By Kyösti Karvonen
Until now, the conservative Coalition Party has never been the biggest party in Finland. It won handsomely in recent municipal elections, while the Greens overtook the far left and a populist party staged a comeback, writes Kyösti Karvonen.
More often than not, local elections anywhere pass without causing any great political stir. Municipal polls held in Finland on October 26, on the threshold of the darkest period of the northern year, proved to be a perfect exception to that rule.
The outcome produced a couple of firsts in Finnish politics, which is traditionally known for a static political pecking order with minimal changes in voting patterns.
However, the Finnish electorate went out of its way this time. Had the election been parliamentary instead of municipal, the results would have brought significant changes to the political setup on a national level.
For starters, the convincing victory of the moderately conservative Coalition Party was historic, indeed. For the first time ever in Finnish politics, excluding European Parliament elections, the Conservatives captured the number one place and left behind both the Social Democrats and the Centre Party.
The Conservatives have long been a medium-sized party, trailing even the Communists, doomed to endless opposition and often castigated as right-wingers. They remained unsuitable for government posts as long as President Urho Kekkonen held sway and the Soviets deemed them untrustworthy in foreign policy.
That period, called foreign political offside in Finnish political parlance, ended in only 1987, after some 20 years in opposition. From that on, the Coalition Party has been an all-but-permanent government party, though only a junior one, capturing second or third place in elections after either one or both of the other two major parties.
This autumn, the race for first place was a dead heat until the last couple of weeks of the lukewarm campaign. The last opinion polls predicted a Conservative victory, and for once they proved right.
The Conservative upswing started in 2006 when their candidate, the present Speaker of Parliament Sauli Niinistö, narrowly lost the battle for presidency. It continued in last year's parliamentary elections when the party lost to the Centre Party by the slightest of margins.
According to many pundits, this handsome victory may well be followed by new ones in European Parliament elections next year, parliamentary elections in 2011 and the presidential election a year later. A victory in 2011 would give the party the leading role in the government coalition, and if they won the presidency it would be the first time in some 60 years.
The Conservative victory was all the more convincing as the Centre Party, its coalition partner, took a serious beating, losing a lot of ground in its rural strongholds. In the meantime, the Coalition Party strengthened its power base in urban and suburban areas, and now forms the biggest party in the eight largest cities.
According to political analysts, the Conservatives ran a successful campaign with compelling ads, whereas the other two major parties blundered. The youthful image of the Conservative leadership also apparently appealed to the electorate. "Their political product is well balanced," political scientist Ville Pernaa expressed it in a TV interview.
Meanwhile, the elections turned into a Centre Party nightmare. The leading government coalition partner lost a huge number of council seats in its perennial strongholds across the country. The party achieved a distant third after the Conservatives and the Social Democrats.
The catastrophic result immediately started an internal Centre Party squabble. It won't lead to a fast shake-up in the party leadership, but it certainly puts the heat on Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen and party secretary Jarmo Korhonen. Vanhanen has said earlier he would be ready to chair the party until 2015. After consecutive poor showings in several elections, this one topping them all, that will be more easily said than done.
The Social Democratic Party can't really call its results good, either. In comparison to the previous municipal elections in 2004, it lost even more than the Centre Party. It was cold comfort to the new Social Democratic leadership to come in second and not third. The Social Democrats lost turf in major urban areas to the Conservatives, the Greens and the populist party called the True Finns.
The True Finns made the biggest sensation. After years on the political sidelines, the populist party made a comeback that bears comparison to its predecessor's fortunes some 20 to 30 years ago. However, the party is still a minor player in the political arena.
The credit for the victory belongs to party chairman Timo Soini, a shrewd politician, quick to crack easy-to-remember one-liners in political talk shows and parliamentary debates. The party poster was a telling example of how the party is a one-man show: it was covered by his face, which appeared eight times, Andy Warhol style.
The True Finns' spectacular showing overshadowed a more significant change in the political setup. Since World War II, the far left, under various names, has been a force to be reckoned with. The present Left Wing Alliance has gradually been losing popular support since the early 1990s. This time the party fell further as the Greens, making headway in urban areas, overtook it to become the fourth-largest party. In addition to the Conservatives’ big day, that was another fundamental change.
Despite major changes in municipal councils, the present centre-right four-party government will most certainly hold sway until 2011. The Centre Party's poor showing will cause some ripples and it may try to rock the boat a bit to polish its lacklustre public image, with possible ministerial changes or rotation.
Kyösti Karvonen is managing editor of the newspaper Kaleva
Published October 31, 2008