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Finland Takes a Giant Green Leap

By Silja Kudel

The Green League emerged as a major victor in Finland’s April 9 municipal elections, winning 12.4 per cent of the national vote and consolidating its foothold as the second-largest party in the Finnish capital. The populist Finns Party meanwhile saw a drastic decline in support – contradicting the myth that right-wing populism is sweeping Europe.

“This is a historic victory for the Greens – it is a vote in favour of softer values,” rejoiced Ville Niinistö, the outgoing chair of Finland’s Green League, beaming as the election results rolled in late on Sunday evening. Niinistö added that Finnish voters were ready for more humane reforms as an alternative to the austerity policies advanced by the current government.

The Green landslide hardly came as a bolt from the blue, however: for weeks, the polls had been predicting that the Greens could overtake the right-wing National Coalition (Kokoomus) as the largest party on the Helsinki City Council.

In the end, Helsinki’s mayoral race significantly influenced the election result, with the National Coalition’s popular mayoral candidate Jan Vapaavuori carrying his party to victory with nearly 30,000 votes – more than any other candidate in the country.

The Greens nevertheless won over 24 per cent of the Helsinki vote and – as the jaw-dropping surprise of election night – almost 12.5 per cent of the national vote, marking a significant gain on the 8.5 per cent won by the Greens in the 2015 parliamentary elections.

Tree-hugging upstarts?

As the nation’s fourth largest party, the Greens – no longer dismissible as tree-hugging upstarts – are a political force to be reckoned with in Finland. Holding 15 seats in the Finnish Parliament, they also wield considerable power at municipal level, especially in larger cities. While the party platform might be described as leftist on the political spectrum, most Green Party members reject rigid left-right categorisation.

Slowly but surely, the Greens have been gaining momentum on Finland’s consensus-driven political landscape, where broadly-based coalitions have been the norm since the 1990s. This is now the third year in government for an unpopular coalition of three parties led by Prime Minister Juha Sipilä’s agrarian Centre Party. They are joined in government by the conservative National Coalition – which polled at 20.7 per cent – and the right-wing populist Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset).  The Greens are currently in opposition with the Social Democratic Party, which polled at 19.4 per cent.

Borrowing from our children

Many of the disputed austerity policies pursued by the current government have played to the advantage of the Green League, which has campaigned visibly for investment in education and green technology. The conservative government’s controversial education spending cuts have meanwhile met with a strident public outcry.

“The present government is doing our children no favours. While the current right-wing government has pursued divisive policies, we in the opposition have worked to build a more egalitarian, ecological society that takes care of everyone,” states MP Emma Kari of the Green Parliamentary Group.

In the lead-up to the municipal elections, the Greens won over a growing tribe of urban voters with election promises focusing on better schools, cleantech investment, and an agenda of tackling poverty and inequality.

“We are borrowing this planet from our children. I believe the merit of a society is measured by how well we treat our weakest citizens. I strongly believe that investing in education guarantees a better future for us all,” adds Kari, who is slated as a strong contender for the Green League chair.

‘No’ to populist swagger

Although the Finnish Greens have consistently been strong performers in major cities, the rural vote remains their Achilles’ heel. The Finnish rural and working-class electorate traditionally slant towards conservatism, in which respect Finland mirrors the urban-rural divide exemplified by recent developments such as Brexit and the Trump victory. Last night’s local election result nevertheless suggests that Finland – for one – is growing tired of xenophobic swagger.

While it was a big night for the Greens, the undisputed biggest losers were the Finns Party, who took a surprise victory in the 2011 parliamentary elections riding on the back of anti-immigration sentiment and EU scepticism. In the intervening years, immigration has emerged as a hotly contested issue in Finland, with migrants and asylum-seekers being among the favourite targets of sharply worded attacks from the Finns Party.

Now, however, the right-wing populists appear to have lost votes with their openly hostile stance on migration, while the Greens have gained favour among liberal voters with their agenda of openness, inclusivity, and humane reform.

‘Yes’ to green urbanism

It would be erroneous, however, to attribute the Green victory solely to their critical stance on populism and the unpopular right-wing government. In all major cities, the Green League has appealed to voters by advocating an agenda of more compact urban development, efficient public transport, biking infrastructure, and vibrant urban culture.

Liberal green urbanism has found enthusiastic backing particularly among the growing number of young families who are choosing to reside in city centres rather than outlying car-oriented neighbourhoods.

The Greens’ progressive party platform is also widely endorsed by educated voters. The party has consistently been one of the strongest advocates of same-sex marriage and the termination of universal male conscription. In 2015, the Greens included a universal basic income as a key proposal in their platform.

Half-baked reforms

With Finland about to embark on a sweeping reform of its social welfare and healthcare system, the 2017 municipal elections mark a fork in the road in many respects. The government proposes to create new administrative regions larger than municipalities and to incorporate all healthcare providers as potentially profit-making companies. Various experts have voiced objections to these reforms as a half-baked plan that is being rushed through Parliament.

Party chair Niinistö has stated that the right-wing government is proceeding too hastily with the “marketisation” of the existing national system, thereby jeopardising the right to equal services for all. While private sector health care companies are lobbying fiercely in favour of reforms, the Greens are campaigning to retain firm public control rather than seeking questionable cost gains at the expense of the disadvantaged. The reforms are scheduled to take effect 2019 – a timeframe described by many as naively optimistic.

“In preparing for these reforms, the most important priority for the Greens is to guarantee that all residents of Finland – irrespective of their income level and place of residence – retain their right to high-quality social and healthcare services,” concludes Kari.

 

FAST FACTS: THE GREENS IN FINLAND

  • Registered as political party in 1988
  • In 1995, the Finnish Greens were the first European Green party to be part of a state-level Cabinet.
  • The last Finnish parliamentary elections were held on 19 April 2015.
  • Chairperson: Ville Niinistö
  • Record-breaking result in municipal elections of April 9, 2017: 12.4 per cent of national vote, over 24 per cent in Helsinki.
Finland Takes a Giant Green Leap