By Antti Kaihovaara (University of Helsinki)
As the last votes were counted on Sunday evening, the progressive parties had most reasons to celebrate. After four years in opposition, the support for the Social Democrats, the Left Alliance and the Greens increased by over five percentage points in total. The Social Democrats came up top by grasping 17.7 percentage of the votes (40 seats), but their victory was overshadowed by the surge in support for the radical right Finns party, which rallied to the second place with 17.5 percent support (39 seats). Both of these parties arguably benefitted from the high turnout, which was partly due to the beautiful Sunday weather. The turnout of 72 % was the highest since the parliamentary elections of 1995 and half of the votes were casted before the actual Election Day. The only party losing seats in the parliament (-19 seats) was the Centre Party, which paid a huge price for the unpopular economic reforms implemented under the party leader, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä.
In comparison to the previous parliamentary elections in 2015, the parties in the socio-liberal and economically leftist corner of the political spectrum – the Social Democrats, the Left Alliance and the Greens – all increased their share of votes and number of seats in the Parliament. However, instead of a clear shift to left, the results suggest increasing polarization and fragmentation of the Finnish party system. The Finns Party received only one seat more than in the previous elections, but this hides the fact that under the leadership of Mr. Jussi Halla-Aho – who has been convicted of ethnic agitation – the party has become much more radical than it was four years ago.
Another noteworthy thing is that the Finnish party system now accommodates five to six middle-sized parties instead of a few big ones. For the first time ever, not a single party managed to receive over 20 percent of the votes. This suggests that the voters did not simply choose between leftist or rightist policies or between liberal and conservative values. The parties campaigned on different issues. For the Social Democratic party the elections were about inequality, for the Finns party about immigration, for the National Coalition party about fiscal sustainability and for the Greens about climate change.
Even though Finland is used to coalition governments, this time forming the government is arguably harder than usual. In order to secure the majority in the Parliament, the government will most likely have to include at least four parties, which will have to cooperate across ideological lines. Luckily, the ideological differences between most of the parties are not as big as one could expect based on the fierce campaigning. With the exception of the Finns Party, basically all parties are committed to universal human values, large welfare state, market economy, European Union and fighting climate change.
The government negotiations will be led by Mr. Antti Rinne, the leader of the Social Democratic Party. In spite of the fact that in the election debates he was constantly head-to-head with Mr. Petteri Orpo, the leader of the center-right National Coalition Party, these two parties are most likely to form the core of the next government together with the Greens and the Swedish People’s Party of Finland. If this is indeed the case, the next government could be described as progressive and liberal, but with conflicting views on economic policy and the economic situation of Finland. In this scenario, the decision-making will be extremely tough and the structural reforms the aging country desperately needs are unlikely to take place on a big scale.
The majority of the members of the Social Democratic Party would rather join forces with the Centre Party than the National Coalition Party. However, it is questionable how willing the ex-Prime Minister Mr. Juha Sipilä is to hold on to the power, when there is a chance to renew party’s image and regain support in the opposition. Even though it is not completely out of question, a coalition between the Social Democrats and the Finns Party is very unlikely, because this would undoubtedly leave the Greens and the Left Alliance to the opposition. Furthermore, Mr. Antti Rinne has emphasized that the ideological gap between the parties may be too wide to overcome.
The odds, that the next government would be formed before the European Parliamentary Elections at the end of May, are rather slim. However, there is a lot of pressure to have the government up and running before Finland’s presidency of the council of the EU, which begins in July. In spite of the difficult starting point, Finland has a great opportunity to prove that even in a fragmented party system, the parties can find enough common ground to form a responsible and stable government.
Photo source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/apr/14/finland-social-democrats-partial-election-result-leftwing