05 April 2023

After the elections in Finland: Coalition options and European policy implications

By Manuel Müller
Sanna Marin bei einer Tagung des Europäischen Rats
Sanna Marin will probably not be a member of the European Council for much longer. But her European career might not be over yet.

It was an exciting week in Finnish politics: on Thursday 30 March, Türkiye became the last remaining member state to ratify Finland’s accession to NATO. This marked the successful completion of the most important political project of the government led by Sanna Marin (SDP/PES). Three days later, on Sunday 2 April, Finland elected a new parliament – and three of the five governing parties suffered heavy losses. Marin’s SDP gained ground, but ended up in third place behind the liberal-conservative Kokoomus (“National Coalition Party”, EPP) and the right-wing Perussuomalaiset (“The Finns”, PS/ID). The country is therefore on the verge of a change of government. However, difficult coalition negotiations lie ahead.

The starting point

The Finnish party system is traditionally characterised by a strong consensus orientation and high flexibility of the parties in forming coalitions. The head of government usually comes from the strongest party. In recent decades, this has always been either the SDP, Kokoomus or the agrarian-liberal Keskusta (“Centre Party”/RE).

Since the euro crisis, the PS have also gained in weight and have made their mark with typical new-right positions: against the euro bailout, against immigration, against the Corona measures, against a liberal gender policy, against ambitious climate protection. Unlike some other EU countries, there has never been a cordon sanitaire against the far right in Finland: Already in 2015, Keskusta and Kokoomus formed a coalition with the PS, which, however, split shortly afterwards and became more radical. In the following years, the PS managed to grow further, especially in rural areas and mostly at the expense of Keskusta. In the 2019 elections, they came a close second.

Sanna Marin’s five-party coalition

The winners in 2019 were the Social Democrats, who formed a five-party coalition with Keskusta, Vihreät (“Greens”/EGP), Vasemmistoliitto (“Left Alliance”/EL) and the small Svenska Folkpartiet (“Swedish People’s Party”, SFP/ALDE). At the end of 2019, Marin became Finland’s youngest prime minister ever at the age of 34.

The centre-left coalition’s term in office was marked by the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. In both cases, the government was widely credited with successful crisis management. As a young and charismatic woman, Marin also attracted an amount of international media attention highly unusual for a Finnish politician. Her modern communication style made her the most popular politician in opinion polls, but also broke with the conventions of Finnish politics, which have traditionally been based on restraint and sobriety. Her term in office was accompanied by several scandals (such as the so-called “Partygate”), which often flared up over trivialities and eventually led to accusations of sexism against her conservative critics.

Unity on NATO accession
Petteri Orpo bei einem Treffen der Europäischen Volkspartei
Petteri Orpo will certainly become a more familiar face in the future.

During the election period there were repeatedly tensions within the government between the struggling Keskusta and the other coalition partners. For a short time in 2021, this even put Finland’s ratification of the Covid-19 recovery instrument NextGenerationEU at risk. On the other hand, the response to Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine was uncontroversial: The NATO accession process initiated in 2022 was carried out with the support of all government and opposition parties. Even the parties traditionally most sceptical of NATO (the Left, the Greens and the PS) supported the new course.

From an electoral perspective, however, the winner of the NATO accession process was the liberal-conservative Kokoomus, which had long advocated a strong orientation towards the West and closer ties with NATO. After Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Kokoomus’s poll ratings rose sharply, and at the start of the election campaign their leading candidate, Petteri Orpo, was the clear favourite to become prime minister.

Disputes over economic and financial policy

During the election campaign itself, however, foreign and European policy issues played almost no role at all. The focus was rather on how to deal with the national debt, which has risen sharply over recent years, also as a result of the pandemic. Other campaign issues included the inflationary rise in the cost of living, the introduction of a four-day week, the liberalisation of the state monopoly on alcohol and betting, climate change and reforestation, the lack of skilled labour and immigration policy, and the situation of Finland’s renowned education system, which in recent years has slipped from the top to the upper midfield in the PISA tests.

By Finnish standards, the debates were unusually tense. The fact that Marin called the PS an “openly racist party” and categorically ruled out a coalition with them broke with the traditional openness to alliances among the major Finnish parties. Moreover, Kokoomus and SDP clashed on financial and economic policy. While Orpo called for social cuts in order to reduce the budget deficit, Marin focused on more state revenue through higher economic growth and closing tax loopholes.

The results

The results.

In the course of the election campaign, Kokoomus’s lead over the SDP melted away, while the PS kept catching up. The resulting three-way head-to-head race for first place led to increased tactical voting, especially at the expense of the Greens and the Left. In the end, all three major parties made gains compared to the 2019 election, with Kokoomus finishing just ahead of the PS and SDP.

Keskusta, on the other hand, continued its decline, falling behind the PS in all its rural strongholds. The share of seats held by the small parties, which in addition to Svenska Folkpartiet include Kristillisdemokraatit (“Christian Democrats”, KD/EPP) and the small liberal-populist Liike Nyt (“Movement Now”/–), remained unchanged.

Coalition options

As the winner of the election, Petteri Orpo’s Kokoomus will now be the first to try to form a coalition. Orpo kept his options open during the campaign and even hinted at a preference for a right-wing alliance with the PS. Such an alliance would easily find a common line on austerity on the financial and economic issues that dominated the campaign, even if the PS’s radical demands on European and immigration policy could cause conflict.

However, a majority in parliament would require additional coalition partners, and it is unclear which parties would be willing to do so. Each possibility has its own obstacles:

  • Keskusta: A renewal of the 2015 coalition would mean a clear shift to the right for the country. But Keskusta’s appetite for a new participation in government is low: After a second successive election defeat, many members would go into opposition and raise the party’s own profile rather than settle for a role as junior partner.
  • Svenska Folkpartiet: The party of the Swedish-speaking minority is quite flexible in its policies as long as its core interests – the protection of the Swedish language and culture in Finland – are preserved. In the past, it has therefore served as a majority provider for various coalitions. The national populism of the PS, however, threatens precisely these core interests, and the party leadership has ruled out participation in “a government that pursues PS policies”.
  • Kristillisdemokraatit and Liike Nyt: A right-wing alliance with the other small parties would have exactly 100 of the 200 seats in the Finnish parliament – one too few for a governing majority. The party leader and only member of Liike Nyt (who left Kokoomus only five years ago) also said he was not available for cooperation.

For lack of alternatives in the right-wing party spectrum, Kokoomus might ultimately opt for an alliance with the SDP after all. Together with the Greens and/or the SFP, such an alliance would have a majority in parliament; a similar coalition already existed from 2011 to 2014. However, the substantive differences in financial and economic policy are greater today than they were then. This option would therefore also require difficult negotiations.

European policy implications

The general approval of the Finnish population for the European Union rose to a new record high in 2022; in Eurobarometer surveys, around three quarters of the population see EU membership as “a good thing”. Unlike people in many other member states, however, Finns trust their own national parliament more than the European Parliament, according to Eurobarometer. Overall, the EU is perceived strongly through the lens of foreign and security policy and hardly played a role in the election campaign.

Nevertheless, the outcome of the coalition negotiations could have a considerable impact on Finland’s future European policy. The PS in particular are strongly opposed to further European integration. In their manifesto for the 2019 European elections, they even declared Finland’s withdrawal from the EU as a long-term goal. In view of the pro-European mood in the country, party leader Riikka Purra somewhat qualified this demand during the recent general election campaign, but did not withdraw it. According to her, increased integration is “not the right way for Finland” and the country should pay more attention to its own national interests in EU negotiations. Under a right-wing government, Finland could therefore become a more difficult partner in the EU, especially in climate and migration policy.

A coalition of the three most integration-friendly parties?

A possible coalition between Kokoomus, the SDP and the Greens would bring together the three most integration-friendly parties in the country. In terms of European fiscal policy, Finland is likely to remain on the brakes: Already in the last years, the Marin government has been a close partner of the Frugal Four (the Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Denmark), which rejected an expansion of the EU budget. Kokoomus, who is seeking austerity even for Finland itself, is even more sceptical about transnational financial transfers. Only the Greens came out in favour of more common European debt before the election.

However, a government with Kokoomus and the SDP is likely to be more open to institutional reforms such as the extension of majority voting in the Council. The common foreign, security and defence policy, the accession perspective for Ukraine and other countries, and the protection of the rule of law in the EU would also remain important priorities for Finland. All in all, the new NATO member could be expected to show greater commitment to foreign and European policy in such a coalition.

And Sanna Marin?

Finally, another European side effect of the Finnish election could be related to the person of Sanna Marin: In recent weeks, she had already been mentioned as a possible leading candidate for the European Socialists in the upcoming 2024 European Parliament election.

She herself has not yet commented on these speculations. But the results of the Finnish parliamentary election – in which her party gained votes also thanks to her personal popularity, but she herself will in all likelihood lose the post of national head of government – will now in any case allow her to set her sights on new political posts.

This article was first published in German as part of the EU electoral monitor of the Institut für Europäische Politik (IEP) Berlin.

Pictures: Sanna Marin: European Union [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr; Petteri Orpo: European People’s Party [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr; electoral results graph: Manuel Müller.

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