Finland Table of Contents

Supreme executive power is held by the president, assisted by the Council of State. The president also has legislative power exercised in conjunction with the Eduskunta. As of 1988, the president is to be elected for a six-year term either directly by the Finnish people, or if an absolute majority is not reached, by a college of 301 electors selected in the same election. Previously the president was elected indirectly by the college of electors.

As of 1988, there was no limit on the number of terms a president might serve, but in the late 1980s legislation was being discussed that would permit no one to serve more than two consecutive terms. The president's only formal qualification is that he or she be a native-born citizen. Once elected, the president must renounce all other offices, and, with the aim of being a nonpartisan head of state, must cease being a member of any political party. His election, separate from that for the Eduskunta, gives him a distinct mandate that theoretically elevates him above routine politics. Another advantage of his long term in office is that it brings to Finnish political life a continuity that it has often lacked.

The president is not politically responsible to anyone. He can be removed from office only if the Eduskunta decides by a three-quarters majority that he is guilty of treason. He would then be tried by the Supreme Court. The risks that such freedom from political responsibility entails are lessened because most of his executive decisions can be carried out only by means of the Council of State, and his legislative powers are realized through the Eduskunta.

The president's power to dissolve parliament and to call for new elections gives him, in theory, considerable influence over parliament, but ultimately he must work with an Eduskunta elected by the people. If he cannot convince a majority of the voters or the members of the Eduskunta to support his policies, he cannot act. An indication of the importance of this central element in Finnish parliamentary practice is that the Eduskunta has been dissolved only once--in 1924--against its will. The other half dozen dissolutions were caused by the inability of the government to agree on a common course of action.

It is the president who decides what legislative proposals are sent to the Eduskunta, although in practice government bills are drafted by the Council of State and are sent to parliament after presidential approval. Failure to sign them within three months of their passage amounts to a suspensive veto on the part of the president, a veto which can be overridden by a simple majority of the Eduskunta after new parliamentary elections. Both the presidential veto and the Eduskunta override have been rare occurrences.

Another important presidential power involves the formation of new governments. The president has the formal power to nominate ministers, but his choices are bound by what the parties seated in the Eduskunta will accept. His choices must correspond to the chamber's political composition. Within these limits, though, the president's force of character and political will influence the formation of a government. The president also has the right to dismiss ministers, either individual ministers, or, if he wishes, the entire cabinet. The president may issue decrees about details of public administration, as long as these measures are not contrary to laws passed by the Eduskunta. The right to change laws is a parliamentary prerogative, although an emergency law may grant the president this power in times of crisis, as was done in World War II.

The president nominates all senior civil servants, high judges, provincial governors, diplomats, professors at the University of Helsinki, high churchmen, and the chancellor of justice. In making these appointments, however, the president rarely departs from the names suggested to him by appropriate authorities. As commander in chief of the armed forces, a position he may delegate during wartime, as was done in World War II, the president also nominates military officers.

The president has the power to grant pardons and general amnesties, but the latter require the approval of the Eduskunta. Individual immunity may also be granted by the president, in accordance with certain provisions of the law. Moreover, the granting and the revocation of citizenship require the signature of the head of state.

The Constitution Act gives the president the responsibility for directing foreign affairs, and his authority in this area has grown markedly since World War II. The occasion for the decisive shift of presidential activity from principally domestic concerns to foreign relations was the threat a changing world order posed for Finland's survival; the crucial roles, played by President Paasikivi in formulating a new foreign policy and by President Kekkonen in consolidating it, restructured the office they held. Their success increased the prestige and the strength of the presidency beyond the formal powers already prescribed by the Constitution and enhanced the president's role as head of state.

By the late 1980s, however, a long period of stability both at home and abroad made the security and the direction provided by a strong and authoritative president seem less essential for the country's well-being, and there was serious discussion about limiting his power of intervention in the political process. Legislation was being prepared that would circumscribe his right to dissolve the Eduskunta and his role in the formation of governments; in the latter case, he would be required to take greater cognizance of the wishes of leading politicians. Other reforms likely to be realized in the next decade included curtailing the president's right to dismiss ministers, arranging for the direct election of the president, and limiting the president to two consecutive terms in office. Mauno Koivisto, first elected president in 1982 and reelected in 1988, supported reducing the traditional powers of the presidency. Observers held that these reforms would augment the governing roles of the prime minister, the cabinet, and the legislature and that they would mean that Finnish political practices came to resemble more closely those of other West European parliamentary democracies.

More about the Government and Politics of Finland.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress