Implications of the Finnish Parliamentary elections for the upcoming Council Presidency and European elections

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This weekend’s Parliamentary election in Finland saw the Eurosceptic True Finns Party come within a whisker of winning the most seats, gaining 17.5 % of the vote. This meant the party came within 0.2 % of the winning Social Democrat Party (SDP). In what some have touted as the return of the centre-left, domestically this was seen as more of a defensive victory for the party - a term often used in Finland to describe an ice hockey game where the performance of your goalkeeper, rather than your team’s offensive capabilities, secure a victory. The SDP result of 17.7% of the vote and 40 seats in a 200-seat parliament was sure to be a disappointment for a party that had consistently polled at over 20% between June 2018 and March 2019. The party will nonetheless now be the first to try to form a coalition in a landscape divided between three large parties (each taking over 15% of the vote), three medium parties (between 10-15% of the vote), and three small (less than 5% of the vote) parties. The big losers of the night were the Centre Party who saw their seat share shrink by 18, while all other major parties made gains. The Greens and the Left Alliance both increased their vote share, gaining 5 and 4 seats respectively.

Challenging coalition negotiations foreseen ahead of Council Presidency

With so many parties occupying such an equal share of seats, to achieve a comfortable majority of around 120 the SDP will have to look to bring with it at least three or four other parties into government, into what would verge on another “rainbow coalition”. This will not be the first time Finland has seen such a broad coalition, to varying degrees of success. While the one led by former Prime Minister Paavo Lipponen presents a good example, the one under current Commission Vice-President Jyrki Katainen when he was Prime Minister struggled to bring together diverging policy priorities. While a broader coalition built around the centre-left and centre-right might eventually provide the country with stable governance that compromises and converges in the middle, it does not make for easy negotiations between coalition partners. This will mean a tight timeframe for Finland to have a government in place before it takes up the rotating Council Presidency in July. The election result also means ministerial groups in the Council are likely to be led by newcomers to ministerial roles, given the SDP was last in government nearly 20 years ago.

The most immediate implication of the election result is that the dispersion of votes is likely to result in drawn out negotiations to form a government. Where the previous coalition negotiations in 2014 began in early May and ended just under a month later, the negotiations for Katainen’s Government in 2011 were not concluded until two months after the elections, in mid-June. Were negotiations to take similarly long this time, it pushes the timeline very close to the Council Presidency start date, giving Ministers little time to acquaint themselves with the issues they should be leading work on. To this end, SDP leader Antti Rinne told newspaper Helsingin Sanomat that he would like to see negotiations concluded by the end of May to allow ministers time to familiarise themselves with their portfolios.

However the challenging negotiations will be made even more difficult by the fact that the SDP has a very narrow mandate to become the Prime Ministerial party, gaining only one seat more than the True Finns and two more than the National Coalition Party (Kokoomus). This significantly weakens the party’s position at the head of the negotiating table. There are also rumblings in the media that some members of the SDP are unhappy with Rinne’s leadership, having associated the smaller than hoped-for vote share with his less than dazzling performances in televised debates. Rinne also experienced health issues leading up to the elections, another factor seen to have affected the SDP’s success. So what happens when you have a weak party with a weak leader heading up negotiations?

There is already speculation in the Finnish media that the traditional negotiation dynamics of the largest party posing questions to other parties and whittling down potential coalition partners could be turned on its head. Parties trailing the SDP by a few seats may look to pose their own questions to test the strength of the SDP. They will not only be looking to gauge their compatibility with an SDP-led government, but possibly to also sniff out any chance of muscling themselves into the Prime Minister’s seat or at the very least use it as leverage to get more of their policies on the agenda. If other parties do indeed take a more aggressive approach, one would imagine that internal forces within the SDP may re-evaluate whether it is worth still having Rinne lead negotiations. The party’s deputy leader Sanna Marin, who was also acting leader during Rinne’s illness, has proved a popular figure within the party and is seen as a strong candidate for future leader. In the elections she personally received 19 087 votes, the sixth largest number of votes out of any candidate in the country. Her personal popularity begs the question of whether the party’s dream of over 20% of votes could have been reached had she stayed in charge.

The Centre Party seems to already be playing itself out of government, with former Prime Minister and leader Juha Sipilä announcing that he would be stepping down, with an extraordinary party conference to be held in September to select a new leader. This combined with the loss of seats indicates the party is expecting to find itself in the opposition, however the SDP will be keen to keep its options open. The change in leader would also make it much easier for both the Greens and the Left Alliance to reconcile being in a coalition with the Centre Party. Both were very unhappy with the direction of the Sipilä Government and would have struggled to enter a coalition with a Centre Party still led by him. Pundits in the national newspapers are floating a coalition between the SDP, centre-right Kokoomus, the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party (RKP) as a likely option. The Left Alliance, another winner in the elections having increased its seats by 4 to a total of 16, has also expressed interest in entering government and is perhaps in some ways a more natural ally for the SDP. However if the Centre Party is out of the picture, the SDP will almost surely need Kokoomus on board, whose policy positions will be far more challenging to reconcile with those of the Left Alliance.

This all further reinforces the point that Finland is likely to be in the process of forming a government right up until taking up its seat at the helm of the Council. Depending on the ultimate shape of the coalition, priorities for the Presidency will live alongside the changing political landscape. The SDP has set out its four priorities for the Presidency as promoting the social dimension and welfare, Arctic and Nordic connectivity, the circular economy and climate policy, as well as tackling tax avoidance. If the Greens do make it into government, they will push for more ambition on climate policy, whereas Kokoomus will likely want to see increased focus on economic growth and competitiveness.

European elections likely to mirror parliamentary election results

In about a month’s time, on 26 May, Finland will head to the polls again to elect its MEPs and if the Parliamentary elections are anything to go by, the Finnish results will to some extent defy the Europe-wide trend predicting a decline for the two biggest political groups. Current predictions would see the SDP (S&D) gain a seat going from two MEPs to three. The True Finns (ECR) and Greens (Greens/EFA) are also both predicted to make gains, rising to three and two seats respectively. Although the True Finns still sit within the ECR Group at the moment, it is expected that the Party may join a possible new eurosceptic alliance led by Italy’s Matteo Salvini. This would mirror the change in the party seen under the leadership of Jussi Halla-aho. Kokoomus (EPP) and the Left Alliance (GUE/NGL) are expected to retain their current number of seats. The Centre Party (ALDE) is looking to lose one of its three seats, while RKP (ALDE) could be left without a seat altogether. Familiar names running for re-election include Sirpa Pietikäinen (EPP), Petri Sarvamaa (EPP), Henna Virkkunen (EPP), Miapetra Kumpula-Natri (S&D), Nils Torvalds (ALDE) and Heidi Hautala (Greens/EFA). The final list of candidates will be confirmed on 25 April.

The last time Finland held Parliamentary and European elections in the same year was in 1999. The 1999 Parliamentary elections also saw the SDP emerge as the biggest party even though it lost 12 of its seats, while the Centre Party and Kokoomus increased their vote shares to come within a few seats of the SDP. In the European elections in June 1999, marking the first time Finland elected its MEPs together with other Member States, Kokoomus and the Greens increased their vote shares while election winners SDP lost one of their MEPs and saw its vote share decline by 3.6 %. In looking at what clues this may provide to the outcome this time around, it is worth noting that turnout in the European elections in 1999 was poor, standing at just over 30%. The 1999 general election also saw a decline in turnout compared to the 1995 election, dropping by 3% to 65.3%. This combined with the fact that this time around the SDP gained seats, rather than just holding onto enough seats to still be the largest party as was the case 1999, means they are unlikely to see a repeat of the 1999 result in European elections where despite winning the elections, they lost an MEP. Further to this, turnout for the 2019 election stood at 68.7 % and there is a sense that voters are mobilised and engaged, which could help the SDP keep the momentum it has as the number one party in the polls. However, this is also likely to favour parties such as the True Finns who could see their voter base further mobilised if the party is seen to be shut out from coalition negotiations.