Freedom in the World
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Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen’s Center Party suffered a setback in March 2007 parliamentary elections, as the opposition National Coalition Party made gains. However, the Center Party maintained a plurality and formed a four-party coalition government that included the National Coalition Party. The polls left Finland with the highest proportion of female cabinet members in the world. Separately, the first Finnish Muslim political party was established in September.
Finland was ruled by Sweden until the early 18th 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 since it fended off a Soviet invasion during World War II. Finland joined the European Union (EU) in 1995 after its friendship treaty with the Soviet Union became void. It has been an enthusiastic member state and is the only Scandinavian 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.
Finland emerged as a leader of the smaller states within the EU during the 2003 drafting of the EU constitution. Unlike in other member states, the proposed charter was uncontroversial in Finland, and Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen of the Center Party ruled out a possible referendum on it in August 2004.
Halonen won a second term as president in 2006, defeating the candidate of the opposition National Coalition Party. However, the 2007 parliamentary elections represented a victory for the center-right National Coalition. Although the Center Party held onto its plurality by one seat, capturing 23.1 percent of the vote, the National Coalition Party gained 10 seats, winning 22.3 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, the labor parties received less support than they ever have historically. The Communist Party received only 0.7 percent of the vote and gained no seats. The SDP gained just 21.4 percent of the vote—its worst results since 1962. Other parties in Parliament included the Left Alliance (8.8 percent), the Green League (8.5 percent), the Christian Democrats (4.9 percent), the Swedish People’s Party (4.6 percent), and the True Finns (4.1 percent). Acknowledging the shift to the right, Vanhanen formed a four-party coalition consisting of the Center Party, the National Coalition, the Greens, and the Swedish People’s Party, leaving the SDP in opposition for the first time since 1995.
The elections were historic for Finland, as 12 out of 20 ministers appointed to the resulting cabinet were women, the highest proportion in the world. In addition, 84 women were voted in as members of Parliament, capturing 42 percent of the seats. Only Rwanda and Sweden had greater female representation in their legislatures.
In September 2007, Abdullah Tammi established the Islamic Party of Finland, the country’s first Muslim-oriented political party. Though the group did not yet have enough members to qualify for official party status, it aimed to reach the threshold in time to participate in the 2011 elections.
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 deputy prime minister from the majority party or coalition after elections. The selection must be approved by Parliament.
Representatives in the 200-seat unicameral Parliament, or 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 as well as 1 seat in the national legislature. The indigenous Saami of northern Finland also have their own parliament.
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 2007, it was tied with Denmark and New Zealand at the top of the rankings, which covered 180 countries. In May 2005, 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 every citizen the right to publish printed material, 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. In 2007, two editors and the author of a letter were fined under Finland’s hate speech laws for publishing a letter containing anti-Semitic statements.
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 some 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.
Freedoms of association and assembly are respected in law and in practice. Workers have the right to organize, bargain collectively, and strike. Approximately 80 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. Finland is the only major European country that has not produced a right-wing anti-immigrant political party. In the 2007 Migrant Integration Policy Index, Finland was named one of the most accommodating countries to migrants. The state provides aid for skill recognition in the labor market and assists with language acquisition.
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, 42 percent of the delegates are women, as are 12 of the 20 government ministers. However, women in Finland earn only about 80 percent as much as men of the same age, education, and profession in spite of a law stipulating equal pay for equal work. Women are generally employed in lower-paid occupations due to a deeply entrenched idea of “men’s jobs” and “women’s jobs.” Three preachers faced criminal charges for discrimination against women in 2007 after refusing to perform a Sunday service with a female pastor in March. A trial was pending at year’s end. Domestic violence is a problem in Finland, though in 2007 police received special training to identify potential cases of domestic violence.
Finland is both a destination and a transit country for trafficked people. In 2004, new legislation came into force, making trafficking in persons a criminal offense. The Finnish government unveiled a National Action Plan to combat trafficking in 2005. It established a number of services for victims, including a national assistance coordinator, temporary residences, a witness-protection program, and legal and psychological counseling. In July 2006, antitrafficking laws led to prosecution for the first time ever, after 7 men and a woman were caught trafficking 15 Estonian women.