The History of Finland -- Suomen Historia
New Book by Historian Jason Lavery, Ph.D.

Halonen to Niinistö: Finland 2006-2012




This section of the website is an addendum to my book, The History of Finland, published in 2006. As soon as a book on history is published, it immediately starts to become dated. Current events quickly enter the past. New information and perspectives shape previous understandings of the past. This section seeks to address these changes in perspective and knowledge. This is not an exhaustive chronicle of Finland since 2006 but rather an extension of some of the themes covered in the book to more recent times. Topics are not necessarily presented in chronological order.

Education Highs and Lows

Chapters one and nine of The History of Finland discuss the significance of education in Finland’s development. Finland’s leading position in primary and secondary education has been reaffirmed by recent international surveys. In the authoritative PISA survey of 2006, Finland ranked first in the world in respect to students’ mastery of the natural sciences, second in both reading and mathematics. In a report published in 2007 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Finland ranked at the top of industrialized democracies in respect to 15 year-olds’ mastery of the natural sciences. In a separate survey, the OECD found that, of the countries surveyed, Finland required the fewest amount of hours in school from its children (1).
School systems do not exist outside of the larger society. On 8 November 2007, Pekka-Eric Auvinen, 18, entered his school in the southern Finnish town of Tuusula. Legally possessing a handgun, he shot eight people, including the school’s director, before shooting himself. Auvinen had told of his plans days before in You Tube video. Less than one year later, in September 2008, a student at a vocational school in Kauhajoki in Ostrobothnia, Matti Juhani Saari, killed eleven in a shooting rampage at his school. Investigations into these events have not yet yielded resolutions or suggestions for future policy action. Public discussion has avoided the fact that Finland has historically been a leader in violent crime in Europe. Guns are widespread, although most are firearms for hunting.
back to top

Parliamentary Elections of 2007

In March 2007, parliamentary elections again changed the makeup of the ruling coalition. The Center Party maintained its position as the country’s largest party. The biggest winner, the conservative National Coalition Party, gained ten seats and became the country’s second-largest party. The smaller non-socialist parties either gained seats and or voters. The Social Democratic Party suffered the biggest loss with eight seats. The other left-wing party, the Left-Wing Alliance, lost two seats. The resulting coalition reflected the election results. The National Coalition Party and the Center Party formed a non-socialist coalition with the smaller Greens and the Swedish People’s Party. A government of this particular makeup was a first in Finland’s history. The Center’s Matti Vanhanen returned as prime minister—a position he held during the previous center-left “red soil” cabinet 2003-07.
Several factors contributed to the victory of the center-right. Supporters of the conservative National Coalition Party were still mobilized as a result of the 2006 presidential election. In this election, the Conservatives’ candidate, Sauli Niinistö, narrowly lost to Tarja Halonen. Niinistö’s presidential campaign motto of “the time of partisanship is over” was successfully used by the Conservatives in the parliamentary election campaign. Niinistö won a seat in Parliament with 60,000 votes—a record. The Center Party and its leader, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, benefited from governing the country during a time of prosperity since 2003. For their part, the Social Democrats failed to give the voters a clear and convincing message. For example, the SDP condemned free-market capitalism in its election advertisements while having presided over much of the privatization of the economy since the 1980s (2).
The election and the creation of the new government were also significant for the cause of gender equality. The voters elected a record 84 women to Finland’s parliament. In the successive cabinet under Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (2007-2010) twelve of the twenty ministers are women, also a record for Finland. In the summer of 2010, Vanhanen resigned and handed over the post of prime minister to the new chair of his Center Party, Mari Kiviniemi, Finland’s second female prime minister in less than a decade. The Social Democrats made their own contribution to gender equality by selecting their first woman as party chair, Jutta Urpilainen, in June 2008.

The Question of the Ceded Territories

On page 135 of The History of Finland I discuss the persistence in the Finnish-Soviet dialogue of the territories ceded by Finland to the USSR in 1944, despite official renunciations by both sides of any interest in returning the territories.
The question of the ceded territories has been an issue in Finnish-Russian relations since the collapse of the USSR. In August 2007, the newspaper Kainuun sanomat reported that in 1991, Russia, then in great economic difficulty, considered selling off territory to neighboring countries including Finland. Russia made an unofficial offer of selling the Karelian Isthmus back to Finland. According to the article, President Mauno Koivisto set up a secret committee to investigate the costs. The cost of purchasing and rebuilding the territories proved prohibitive. There was also the question of Finland possibly becoming involved in Russia’s internal problems with such a transaction. President Koivisto has refused comment on the matter. Others, such as then foreign minister Paavo Väyrynen, deny knowledge of any offer (3).
In late 2007 a Finnish pensioner who left Viipuri as a small boy in 1944 filed suit in court in Viipuri for the return of the property his parents had to leave behind in the evacuation. The land in question today is the location of a daycare center. The court decided against the plaintiff. Meanwhile, many individual Finns have entered the local real estate market in Viipuri.
Over the last sixty years or so, those in Finland who seek the return of the ceded territories have failed to discuss one central question: what would be the status of those currently living in the territories should they be returned to Finland?

The Elections of 2011: The Rise of the True Finns and the End of an Era

During the 1990s, Finland started to move from a culture of identity to a culture of difference (p. 164-165). Toward the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century a backlash set in that sought to question if not undermine the protections granted to women, sexual minorities, Swedish speakers, and immigrants. The biggest manifestation of this end of a culture of difference and a desire to return to a culture of uniform identity is the rise of the so-called True Finn party.
In parliamentary elections in April 2011, the True Finn Party won 39 seats, a gain of 34 and making it the country’s third largest party. A party had not made such a huge gain since the SKP/SKDL did in the 1945 elections when it gained 49 seats from having none.
The rise of the True Finns stems from several factors. First, one must understand the True Finns’ rise in the larger context of Islamophobia that has spread throughout the Western world since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. One of Finland’s most visible immigrant groups are Muslim Somalis, who number about 14,000 in Finland or .02% of the population. A second reason has to do with the rise of immigration since the early 1990s. As I mentioned in my book (p. 163-165), Finland did not receiving start receiving immigrants, whether refugees or other kinds of immigrants, in any significant numbers until the early 1990s. While immigrants currently make up only about 2% of the entire population of Finland, and most of that population concentrated in the urban centers of the south, the growth has appeared explosive to many who never previously had to deal with immigrants. Public officials and elites that largely supported immigration never articulated a reason for increased immigration. These same groups stood silent in the face of growing xenophobic discourse and actions in the years before the 2011 elections.
In respect to the European Union, the True Finns were able to exploit their position as the only party that has consistently opposed Finland’s membership in the European Union and the European Monetary Union, or the Eurozone. During the 1990s and early 2000s when the economies of the European Union and Finland were expanding, opponents of European integration in Finland were largely marginalized and atomized in Finnish politics. As the economic situation spiraled downward into a widespread debt crisis that has affected Ireland, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Greece, the question of bailing out these economies galvanized and energized opposition to the EU. This opposition found a political home in the True Finns.
The True Finns were also able to exploit weaknesses in its historical rival—the Center Party. The first incarnation of the True Finn Party was known as the Finnish Farmers’ Party (SMP), a party that broke away from the Center Party (then known as the Agrarian League) in the late 1950s. Since then, dissatisfied Center Party voters have often voted for the True Finns and their predecessors in protest. In 2011, the Center Party had held the post of prime minister for eight years. Parties in government collect dissatisfied supporters the longer they are in power since parties have to make compromises to govern. Moreover, the Center Party had become embroiled in a variety of scandals in the years 2007-2011. In this environment, the True Finns, as in previous decades, was a refuge for dissatisfied Center Party supporters.
Like many right-wing populist parties of its kind in Europe, the True Finns have been able to exploit the decline of the working classes’ loyalty to the parties of the Left. The Social Democratic Party in Finland, like many of its counterparts in Europe, was involved in creating policies in the 1990s that are today considered the reason for growing income inequality. The Left-Wing Alliance was also in government with the SDP.

Results of 2011 Parliamentary Elections

PartySeats
National Coalition Party44
Social Democratic Party42
True Finn Party39
Center Party35
Left-Wing Alliance14)
The Greens10
Swedish People's Party9
Christian Democrats6
back to top
Lastly, during the election campaign, none of the political parties took the True Finns seriously. Predictions about a large electoral victory were rejected by political parties and the media. As a result, the True Finns were able to campaign without being called to account for their positions.
The victory of the True Finns resulted in almost two months of negotiations among the political parties for the formation of a government. Traditionally after an election the job of forming the new cabinet is given to the leader of the largest party. In this case, National Coalition Party chair Jyrki Katainen was empowered by parliament to form the next Government. Another tradition in Finnish politics is that parties that won seats in the election have a preferred position at the beginning of negotiations. The only party that won seats in the 2011 election was the True Finn Party. For weeks Katainen and others tried to entice the True Finns to enter a cabinet that would have to decide on Finland’s support of distressed countries in the European debt crisis. Ultimately the True Finns decided to stay in opposition because of their unwillingness to support any debt relief program. On 22 June 2011, a new six-party government was formed consisting of the National Coalition Party, the Social Democrats, the Greens, the Left-Wing Alliance, the Christian Democrats, and the Swedish People’s Party. Jyrki Katainen became the first prime minister from the National Coalition Party in over twenty years and only the third since World War II.

The Presidential Election of 2012

Just months after the parliamentary elections, Finns voted for a new president. All of the parties presented in Parliament put candidates into the contest. At the outset of the candidate of the National Coalition Party, Sauli Niinistö, had such a lead in the polls voters focused on who would face Niinistö in a runoff—if Niinistö failed to get a majority of votes in the first round.
In a reflection of the widespread ambivalence toward the office of president since the constitutional changes of 2000, the debate among the candidates wondered from concrete questions concerning possible NATO membership to the problem of rising xenophobia in the country. Shorn of its previous wide-ranging powers, the president is supposed to be a “leader of values.” In an increasingly diverse country, can one person be relied on to lead the values of the entire population?
As predicted, Sauli Niinistö won the first round of voting with thirty-seven percent. He fell short of the majority needed to avoid a second round. In second place came the candidate of the Greens, Pekka Haavisto with over eighteen percent. This outcome was historical in many respects. First, the Social Democratic Party lost its grip on the presidency that it had held since 1982. The SDP´s presidential candidate, former party chair and speaker of parliament Paavo Lipponen, came a distant fifth with 6.7% of the vote. If one adds the 5.5% won by Paavo Arhinmäki of the Left-Wing Alliance the Left as a whole won just over 12% of the vote. For the first time since Finland went to a purely direct election of the president in 1994, there were no women in the second round of voting. The electoral success of Pekka Haavisto, a member of parliament, former cabinet minister, and United Nations’ diplomat, was seen as a breakthrough in that he was the first openly gay candidate for the presidency.
In the second round of voting on 5 February 2012, Niinistö built on his wide margin from the first round to win 62% of the vote. Sauli Niinistö became the first president from the National Coalition Party since J. K. Paasikivi left the post in 1956.
In elections over the last decade Finns have moved from their traditional voting patterns since World War II that has emphasized primarily economic interests. The parties that have succeeded, such as the True Finns, Greens, and Conservatives, have been leveraged voters´ non-economic concerns and values.

Errata

Not only are works of history are products of their own time, they are the products of fallible scholars. Overview books such as The History of Finland are prone to have some small erroneous information in them. My book has been heavily reviewed by scholars with expertise in various fields of Finland’s history. So far, one error bears mentioning:
p. 161-62: I wrote that Tarja Halonen is an atheist. More correctly, President Halonen is not a member of the Evangelical-Lutheran Church of Finland and has participated in organizations strongly informed by Christian teaching, such as the Settlement Movement.
Footnotes:
(1)”Suomi rikkoi Pisa-tutkimusten piste-ennätyksen,” Helsingin sanomat, 5 Dec. 2007; ”Suomi taas kärkimaa OECD:n oppimistulosten vertailussa,” Helsingin sanomat, 30 Nov. 2007; ”OECD: Suomess vähiten pakollisia oppitunteja peruskoulussa,” Helsingin sanomat, 19 Sept. 2007.
(2) “Parempi olla provari,” Helsingin sanomat, 25 March 2007.
(3) ”Tutkija: Hinta ei ollut ainoa este Karjalan palautukselle 1991,” Helsingin sanomat, 16 August 2007; “Jeltsinin Venäjä laski salaa hinnan Karjalalle ja Kuriileiile vuonna 1992, Helsingin sanomat, 5 Sept. 2007.

Chat with the author at The History of Finland, Germany's Northern Challenge, etc. at jason.lavery@okstate.edu

Put e-mail address in top field and subject in bottom field to e-mail a friend: