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Some reflections on coalition building (in light of UK and Finnish experience)

Something has been nagging at me since the True Finns’ election success on Sunday. I think it’s because I am struggling to answer this question: why must True Finns be brought into a governing coalition?

This question was brought into focus in a Twitter discussion with Mia Välimäki:
[blackbirdpie url=”http://twitter.com/#!/mialeenasofia/status/60055951830556672″]

The essential gist is: True Finns ‘won’, the others (particularly the Centre Party) ‘lost’, and because Finland has a tradition of broad based coalitions the True Finns should of course be brought into the government. I’ll call this the winners criterion.

This is not too dissimilar to the debate last year in the UK – Labour ‘lost’, the Tories had ‘won’, and a Lab-Lib coalition would look like a government of losers, hence it was perceived to be a non-starter.

But this is surely an excessively media-centric way of looking at coalition building, for there are at least two other factors that should be brought into consideration, namely the likelihood of being able to form a stable government (stability criterion), and – most important of all – how much of their party programmes the coalition parties are going to be able to carry out (programme criterion). How this relates to Finland is summed up thus by Taneli Heikka:

Finns are used to seeing political ideologies as something practical and rhetorical, tools that can be changed or abandoned after the election. […] If consensus prevails, we will have a majority coalition government with the National Coalition Party, True Finns and Social Democrats. Political differences are watered down, and the electorate will be betrayed.

If the Finnish coalition is to be composed of Kokoomus (National Coalition Party), Social Democrats and True Finns, it meets only the winners criterion (although Kokoomus and Social Democrats actually lost seats!) However, with Kokoomus and the Social Democrats close on many issues, True Finns would have a hard time getting much of their policy programme adopted by the coalition, and how stable would such a government be?

Compare this to a possible coalition of Kokoomus, Social Democrats and Centre Party. This fails on the winners criterion, as all parties lost seats (and Centre lost 16 seats and vote share dropped by more than 7%), but would surely be better placed to form a stable government, and to allow all three parties to put in place large parts of their party programmes. Of course Mari Kiviniemi has already ruled out such a coalition… as Centre ‘lost’. The 2008 Austrian election produced a result like this, with SPÖ and ÖVP (both ‘losers’) forming a grand coalition after the election.

There are numerous problems with either option, not least in terms of media portrayal of what happens. If the True Finns are in, it’s possible to imagine how the press will berate other parties for neutering their influence. If True Finns are out, the press will bemoan their exclusion. Whichever way these are interesting times for Finnish politics, and the art of coalition building.


6 Comments

  • Elina Kiiski |

    I find it interesting to make a comparison here to Sweden. In Sweden the big parties said in advance that they won’t be in the same government with Sverigedemokraterna. In Finland none of the parties except the Greens would not rule True Finns out in advance as a possible partner in the government. So in general everybody always keeps their options open, the coalitions end up being wide and nothing changes in politics, no matter how you vote. So people can’t take voting decisions knowing what they will be standing for actually. At least this has been the case last years. Of course the victory of the True Finns was so remarkable that it differs dramatically compared to what happened in Sweden. But this is something that was impossible to know in advance and no one except the Greens said clearly that what True Finns stand for does not go.

    Now it will be interesting to see if the True Finns will adapt to the old tradition of consensus, where nothing changes or will they go ahead with their own mind set. So far the system has managed to crush in the alternatives. A good example of this is what happened with the Greens, who stayed in the government which voted for more nuclear power. And the Greens have until now been the alternative party for the three big ones. So it is not surprising that for an ordinary Finn it seems one must go into extremes if one asks for change.

    So somehow I feel we are in a point that something must change. If True Finns goes along with the old traditions of the consensus and nothing changes, it will cause even more hopelessness among people (even if I personally absolutely would not like to see kind of changes that True Finns are standing for). On the other hand this should be the point where the old parties should clean the table and offer something real for their supporters. Because I also hope that the success of True Finns would create resistance that would lead into something of a new era of Finnish politics and towards reform of the old consensus politics to be closer to parliamentary consensus rather than horse trading consensus.

    In Finland the consensus is most often seen as something positive that has enabled us to work together, but I feel the system has gone too far. Consensus should not mean no alternatives. And no alternatives and arrogance of the old parties has in my opinion taken us to where we are today: having 20% of the people voting for the only thing that seems like an alternative. It is sad.

  • Taneli Heikka |

    Interesting proposal. I could even support taking Centre into a coalition, were it not for the election finance scam (which you mention in you Guardian piece). There, Centre party was the main perpetrator. The party did change it’s chairman in June 2010 because of this (though they never admitted publicly this was the reason), and frankly all but outsourced the general election Finland should have then had to the Centre party conference. Due to that, this election was the first time the public had a chance to say what they think of the issue. And they were quite clear. Although it’s impossible to say what amount of the loss really comes down to that election finance scam, it perhaps would be too much to include Centre in a coalition right now.

  • Joonas Jokamies |

    Winners criterion: Definitely. Even I would vote for True Finns (direct translation would be basic or common Finns) if they are now excluded from the government. I would expect someone to take slightly more radical measures instead of waiting 4 years. All three large parties have worked together for so long, that normal people can´t tell the difference in their actual politics (rhetoric aside). The Centre party got caught with several cases of blatant corruption and the previous prime minister besides being a disgrace in international politics couldn´t even score a hairdresser without causing a public embarrasment.

    Stability criterion: That will remain to be seen. If you look at some political maps (based on one set of questions, so not necessarily very descriptive) the parties are not in the very opposite extremes (since everyone in Finland is a social democrat at heart). Let´s give the True Finns a chance before knocking them out. http://www2.hs.fi/extrat/kotimaa/puoluekentta/ or http://www.loitto.com/tilastot/hsvaalikone11/kartta/

    Programme criterion: There will be a few problems here, such as energy policy and attitude to EU politics. The rest is just common social democracy. Since the “green” tax reform is already done, it will be hard to change this policy. National Coalition and True Finns will find common ground in supporting Finnish industries and social policies of SocDem and True Finns are not that far apart. And of course everyone has promised to help Finnish unemployment (and naturally they will end up with policies that actually make it worse). The chairman of the True Finns seems to be quite practical politician who will make compromises in order to gain power. So he has to be reasonable in his demands in order to get to the government.

  • J-P Kaleva |

    If one sees this from a realpolitikal perspective, for a party in a position of True Finns governmental liability, especially as a minority partner, is often a kiss of death. This was the way, how the predecessor of True Finns, Finish Rural Party, was ravaged and thus I wouldn’t be surprised if quite many policy makers would silently see bringing True Finns to a governing coalition as the easiest way to destroy them.

    All in all, I would say that Finnish “consensus” is a result from the fact that is impossible to form a single party government or even a left wing government in Finland. This forces all parties to ponder what the principles they are not ready to sell are. As Elina already pointed out, for the last government Greens were ready to accept the fact that they are in government that builds nuclear plants, for the one before that Social Democrats (PES-Finland) sold property tax, and at the same time there is a rising opposition in the National Coalition Party (EPP-Finland) considering that their policies in the government are far too socialist (Interestingly I would claim that this germinates from the fact that many young members of the party are highly influenced by the blogs of Republicans and Tories).

    Therefore, although I do agree with Elina about the fact that True Finns most probably will mash the illusion of harmony among the governing coalition, it will not change the fact that if a party wants to be in a governing coalition in Finland, other parties in the government will force it to sell some of its principles.

  • Lemmy Caution |

    Huh? The True Finns an Social Democrats have the same agenda on the economy. Problem is, they need to sack in with the Coalition to get a majority in parliament. Between the three they can horsetrade easier, if the Coalition gave up and the SocDem would try to establish a “redneck” government, they would need to get the Left Alliance to sack in. The Swedish would agree to anything as long as the language status quo was kept and the Christian Democrats as well as long as gay marriage was out of the question. But the numbers dont add up. So blueredneck it will be to keep the consensus. On the other hand if Kokoomus left the True Finns and SocDem into opposition theyd be facing a nasty ride.

So, what do you think ?