2019 saw broad progressive coalitions come to power across the Nordic countries. In Sweden and Finland, Greens joined social democrats, socialists, and centrists to take national office. Political systems based on cooperation require compromise but determining who to ally with and when always raises critical questions of identity, tactics, and strategy. Simon Otjes sat down with two fellow political scientists to discuss the Green path to government in Finland and Sweden and explain what lessons it may hold for parties approaching power.
Simon Otjes: The Finnish and the Swedish Green parties are both in government as part of progressive coalitions. But despite the similar current situation, Finland and Sweden have very different political systems. How do these parties fit into their wider political landscapes?
Jenni Karimäki: The history of the Finnish Greens is in line with the history of other Green parties. Throughout the 1990s, the party stabilised its position in Finnish politics and became a normal member of the party system. In 1995, they became the first Green party in government. They learnt how to be in government and to accept that governing requires compromises. Since then, the Finnish Greens have been in coalitions with left-wing parties, such as the Social Democrats and now the Left Alliance, but they have also worked with the centre-right. The Finnish Greens are now a senior government party accustomed to power.
Sanna Salo: The Swedish Greens are a more traditional Green party in the sense that they have remained more marginal. This is often attributed to ideological inflexibility. Swedish politics is divided into blocs of left and right and the Greens are part of the left-wing bloc. Whereas Finnish politics is more pragmatic, politics is more ideological in Sweden.
Acting as a minor part of a left-wing bloc has made it difficult for the party to advance its own agenda. Saying that, the Swedish Greens have been rather influential for their size in immigration policy as governments have depended upon their support. For a long time, the Greens moved immigration policy in a more liberal direction, but this has changed in more recent years.
Is the main difference between the Finnish and Swedish systems the strong bloc politics in Sweden versus the more pragmatic, but chaotic politics in Finland?
Jenni Karimäki: Finland has a long and strong tradition of pragmatic, flexible coalition building. These structural differences have had a significant impact also on how the parties act within their party-political systems.
The Green economic agenda consists of elements from both the left and the right, and staying outside or ahead of the traditional socio-economic cleavage is an integral part of the Green self-image.
Sanna Salo: The Finnish system may appear chaotic, but it is just more flexible. It also reflects the fact that there is no reason per se to think that Green parties would be left-wing parties. Having worked for the Finnish Green party in the late 2000s, I wouldn’t say that it was a left-wing party. Some figures were more to the right on social-economic issues and law and order, obviously not the far right but still centrist. It is somewhat surprising that in the European context the Greens are considered to be on the left.
How do the Greens in Sweden and Finland differ from other parties in those systems?
Jenni Karimäki: The Finnish Greens have always resisted positioning themselves on the traditional left-right continuum. Currently they are in a broadly left-wing government but in municipal politics, the Greens have often co-operated with the centre-right National Coalition Party. The Green economic agenda consists of elements from both the left and the right, and staying outside or ahead of the traditional socio-economic cleavage is an integral part of the Green self-image.
The largest difference between the Greens and the left-wing parties is where their support comes from. The left-wing parties have traditionally had support from workers, unions, and factories. This is something that the Greens have never had and, in many ways, never even aspired to have. They are instead supported by young people, women, students, and people with a university education – the traditional Green party base seen elsewhere in Western Europe. This difference has affected the policies that the Greens and the left-wing parties have promoted.
Mainstream parties are beginning to recognise their role in inequality, the huge lack of housing, and a very liberal immigration policy and how these trends have fed the growth of the Swedish Democrats.
Sanna Salo: Left-wing parties and the Greens, in Sweden and Finland as elsewhere, differ regarding the trade-off between growth and employment and saving the climate. The support base of the Social Democrats comes from heavy industry and the working class who would benefit from preserving the traditional industries. The Greens are all for creative destruction and going forward towards a green world, which would mean death or at least major transformation for these industries. The Social Democrats need to think about their support base and the Greens’ goals are therefore very difficult for them.
Saying that, from my research on the radical right, our image of the social-democratic and left-wing party bases is changing. Not only are radical right-wing parties increasingly taking their traditional voters, but the Social Democrats are increasingly mobilising higher-educated segments of society. Whilst the Greens and the radical right are mirror images of each other in terms of their support, the Social Democrats are oscillating between the two and their political offer is a mix of policies directed towards their traditional support and more middle class-oriented measures. In this sense, the support base of the Greens, the Social Democrats, and the left-wing parties are moving closer together.
What explains the emergence of the Finns Party and the Swedish Democrats? Can these right-wing parties fit into future coalitions and, if not, does it mean that large numbers of voters are politically excluded?
Sanna Salo: The situation in Sweden is unsustainable. The Swedish Democrats have 25 per cent in the polls and are indeed currently excluded. I’m not making a normative statement, but the reality is that the mainstream right has taken steps towards talking with the Swedish Democrats and are not suffering from the same slump in support as it did last time it tried.
The understanding of support for the Swedish Democrats has evolved. The analysis used to be that it is a single-issue racist party whose supporters are also racists. This view explained the parties’ success through individual attitudes to be corrected rather than structural features of Swedish society. Mainstream parties are beginning to recognise their role in inequality, the huge lack of housing, and a very liberal immigration policy and how these trends have fed the growth of the Swedish Democrats. Whether or not they become mainstream, the size of the Swedish Democrats means that they influence coalition building and policy.
Jenni Karimäki: Finnish political culture has a tradition of either marginalising protest movements or in making them take responsibility as part of a governing coalition. In 2015, the Finns Party already entered government under Timo Soini. This is how Finnish politics works: if a party is big enough and it compromises, it enters government.
Now it’s different with Jussi Halla-Aho as the party chair because ethno-nationalistic tendencies are becoming more prominent in the party. Other Finnish parties will have a lot more difficulty coming to terms with that if they are to cooperate with the Finns Party. But still, if one looks at history, it is very likely that the Finns Party will enter government in the future.
Under what circumstances did the Green parties enter government this time around?
Sanna Salo: In Sweden, the government formation process was messy and took about six months. The Greens certainly weren’t winners in the elections. The Swedish Greens suffered a huge setback in June 2018 when the government made a U-turn on immigration policy. Many supporters were dissatisfied, and the party only scraped the threshold, almost dropping out of parliament entirely. It is curious that they went into coalition with the Social Democrats. When your support is so weak, it would be easier to grow quickly in opposition than as a junior coalition partner.
The biggest differences so far within the government have been between Greens and the Centre Party on the level of ambition of environmental and climate policy.
Two things were decisive. First, the Greens were reluctant to work with the Centre Party and the Liberals because they do not trust them on environmental issues, but cooperation on the city level in Stockholm opened the way nationally for a government with the Social Democrats tacitly supported by the Centre Party. Second, ultimately, the current government is the Swedish version of the Grand Coalition to isolate the radical right. New elections would have likely meant the Swedish Democrats becoming the largest party.
Jenni Karimäki: Considering the expectations and the result, it was obvious that the Finnish Greens were going to enter government. The real question was how many ministries they would have and what the programme would be like. The Left Alliance and the Social Democrats generally go into governments and opposition together to avoid too much competition between left-wing parties. This time it was clear that the Greens would enter government because the Social Democrats, the Left Alliance, and the Greens share the same kind of social-cultural politics regarding immigration and, particularly the Greens and the Left Alliance, a strong emphasis on environmental politics. It was a bit surprising that the Centre Party chose to remain in government and did not enter opposition to raise their support.
What did the two Green parties secure in the government programmes?
Jenni Karimäki: The government programme has the clearest Green stamp of any government ever in Finland. The Greens are pleased with the ambitious entries in the government programme regarding environmental issues and climate action. The biggest differences so far within the government have been between Greens and the Centre Party on the level of ambition of environmental and climate policy. In the long run, the Greens and Centre Party especially are going to clash on this issue.
Sanna Salo: In Sweden, the environmental agenda is ambitious and is continuing the work of the previous government that pushed through a climate law and an aviation tax. But, as in Finland, climate and environmental issues have become rather mainstream. The Greens have the ministries for the environment, housing, equality, and development. The Greens have been very active on the huge lack of affordable housing in Sweden. While the Swedish Greens have more ministers, five in total, the Finnish ministries are weightier, reflecting the fact that the Finnish Greens were a real winner with three times as much support as their Swedish counterparts.
As long as the socio-cultural cleavage stays prominent, the Greens in Finland will do well as the polar opposites of the Finns Party.
Jenni Karimäki: The Finnish Greens have the Ministry of Environment, which is the traditional Green post, but for the first time in Finland they also have one of the most important ministries. Pekka Haavisto, two-time minister and two-time party chair, is now the minister for foreign affairs in Finland. Maria Ohisalo, current party chair, is the minister of the interior, which is another new ministry for the Greens. Holding more prominent posts is a testament to strong support and credibility, but there is a potential downside to having to deal with issues that are not essentially green as they come to your table. The minister of the interior can promote a liberal stance on immigration and emphasise comprehensive security (such as tackling poverty as means to enhance security) but will also have to oversee complicated issues that might not look good politically speaking.
How do the programmes link environment and social policy to overcome potential tensions between them?
Jenni Karimäki: Investment in logging plants in central and northern Finland has already been a source of clashes in government. New logging projects would bring jobs to areas that desperately need employment but environmentally the Finnish forests may not be able to bear the scale of logging required. Cutting down large numbers of trees would undermine Finland’s ambitious carbon neutrality goals. This issue is yet to be resolved both in government and within public debate.
Sanna Salo: The overall framing of the programme in Sweden has been to reach environmental goals in a socially equitable way but it is hard to pinpoint actual examples of how they can be put together. The green revolution has been combined quite success-fully with entrepreneurship, however, and this has acted as a bridge between the Greens, the Centre Party, and the Liberals.
How do you see the prospects for the Finnish Greens and are there any lessons for Green parties elsewhere?
Jenni Karimäki: As long as the socio-cultural cleavage stays prominent, the Greens in Finland will do well as the polar opposites of the Finns Party. As long as issues such as immigration, climate change, equality, and the European Union are politically relevant, the Greens have an opportunity to remain strong and may grow even bigger. In the culturally liberal side of the Finnish political spectrum, they are distinctive and strong compared to the traditional parties that are internally divided regarding socio-cultural issues. The absence of a liberal party in Finland has given the Greens space to offer a distinct ideological perspective. The Finnish tradition of compromise has also benefited the Greens and made them more adaptable. But this is a structural feature of Finnish politics, not something entirely down to the party.
Sanna Salo: In Finland, a similar rhetoric of blocs is starting to emerge as in Sweden. The concept of “green-left” is increasingly common. The Finnish Greens have never naturally been part of a left-wing bloc but cooperation with the Social Democrats and the Left Alliance might strengthen this perception. Joining a left-wing bloc may not be good news for the Finnish Greens because ideological flexibility, a distinct profile, and cooperation with different coalition partners have served them well up to now.
This interview is part of our latest edition, “A World Alive: Green Politics in Europe and Beyond”.