Freedom in the World
In April 2011 parliamentary elections, the True Finns—a nationalist, populist party led by Timo Soini—captured an unprecedented 19 percent of the popular vote, but was eventually excluded from the six-party coalition government. The elections attracted international attention due to the True Finns’ fierce opposition to European Union economic bailouts for Portugal and Greece. Immigration remained a politically sensitive topic during the year, and Finland made its first arrest in an anti-terrorism case in September.
After centuries of Swedish and then Russian rule, Finland gained independence in 1917. The country has traditionally been neutral, but its army has enjoyed broad popular support since it fended off a Soviet invasion during World War II. Finland joined the European Union (EU) in 1995 and is the only Nordic country to have adopted the euro currency.
In the 2000 presidential election, Tarja Halonen of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) was elected as the country’s first female president. She defeated six other candidates—including three women—from across the political spectrum. Halonen won a second term as president in 2006. In the 2007 parliamentary elections, the ruling Center Party held on to its plurality by one seat, while the National Coalition Party (KOK), a moderate conservative party, gained 10 seats; the left-leaning parties received record-low levels of support. Acknowledging the shift to the right, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen formed a four-party coalition consisting of his Center Party, the KOK, the Greens, and the Swedish People’s Party, leaving the SDP in opposition for the first time since 1995.
In February 2010, the National Bureau of Investigation began investigating accusations of malfeasance against Vanhanen over his involvement in the distribution of government funds to a nongovernmental organization that had supported his 2006 campaign. The prime minister announced his resignation in June, but cited medical and family issues for his departure. On June 22, the Finnish parliament appointed Center Party leader Mari Kiviniemi as Vanhanen’s replacement until the April 2011 elections. In February 2011, parliament voted to drop the charges of malfeasance against Vanhanen, and decided that he would not have to face a court of impeachment.
The April 2011 parliamentary elections resulted in a dramatic shift in Finnish politics. Most significantly, the populist, nationalist party True Finns, led by Timo Soini, gained an unprecedented 19 percent of the popular vote, increasing their seats from 5 to 39, making them the third largest party. The ruling Center Party was ousted with a loss of 16 seats (down from 51), representing the biggest loss of any party in post-war Finland. Every other party in parliament but the True Finns experienced either a loss or maintained their number of seats, with left-leaning parties continuing to receive less support. The elections attracted an unusual amount of international attention due to the very vocal opposition to eurozone bailouts from the vehemently, euro-skeptic True Finns. Finland is the only country in the EU that has reserved the right to put any bailout to parliamentary vote.
After two months of tense negotiations, a coalition government was formed in June 2011, comprised of the KOK, led by Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, along with the SDP, the Left Alliance, the Green League, the Swedish People’s Party, and the Christian Democrats. The True Finns withdrew from coalition talks in May when Parliament approved the bailout package for Portugal.
Finland is an electoral democracy. The president, whose role is mainly ceremonial, is directly elected for a six-year term. The president appoints the prime minister and deputy prime minister from the majority party or coalition after elections; the selection must be approved by Parliament. Representatives in the 200-seat unicameral Parliament, or Eduskunta, are elected to four-year terms. The Åland Islands—an autonomous region located off the southwestern coast whose inhabitants speak Swedish—have their own 30-seat Parliament, as well as a seat in the national legislature. The indigenous Saami of northern Finland also have their own legislature.
Corruption is not a significant problem in Finland. A 2010 law requires candidates and parties to report campaign donations of more than EUR 800 ($1,072) in local elections or EUR 1,500 ($2,010) in parliamentary elections. However, the campaign law had no major impact on campaign financing for the 2011 elections. Finland was ranked 2 out of 183 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2011 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Finnish law provides for freedom of speech, which is also respected in practice. Finland has a large variety of newspapers and magazines and protects the right to reply to public criticism. Newspapers are privately owned but publicly subsidized, and many are controlled by or support a particular political party. In March 2010, the Finnish police launched an internet tip-off system in an effort to simplify flagging threats of violence and racist slander.
Finns enjoy freedom of religion. The Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church are both state churches and receive public money from the income taxes of members; citizens may exempt themselves from contributing to those funds, but must renounce their membership. Religious communities other than the state churches may also receive state funds. Religious education is part of the curriculum in all secondary public schools, but students may opt out in favor of more general instruction in ethics. In September 2010, Finland’s Evangelical Lutheran Church ordained its first female bishop. In April 2011, a Lutheran minister was defrocked and stripped of his priestly livelihood for referring to the Chechen national Dokku Umarov as a “terrorist”. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of association and assembly are upheld in law and in practice. Workers have the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. Throughout October and November 2011, significant, weeklong strikes took place in the technology, banking, and metal/engineering sectors. However, unlike the harbor strikes of 2010, no exports or production were disrupted. Industry leaders expressed concern that adhering to collective frameworks for wage negotiations crippled Finnish industry; eventually all parties accepted mediations and returned to work. Approximately 70 percent of workers belong to trade unions.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, which consists of the Supreme Court, the supreme administrative court, and the lower courts. The president appoints Supreme Court judges, who in turn appoint the lower-court judges. Finland has been criticized by the European Court of Human Rights for slow trial procedures. The Ministry of the Interior controls police and Frontier Guard forces. Ethnic minorities and asylum seekers report occasional police discrimination.
The criminal code covers ethnic agitation and penalizes anyone who threatens a racial, national, ethnic, or religious group. The constitution guarantees the Saami cultural autonomy and the right to pursue their traditional livelihoods, which include fishing and reindeer herding. Their language and culture are also protected through public financial support. However, representatives of the community have complained that they cannot exercise their rights in practice and that they do not have the right to self-determination with respect to land use. While Roma also make up a very small percentage of the population, they are more significantly disadvantaged and marginalized.
Immigration issues remained divisive in 2011, gaining particular prominence with the political ascent of the True Finns. According to a November 2011 poll commissioned by Helsingin Sanomat, True Finns supporters were twice as likely to exhibit negative attitudes towards foreigners as non-True Finns voters. The political identity of the True Finns on this particular issue remains a controversial subject, both within and outside the party. Leader Timo Soini has sought to maintain a more moderate stance on immigration, but several high-profile members of parliament belonging to the nationalist group Suomen Sisu have expressed fierce disagreement with party leadership on this issue. Internet death threats against Minister of Migration and European Affairs Astrid Thors continued in 2011.
Women enjoy equal rights in Finland. Women hold approximately 42 percent of the seats in Parliament, and 9 of 19 cabinet ministers are women. Despite a law stipulating equal pay for equal work, women earn only about 82 percent as much as men with the same qualifications. Domestic violence is an ongoing concern. Finland remains a destination and a transit country for trafficked men, women, and children. Amendments to the Alien Act in 2006 allow trafficked victims to stay in the country and qualify for employment rights.