Key Challenges

High level of trust in
institutions; coalition
cabinets represent
broad belief spectrum
Finland has been a stable democracy since independence. Much like in the other Nordic countries, surveys indicate that Finns have relatively high levels of trust in politicians and political institutions. At the same time, however, voter turnout rates for parliamentary elections is significantly lower than in Sweden, Norway and Denmark. To a certain extent, this is explained by the fact that governments in Finland have often been oversized (i.e., governments have typically commanded very large parliamentary majorities). In addition, government coalition parties represent a wide range of ideologies spanning the left-right spectrum. To take an extreme but recent example, Jyrki Katainen’s cabinet (installed in 2011) had the support of 63% of members of parliament and encompassed six parties, including the far-left Left Alliance, the Green Party and the conservative National Coalition Party. The Rinne government, installed in June 2019, was no exception to this rule, as it was made up of five parties with different ideological backgrounds (commanding a 56% parliamentary majority). It is evident that the broad and unstable nature of such coalition governments undermines government accountability and transparency, and limits the public’s ability to fully understand and engage with the processes of policymaking.
Revitalizing citizen participation
Measures have been introduced to revitalize and enhance the level participation in Finland, the most important being the so-called citizens’ initiative, which obliges parliament to debate any petition that receives at least 50,000 signatures. This initiative has been very popular. At the time of writing, 28 initiatives have been submitted to parliament. Notwithstanding, while this mechanism marks a step in a more participatory direction, citizens’ initiatives are non-binding and parliament retains the right to reject any initiative.
Russia threat prompting new cooperation; skepticism toward NATO membership
Within the field of national security, Finland faces a number of challenges. As a consequence of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its intensified activities in the Baltic Sea region, Finland has increased and deepened its defense cooperation with international partners, notably Sweden and the United States. Finland is also a member of the European Intervention Initiative. The question of whether Finland should apply for membership in NATO has been debated ever since the fall of the Soviet Union, but leading politicians, notably President Sauli Niinistö, as well as a strong current of public opinion, remain skeptical toward NATO membership. Current constitutional arrangements divide responsibility for foreign affairs (excluding those related to EU affairs) between the president and government. However, as a consequence of President Niinistö’s high popularity and former Prime Minister Sipilä’s apparent disinterest in foreign policy issues, the role of the president has been accentuated within the area of foreign policy.
Migrants could compensate for
low birth rates
Fertility rates have been dropping for almost a decade and reached an all-time low in 2018. This negative trend could be compensated by an inflow of migrant workers. Although public attitudes toward asylum-seekers and refugees remain negative, the attitude toward work-related immigration is generally positive. At the same time, support for the populist Finns Party increased steadily over the course of 2019, which could reflect a more negative popular attitude toward immigration.
Governance capacities generally strong
The government’s executive capacity is strong. The programmatic framework works reasonably well, and forms the basis for strategic planning and implementation. Interministerial coordination works well and is highly efficient. Interest organizations, various civil society groups and increasingly the general public are consulted when legislation is drafted. The Sipilä government aspired to undertake a major reform that would restructure local government as well as the healthcare and social-care systems. However, this reform was highly controversial, and as Sipilä could not find support for the reform in parliament, his cabinet resigned shortly before the April 2019 elections. The fate of the reform is unclear, but as of the time of writing, it constituted one of the biggest challenges for the new center-left government.

Party Polarization

Low level of party polarization
In comparative terms, the level of party polarization is low in Finland. In general, Finnish governments are coalition governments, often made up of parties from both the left and right. The Antti Rinne government fit well into this tradition, as it encompassed five parties representing a broad ideological spectrum, at least in a nominal sense. The most extreme example of a broad coalition in recent decades was seen when Jyrki Katainen formed a cabinet in 2011, consisting of six parties including the far-left Left Alliance, the Green Party and Katainen’s conservative National Coalition Party. The Sipilä government (2015 – 2019), however, constituted an exception to this rule, as it was made up only of three center-right parties. (Score: 9)
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