Key Challenges

Faith in institutions
weakening. Cabinet
marked by tension,
lack of direction
Although Finland’s political system has long represented a model polity, current trends regarding democracy are less encouraging. Overall, public faith and trust in Finland’s democratic institutions have weakened, evidenced by relatively low electoral turnouts and declining membership in political parties. Survey data indicates that public trust in central political institutions such as parliament and government can certainly be improved. These lower levels of participation and institutional trust result in part from the instability of recent governments. This instability has been due to the necessity of coalition governments (made up of several political parties) to achieve a working parliamentary majority. The broad and unstable nature of such governments undermines government accountability and transparency as well as limits the public’s ability to fully understand and engage with the processes of policymaking. Expectations that the three-party composition of the present Sipilä government would result in a more efficient and transparent governance style have not been met. Instead, tension and a lack of direction characterize everyday politics within the cabinet; even more so in the wake of the summer 2017 split within one of the government parties (i.e., the populist Finns Party). Innovative measures and political engineering will be required to reverse the erosion of democratic participation. Revitalizing representative democracy in Finland will require the input of new participatory institutions (e.g., binding referendums). Some progress has been made in this respect. A relatively new mechanism, the so-called citizens’ initiative, obliges parliament to debate any petition that receives at least 50,000 signatures. As of the time of writing, several initiatives have undergone or are awaiting parliamentary consideration. Notwithstanding, while this mechanism marks a step in the right direction, the citizens’ initiatives are non-binding; parliament retains the right to reject any initiative.
Security, foreign policy are serious challenges
National security, internal as well as external, and foreign policy present substantial challenges for Finland. Given Russia’s political and military intervention in Ukraine as well as the deteriorating relationship between Russia and EU member states, concerns about Finland’s proximity to Russia have increased pressure on the government to form alliances with international partners. Political and public attitudes toward EU and NATO membership, which were increasingly critical before the recent security crises, are now more favorable. Current constitutional arrangements divide responsibility for foreign affairs (excluding those related to the EU) between the president and government. The indistinct basis for this duality as well as the active foreign policy leadership assumed by President Sauli Niinistö creates uncertainty about doctrine and policy both abroad and domestically.
Migrant workers needed despite opposition
The long-term increase in the longevity and the stagnating fertility rates of Finland’s population create a strong demand for migrant workers. This economic demand, however, conflicts with negative public attitudes toward immigration, represented and exacerbated in particular by the Finns Party. As evident in recent polls, however, the fractured party is now losing ground and will likely face defeat in upcoming elections. Nonetheless, the party’s previous capacity to rapidly garner support has left the major parties hesitant to pursue policy initiatives that would significantly increase immigration. Still, at the time of writing, the massive inflow of refugees and asylum-seekers to Europe and, to a lesser extent, to Finland, appears to have had a moderating effect on public opinion.
Executive capacity remains strong. No once-size-fits-all policy solution
The government’s executive capacity remains strong. The programmatic framework works reasonably well and forms the basis for strategic planning and implementation. Strategic governance is also promoted by effective interministerial coordination, the government office’s ability to independently monitor and evaluate policies, and the evident oversight capacities of cabinet committees and working groups. Interest associations and civil society groups are widely consulted when legislation is drafted. Notwithstanding, the executive capacity of local governments is undermined by inadequate funding. Reforms intended to amalgamate and restructure local government administrations have had mixed success. Importantly, plans to restructure administrative boundaries have not sufficiently taken into account the impact this will have on the constitutionally protected rights of Finland’s Swedish-speaking population. Generally, there appears to be a lack of appreciation for the contextual nature of the public-policy challenges that now confront Finland. There is no one-size-fits-all policy solution; rather, any successful solution must draw upon combinations of policies rooted in a division of responsibilities between local and central governments.
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