcome its dependence on Soviet markets, which it did by developing a world-class system of research and development, first through its high-tech “champion” Nokia. There were hard times again after 2007 when Nokia lost its dominant position in communications systems. But once again, Finland proved resilient.

One manifestation of that resilience was that Finland was able to react to the COVID-19 pandemic faster and better than most countries. As the OECD noted, “The Finnish government’s effective crisis management has mitigated the shocks.”3 It hasn’t been easy: it’s hard to replace the jobs and incomes of workers in cities dominated by a company, typically a paper mill, in a declining industry. The OECD recently shifted its prediction of a full economic recovery from 2022 and 2023 to 2024.4

Weighed down for decades by reparations to Russia, Finland went through struggles that gave rise to a wide and durable consensus in support of the welfare state. One manifestation of that consensus, according to the World Bank, is that Finland ties wealthier Norway and Denmark for the lowest level of income inequality among Western countries. (As I was writing this, I came across a report that on June 7, 2023, “A multimillionaire businessman has been hit with a fine of 121,000 euros for driving 30km/h over the limit in Finland, where tickets are calculated as a percentage of the offender’s income.”)

Finnish women were for decades the most educated in Europe; as early as 1907 a third of university students were women. Only about 10 per cent of candidates who apply to primary teacher studies are accepted. In its measure of educational performance in 2019, the OECD’s PISA study found that Finnish 15-year-olds remained near the top in reading literacy and math, far surpassing the other Nordics. Finland now ranks first for media literacy among 35 European countries.

These are expressions of something deeper than election results. Finland’s economy is characterized by openness and transparency. Tolerance of corruption is minimal. Modern Finnish architecture, in its concert halls, churches and museums, is internationally respected. Finland is close to carbon neutral, as a result of its history, its location, its land ownership rules and its renewable forests – an embarrassing comparison to Canada.

The invasion of Ukraine drove many thousands out of Russia, a large number of whom crossed into Finland. Clearly, the uncertainty as to just who was coming and for what purpose – which led to the construction of a fence – has something to do with the Finns Party surge. All things considered, I suggest that the election results can best be understood as an immediate response to ongoing developments. We should not bury the Finnish model just yet.

The Finnish electoral system

The polarization and instability of Finnish politics in the last century has been replaced by consensus and government stability under “surplus majority coalitions.”

Elections to the Finnish national parliament take place on the third Sunday of April every fourth year. The 200 seats in the Eduskunta in the last election were distributed in 13 districts including the single-member district of the autonomous Åland Island. Despite the candidate-centred electoral system, the Finnish parliament is characterized by a high level of intraparty voting cohesion, particularly among the government coalition parties.

Small parties often form alliances at the constituency level in the small districts. Alliances are generally considered purely strategic and do not involve a joint political agenda. A party can form alliances with different parties across constituencies or run independently in some districts while forming strategic alliances in others.

The aspect that makes the Finnish system stand out in comparison with most other proportional representation systems is that the fully open list makes it is impossible for parties or constituency organizations to guarantee the election to parliament of any individual candidate. Preferential voting is mandatory: to cast a vote, all voters are obliged to choose one candidate from a fairly large selection of aspirants. The sole criterion in determining the party internal ranking of candidates is the number of preference votes each candidate receives. Most parties present candidates in alphabetical order on the lists.

Decentralized nomination procedures empower the local and district levels at the expense of the central party organizations, and the pooling of votes provides parties with incentives to field a diverse set of candidates who are faced with the delicate balance of trying to maximize the collective party vote while simultaneously engaging in intraparty rivalry. And voters are overloaded with information from both a party-centred campaign at the national level and individualized candidate campaigns at the district level. Nevertheless, the system enjoys a high level of legitimacy at all levels.

Notes

1 Kimmo Grönlund and Kim Strandberg, eds., Finland Turned Right: Voting and Public Opinion in the Parliamentary Election of 2023 (Åbo, Finland: Åbo Akademi University, Social Science Research Institute, 2023), https://www.abo.fi/en/samforsk/

2 Fredrik Malmberg, “Institutional Trust in Finland,” in Grönlund and Strandberg, eds., Finland Turned Right, pp. 71–72.

3 OECD and Statistics Finland, Finland: Road to Recovery after COVID-19 (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2021), https://www.oecd.org/sdd/its/Finland-COVID-Report-May-2021.pdf

4 OECD, Finland, in Economic Policy Reforms 2023: Going for Growth (Paris: OECD Publishing, 2023).