Government, politics and the judiciary in Finland

In 1906, the «Diet of 4 Estates» (the legislative body that was inherited intact from Swedish times) became a parliament of 200 seats called the Eduskunta. The new parliament was elected by equal and universal suffrage in a secret vote, which included women, with everyone having the right to stand for election. After having been ruled by two powerful neighbours for about 800 years, Finland finally achieved independence in 1917. The Finnish Constitution came into effect in 1919 and guarantees equality, freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, freedom of assembly, freedom of movement and the freedom to choose one’s own residence. The voting age at present is 18.

Government of Finland

The Finns are governed by means of a presidential republic. The executive government comprises the president, in council with the prime minister and the cabinet. The office of president used to have substantial powers but recently this has been reduced to a more figure-head role, although a powerful one! The president has great influence over foreign policy. The Council of State is made up of 13 different ministries and 17 ministers, plus the prime minister. The president is elected for a six-year term, while the prime minister is elected every four years by the 200-member Eduskunta (parliament). Eduskunta members serve a four-year term and are elected from 14 national districts. The parliament is a single chamber—unicameral. The Åland Islands are self-governing and have their own parliament (Landsting).

Facts: in the March 1999 election, one politician thought it would be wise to visit southern Spain and canvass for votes there, because there were so many Finns living in that part of the world.

Finland’s proportional repre-sentation system encourages a multitude of political parties. Many Finns are floating voters and easily have ten different political parties to choose between, although there are three main political parties that have long been the major players: the Social Democrats (the largest political party—left of right, but right of left), the Agrarian Center Party (rural urbanites) and the Conservative National Coalition Party. There are also the left-wing Alliance, the Greens, the Swedish People’s Party and the Christian Union. The government often becomes a coalition usually consisting of two or three of the largest parties, with one or more smaller parties.

The date of the 2007 Finnish election was near to the 100th anniversary of the first Finnish parliamentary elections, which were held on the 15 and 16 of March 1907 and were the first elections held under universal suffrage in Europe.

Nearly 4.3 million people were eligible to vote in the elections of March 2007, and the turnout was 69.7 per cent of the electorate. Altogether, 2,004 candidates were nominated, 799 of whom were women. About three-quarters of the candidates were nominated by parties currently represented in parliament. The number of female MPs rose as 84 women were elected (formerly 75), now representing a record 42 per cent of the 200 MPs. Election themes included a reduction of income tax and VAT on food. A proposal for a minimum income has been propsed by a few parties. Because of high economic growth in recent years, the government will probably have extra money to use on the welfare state.

The elections were a major victory for the opposition National Coalition Party under Jyrki Katainen. It gained ten seats and took over the position of the second-largest party in Finland. The main government partners, the Centre Party and the Social Democrats, both lost ground. With the Left Alliance also losing seats, the labour parties received the worst result in the 100 year history of Finnish democracy. For the Social Democrats, the result is the worst since 1962, while the Left Alliance has lost seats in every election since 1999. The Centre Party, despite the loss, maintained its position as the biggest party in parliament, with one seat more than the National Coalition. It is also the only time, except for the parliamentary election of 1930, that the Centre Party and the National Coalition Party together have an absolute majority in parliament. The outcome could lead to the formation of a new centre-right government and leave out the left-leaning Social Democrats in opposition for the first time since 1995. In the general election, the Centre Party won 51 seats, compared with the National Coalition Party’s 50 and the Social Democrats» 45 in the 200-strong Parliament.

The parliamentary factions are expected to authorise Matti Vanhanen, the prime minister of the caretaker government (as party leader of the Centre Party), to start formal coalition negotiations and establish the other parties» stands on issues he considers key during the 2007-11 legislative period. Mr Vanhanen is expected to pose questions on services, taxation, energy and climate to the factions and ask what issues they consider important enough to prevent them from joining a coalition. This means that the new government coalition will likely be centre-right.

Foreign Vote

There are over 200,000 people with foreign backgrounds living in Finland, but there is not a single immigrant representative in Parliament. There are estimated 65,000–70,000 immigrants from more than 150 different countries who have received Finnish nationality and are, therefore, eligible to vote, with the Russians forming the largest segment (almost 10,000). There are also 3,258 Somalis, 3,104 Estonians and about 2,000 Vietnamese.

Local government is divided into provinces (laani) with each headed by a prefect. The functions of local government include regional planning, transport, health and education. These are administered by rural and municipal communes.

Holding the EU presidency for the final six months of the 20th century helped raise the international profile of Finland. During this time, policies concerned with the «Northern Dimension» were passed. One decision which was taken was to extend the European Investment Bank’s coverage to Russia, allowing for the planning of a road bypass of St. Petersburg. A road link between St. Petersburg and the Finnish border is now under construction. As this was the first time that Finland had presided over the EU, many of their diplomats and civil servants undertook training sessions on small talk to enable them to appear more sociable.

The judicial branch of government is independent of the executive and legislature. The judiciary consists of two systems, regular courts and administrative courts. Administrative courts process cases where official decisions are contested. The president appoints the judges at one of three levels. The three levels of court in the civil and criminal cases are: the general courts, the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court. Cases are not decided by juries but by magistrates and judges. The barristers (lawyers) deliver a factual appeal (in line with Finnish culture) with much less emotion than may be familiar to some through American TV programmes. Speed and efficiency are the main characteristics of the Finnish system when compared with other countries» judicial systems. Payouts in lawsuits are generally kept to realistic levels—those in the UK would find them modest and those in America intolerable.