Government and Politics

Finland Table of Contents

SINCE THE ESTABLISHMENT of its present system of government in 1919, Finland has been one of the more fortunate members of the Western community of democratic nations. Compared with other European states, the country was only moderately affected by the political turmoil of the interwar period; it passed through World War II relatively unscathed; and, although right on the line that divided Europe into two hostile blocs after the second half of the 1940s, it survived as an independent nation with its democratic institutions intact.

This enviable record was achieved against formidable odds. Although the constitutional basis of their government grew out of long-established institutions, Finns had never been fully free to govern themselves until late 1917 when they achieved national independence. Swedish and Russian rulers had always ultimately determined their affairs. Finnish society was also marked by deep fissures that became deeper after the brief civil war (1918), which left scars that needed several generations to heal. In addition to class and political divisions, the country also had to contend with regional and linguistic differences. These problems were eventually surmounted, and by the 1980s the watchword in Finnish politics was consensus.

A skillfully constructed system of government allowed Finns to manage their affairs with the participation of all social groups (although there were some serious lapses in the interwar period). Checks and balances, built into a system of modified separation of powers, enabled the government to function democratically and protected the basic rights of all citizens. The 200-member parliament, the Eduskunta, elected by popular vote, was sovereign by virtue of its representing the Finnish people. An elected president wielded supreme executive power and determined foreign policy. Although not responsible politically to the Eduskunta, the president could carry out many of his functions only through a cabinet government, the Council of State, which was dependent upon the support of the Eduskunta. An independent judiciary, assisted by two legal officials with broad independent powers--the chancellor of justice and the parliamentary ombudsman--ensured that government institutions adhered to the law.

Working within this system during the 1980s were a variety of political parties, an average of about a dozen, ranging from sect-like groups to large well-established parties, the counterparts of which were to be found all over Western Europe. The socialist wing consisted of a deeply split communist movement and a moderate Finnish Social Democratic Party that by the late 1980s was a preeminent governing party. The center was occupied by an agrarian party, the Center Party, which had been in government almost continuously until 1987; the Swedish People's Party; and a formerly right-wing protest party, the Finnish Rural Party. The right was dominated by the National Coalition Party, which was fairly moderate in its conservatism. In the 1970s and the 1980s, the mainstream parties, and even a good part of the Communist Party of Finland, had moved toward the center, and the political spectrum as a whole was slightly more to the right than it had been in previous decades.

A constitutional system that was conservative in nature had allowed these parties to work together, yet within constraints that permitted no single group to usurp the rights of another. Nevertheless, the variety of parties had made it very difficult to put together coalitions that could attain the strict qualified majorities needed to effect fundamental changes. Only since the second half of the 1960s had it been possible, though at times difficult, to find a broad enough multiparty consensus.

Powerful interest groups were also involved in Finnish politics, most noticeably in the negotiation and the realization of biannual income policy settlements that, since the late 1960s, had affected most Finnish wage-earners. Interest groups initially negotiated the terms of a new wage agreement; then it was, in effect, ratified by coalitions of parties in government; and finally the Eduskunta passed the social and economic legislation that underlay it. Some observers complained that government's role had become overly passive in this process and that the preeminence of consensus actually meant that Finnish politics offered the populace no real alternatives. Yet most Finns, remembering earlier years of industrial strife and poverty, preferred the new means of managing public affairs.

There was also broad agreement about Finnish foreign policy. The country was threatened with extinction as an independent nation after World War II, but presidents Juho Paasikivi and Urho Kekkonen, both masters of realpolitik, led their countrymen to a new relationship with the Soviet Union. The core of this relationship was Finland's guarantee to the Soviet Union that its northeastern border region was militarily secure. Controversial as the so-called Paasikivi-Kekkonen Line was initially, by the 1980s the vast majority of Finns approved of the way Finland dealt with its large neighbor and were well aware, too, of the trade advantages the special relationship had brought to their country.

Working in tandem with good Finnish-Soviet relations was the policy of active and peaceful neutrality, the backbone of Finnish foreign policy. Advocating, as a neutral state, the settlement of disputes through peaceful, legal means was a role Finns adopted willingly. A high point of this policy was the part the country played in planning and in hosting the 1975 Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Another facet of active neutrality was a committed membership in the United Nations, most notably in the organization's peacekeeping forces.

Constitutional Development

The Constitution
Council of State
Legal System
Civil Service
Provincial Administration
Local Administration
Electoral System
Aland Islands
The Social Democratic Party
The Center Party
The National Coalition Party
The Communist Party
The Swedish People's Party
Smaller Parties and the Greens
Interest Groups

For more information about the government, see Facts about Finland.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress