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Founded in 1899 as the Finnish Labor Party, the Finnish Social Democratic Party (Suomen Sosialide Mokrorrinwn Puolue-- SDP) took its present name in 1903 and adopted a program that envisioned the gradual realization of a socialist society, not by revolution but through parliamentary democracy. In the 1907 parliamentary election, the SDP won eighty seats, easily surpassing the results of its closest rival, the Old Finn Party. Then, in 1916, the last time any Finnish party has done so, the SDP won slightly more than an absolute majority.
Seduced by the example of the Bolshevik Revolution in nearby Petrograd, many Social Democrats sought in early 1918 to realize long-term party goals quickly and by force. After the defeat of the left in the civil war and the departure of radical elements from its ranks, however, the SDP was reconstituted in the same year under the leadership of the moderate Vainö Tanner, an opponent of the use of violence for political ends. Although still the country's largest political party, the SDP was in only one government--a short-lived minority government formed by Tanner in 1926--until 1937. At that time, it joined the Agrarian Party (Maalaisliitto--ML in forming the first of the so-called Red-Earth governments, the most common and important coalition pattern for the next fifty years. A tempering of SDP policy on the place of the small farmer in Finnish society permitted political cooperation with the Agrarians, although the party retained its program of a planned economy and the socialization of the means of production.
It was in 1937 that the SDP first began to demand the right to collective bargaining, and the party remained closely connected to organized labor. In 1930, for example, it had formed the Confederation of Finnish Trade Unions (Suomen Ammattiyhdistysten Keskusliitto--SAK) in an attempt to counter communist influence in the labor movement. During World War II, the SDP contributed significantly to national unity, and it resisted both rightist dreams of a Greater Finland and the desires of others for an early truce with the Soviet Union.
After the war, long-standing tensions within the party caused factional disputes, between those advocating closer relations with both the Soviets and the newly legalized Communist Party of Finland (Suomen Kommunistinen Puolue--SKP) and those critical of the Soviet Union and its undemocratic methods. Some SDP members left it for the newly formed popular front organization, the Finnish People's Democratic League (Suomen Kansan Demokraattinen Liitto--SKDL), which participated in the broad popular front government formed after the 1945 elections. After the defeat of the communists in the 1948 elections, the SDP held all cabinet posts in the minority government of 1948-1950; however, thereafter the party participated in cabinets on an irregular basis, and it was riven by internal struggles until the 1960s.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, the SDP as a whole became increasingly moderate. An early indication of this move toward moderation was the party program adopted in 1952 that played down the role of class conflict and was critical of communism. Still, bitter internal wrangles continued to plague the party into the 1960s. The conflicts had both political and personal origins, but their core was disagreement about the SDP's policy toward the Soviet Union. Tanner's implacable hostility to the undemocratic nature of Soviet society had led Moscow to insist on his imprisonment as a "war criminal" after the war. His reinstatement as party leader in 1957 has generally been regarded as a factor in the Night Frost Crisis of 1958 and in the SDP's subsequent exclusion from power until 1966.
Conflicts relating to domestic politics resulted in the departure in 1959 of members close to farming interests. They formed the Social Democratic Union of Workers and Small Farmers (Työvaen ja Pienviljelijain Sosialidemokraattinen Liitto--TPSL), a splinter group that contested elections and was included in several governments until the 1970s, when it expired and most of its remaining members returned to the SDP.
The election of Rafael Paasio to the party chairmanship in 1963 ended the reign of the old leadership and brought a gradual improvement in SDP relations with the Soviet Union; another result was a gradual healing of rifts within the labor movement. These changes, coupled with the election returns of 1966 that led to the first socialist majority in the Eduskunta since 1945, allowed the party to leave the political wilderness to which it had been consigned after the Note Crisis of 1961. It participated in a strong majority government together with the newly renamed Center Party (formerly the Agrarian Party), the SKDL, and the TPSL. The popular front government passed a good part of the legislation that transformed Finland into a modern welfare state of the Scandinavian type and helped to establish the system of collective wage agreements that still prevailed in the late 1980s.
During the 1970s, the SDP moved closer to the center in Finnish politics as a result of the departure of some of the party's members for groups farther to the left and the cautious pragmatic leadership of Kalevi Sorsa, who became party chairman in 1975. Sorsa, who held this position until 1987, served from the mid-1970s until the late 1980s as either prime minister or foreign minister in all governments, which helped to remove any doubts about the party's suitability for governing.
The SDP's success in the elections for the Eduskunta in 1983, coming after the triumph of SDP politician Mauno Koivisto in the presidential election a year earlier, may have marked a high point in the party's history, for in the second half of the 1980s the SDP had trouble attracting new voters from postindustrial Finland's growing service sector. The SDP's years as a governing party, which had tied it to many pragmatic compromises, lessened its appeal for some. At the same time, the number of blue-collar workers, its most important source of support, declined. The party could be seen as a victim of its own success in that it had participated in implementing policies that brought unprecedented prosperity to Finland, which served to transform Finnish society and dissolve old voting blocs.
The party lost 100,000 votes and the office of prime minister in the 1987 parliamentary elections. The SDP remained in the government formed by the conservative National Coalition Party, however. Observers believed that the new party chairman, Pertti Paasio, son of Rafael Paasio, and other younger members of the party would have to adapt to longterm trends in Finnish society that promised to make the party's future difficult. Although the SDP registered slight gains in the 1988 local elections, it still had to contend with the same economic and social problems that made the other social democratic parties of Western Europe seem to many to be parties of the past.
More about the Government and Politics of Finland.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress