Freedom in the World
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In January 2006, Tarja Halonen of the Social Democratic Party was reelected for a second six-year term as president of Finland. From July through December 2006, Finland held the presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU). In September, Finland agreed to contribute 200 troops to a UN peacekeeping force in Lebanon.
Finland was ruled by Sweden until the early eighteenth century and then became a grand duchy of Russia until independence in 1917. The country is traditionally neutral, but its army has enjoyed broad popular support ever since it fended off a Soviet invasion during World War II. Finland joined the European Union in 1995 after its friendship treaty with the Soviet Union became void. It has been an enthusiastic member state and is the only Nordic country to have adopted the euro currency.
In the February 2000 presidential election, Tarja Halonen, of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), was chosen as the country’s first woman president. She defeated four other female candidates—in a total field of seven—from across the political spectrum.
In 2003, the Center Party came to power after winning 55 seats in parliamentary elections. The second-largest party, the SDP, had led the ruling coalition since 1995. It remained part of the new ruling coalition, which also included the Center Party and the Swedish People’s Party, representing the Swedish-speaking minority. Anneli Jaatteenmaki replaced the SDP’s Paavo Lipponen as prime minister, becoming the first woman to hold the post. However, just two months after she was chosen, Jaatteenmaki stepped down when it was alleged that she had leaked information from classified foreign policy documents and then lied about having done so. After Jaatteenmaki’s resignation, Matti Vanhanen of the Center Party succeeded her.
A Helsinki court unanimously acquitted Jaatteenmaki of disclosing official secrets in March 2004. However, Martti Manninen, a presidential aide who had given her the documents, was found guilty of violating the Official Secrets Act and fined 3,600 euros. Jaatteenmaki subsequently drew the most votes in the Finnish elections for the European Parliament.
Finland emerged as a leader of the smaller states within the EU during the 2003 drafting of the EU constitution. Unlike in other EU member states, the proposed constitution was uncontroversial in Finland, and Prime Minister Vanhanen ruled out a possible referendum on the treaty in August 2004.
In 2006, the World Economic Forum ranked the Finnish economy as the second most competitive in the world after Switzerland’s. Finland was ranked number one for educational and training institutions by the same index. All five Nordic countries—Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway — were in the top 15 positions.
On January 29, 2006, Tarja Halonen of the SDP was reelected for a second term as president. She defeated National Coalition Party candidate Sauli Niinistö in a second-round vote. The runoff took place after none of the candidates received more than half of the votes in the first round on January 15.
On July 1, 2006, Finland began its six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union. Major events during the presidency included the Sixth Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM 6) in Helsinki. The presidency had a pacifying effect on the run-up to the 2007 Finnish parliamentary elections, as candidates were reluctant to raise inflammatory issues while in the European spotlight.
In 2006, Finns continued to debate the proposal of abandoning their traditional neutrality and seeking membership in NATO, an issue of particular relevance given the recent inclusion of the nearby Baltic states—Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—in the alliance. Despite its past isolationism, Finland in September agreed to participate in the renewed UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) crisis management operation, sending 200 troops to the troubled region. The decision was especially controversial given the fact that an Israeli bombing had killed a Finnish peacekeeper in the town of Khiam in July.
Finland is an electoral democracy. The prime minister has responsibility for running the government. The president, whose role is mainly ceremonial, is directly elected for a six-year term. The president appoints the prime minister and the deputy prime minister from the majority party or coalition after elections. The selection must be approved by the Parliament.
Representatives in the 200-seat unicameral Parliament, the Eduskunta, are elected to four-year terms. The Aland Islands—an autonomous region located off the southwestern coast of Finland whose inhabitants speak Swedish—have their own 29-seat Parliament and have 1 seat in the national legislature. The indigenous Saami of northern Finland also have their own Parliament.
The two main winners of the March 2003 parliamentary elections were the Center Party, with 24.7 percent of the vote, and the SDP, with 24.5 percent. Other parties include the National Coalition (18.5 percent), the Left Alliance (9.9 percent), the Green League (8.0 percent), the Christian Democrats (5.3 percent), the Swedish People’s Party (4.6 percent), and the True Finns (1.6 percent).
Since 2000, Finland has been ranked as the country with the lowest level of perceived corruption in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. In May 2005, the Parliament passed a law criminalizing the acceptance of a bribe.
Finnish law provides for freedom of speech, which is also respected in practice. Finland has a large variety of newspapers and magazines, grants the right to publish printed material to every citizen, and protects the right to reply to public criticism. Newspapers are privately owned but publicly subsidized, and many are controlled by or support a particular political party. In February 2004, the Eduskunta substantially liberalized a controversial media law that had placed burdensome restrictions on internet publishers and service providers. As a result, internet traffic logging is no longer required, and online discussion groups are beyond the scope of the law. However, web publications must name a responsible editor in chief and archive published material for at least 21 days.
Finns enjoy freedom of religion. The Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church are both state churches and receive public money from income taxes, but citizens may exempt themselves from contributing to those funds. Other religious groups are eligible for tax relief if they register and are recognized by the government. The government officially recognizes 55 religious groups. Religious education is part of the curriculum in all secondary public schools, but students may opt out of such classes in favor of more general instruction in ethics. The government respects academic freedom, and privacy rights are also protected. In June 2005, Kaj-Erik Relander, the former chief executive of the telecommunications operator Sonera, was convicted of abusing communications privacy laws by ordering the illegal scrutiny of staff telephone calls.
Freedoms of association and assembly are respected in law and in practice. Workers have the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. Approximately 75 percent of workers belong to trade unions.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary, which consists of the Supreme Court, the supreme administrative court, and the lower courts. The president appoints Supreme Court judges, who in turn appoint the lower court judges. The Ministry of the Interior controls police and Frontier Guard forces. Ethnic minorities and asylum seekers report occasional police discrimination, and according to the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, Finland was found to be in violation of Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms on six occasions in 2005.
The rights of ethnic and religious minorities are protected in Finland. The criminal code covers ethnic agitation, and penalizes anyone who threatens a racial, national, ethnic, or religious group. Since 1991, the indigenous Saami, who make up less than 1 percent of the population, have been heard in the Eduskunta on relevant matters. The constitution guarantees the Saami cultural autonomy and the right to pursue their traditional livelihoods, which include fishing and reindeer herding. Their language and culture are also protected through public financial support. However, representatives of the community have complained that they cannot exercise their rights in practice and that they do not have the right to self-determination with respect to land use. While Roma (Gypsies) also make up a very small percentage of the population, they are more widely disadvantaged and marginalized.
In May 2004, a new Aliens’ Act streamlined the procedures for asylum and immigration applications as well as for work and residency permits. The new law also allowed for the granting of residency permits for individual humane reasons. Despite those changes, the number of asylum approvals has declined in recent years. Although it has experienced some racial tensions, Finland is the only major European country that has not produced a right-wing anti-immigrant political party.
Women enjoy equal rights in Finland. In 1906, Finland became the first country in Europe to grant women the vote and the first in the world to allow women to become electoral candidates. In the current Parliament, 38 percent of the delegates are women, as are 8 of the 18 government ministers. However, women earn only about 80 percent as much as men of the same age, education, and profession. Women are generally employed in lower-paid occupations due to a deeply entrenched idea of “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs.” According to the U.S. State Department’s 2006 Human Rights report, domestic violence toward women is high in Finland as compared to other countries in the region.
Finland is both a destination and a transit country for trafficked people. In August 2004, new legislation came into force, making trafficking in persons a criminal offense. In July 2006, anti-trafficking laws led to prosecution for the first time ever, when 7 men and a woman were caught trafficking 15 Estonian women. In March 2005, the Finnish government unveiled a National Action Plan to combat trafficking. It established a number of services for victims, including a national assistance coordinator, temporary residences, a witness protection program, and legal and psychological counseling. A large-scale trafficking ring from India was uncovered in Helsinki in 2006, as numbers of people being trafficked from India to Finland rose significantly that summer.