Freedom in the World
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The February 2012 presidential election saw a clear victory for the center-right National Coalition Party’s Sauli Niinistö. The True Finns, a nationalist and populist party that had enjoyed major gains in the 2011 parliamentary elections, continued to oppose the European Union’s economic bailouts for heavily indebted eurozone members. However, Parliament approved a Spanish bailout package in July.
After centuries of Swedish and then Russian rule, Finland gained independence in 1917. The country has traditionally been 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 and is the only Nordic country to have adopted the euro as its currency.
Tarja Halonen of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) won the 2000 and 2006 presidential election, becoming the country’s first female president. In the 2007 parliamentary elections, the ruling Center Party held on to its plurality by one seat, while the National Coalition Party (KOK), a moderate conservative party, gained 10 seats; the left-leaning parties performed poorly, with the SDP losing 8 seats. Acknowledging the shift to the right, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen formed a four-party coalition consisting of his Center Party, the KOK, the Green League, and the Swedish People’s Party, leaving the SDP in opposition for the first time since 1995.
In February 2010, the National Bureau of Investigation began probing accusations of malfeasance against Vanhanen over his alleged involvement in the distribution of government funds to a nongovernmental organization that had supported his campaign. The prime minister announced his resignation in June, but cited medical and family issues for his departure. Parliament then appointed Center Party leader Mari Kiviniemi as Vanhanen’s replacement until the April 2011 elections. In February 2011, Parliament voted to drop the charges against Vanhanen.
The April 2011 parliamentary elections resulted in a dramatic shift in Finnish politics. The KOK and SDP took 44 seats and 42 seats, respectively, while the ruling Center Party captured 35 seats, down 16 from the previous election, and was ousted from power. The populist, nationalist party the True Finns, led by Timo Soini, gained an unprecedented 19 percent of the popular vote, increasing its seats from 5 to 39 and becoming the third-largest party in the legislature. The elections attracted an unusual amount of international attention due to the vocal opposition to eurozone bailouts from the vehemently euroskeptic True Finns.
A coalition government was formed in June 2011, led by Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen and comprised of the KOK, the SDP, the Left Alliance, the Green League, the Swedish People’s Party, and the Christian Democrats. The True Finns withdrew from coalition talks in May when Parliament approved an EU bailout package for Portugal.
Pro-EU and pro-euro former finance minister Sauli Niinistö of the KOK handily won the presidency in February 2012, defeating the Green League candidate, Pekka Haavisto, 63 percent to 37 percent of the vote. The debate about the European bailout funds—both public and within the government—continued throughout 2012. The solvent Finns, seeing themselves as fiscally prudent, expressed frustration at sending funds to southern European countries perceived as less financially responsible.
Finland is the only country in the EU that has reserved the right to put any bailout to a parliamentary vote. The bill approving the Spanish bailout package passed Parliament in July 2012, with a comfortable majority. Parliament’s approval of the Spanish rescue loan was widely considered a confidence vote on Katainen’s government.
Finland is an electoral democracy. 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 Åland Islands—an autonomous region located off the southwestern coast whose inhabitants speak Swedish—have their own 30-seat Parliament, as well as a seat in the national legislature. The indigenous Sami of northern Finland also have their own legislature, but are not represented in the Eduskunta.
Corruption is not a significant problem in Finland, which was ranked 1 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index. However, a court in April 2012 found Parliament member and former foreign minister Ikka Kanerva guilty of accepting bribes and neglecting his official duties as chairman of the Regional Council of Southwest Finland’s managing board, and handed down a 15-month suspended jail sentence. Three codefendants received harsher sentences: Arto Merisalo received a six-year sentence after being convicted of paying bribes and engaging in false accounting; Tapani Yli-Saunamäki was convicted on the same charges and received a three-and-a-half-year jail term; and Toivo Sukari was convicted of aggravated bribery and received an eight-month suspended sentence. A 2010 law requires candidates and parties to report campaign donations of more than €800 ($1,030) in local elections or €1,500 ($1,930) in parliamentary elections.
Finnish law provides for freedom of speech, which is respected in practice. Finland has a large variety of newspapers and magazines 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 March 2010, the Finnish police launched an internet tip-off system in an effort to simplify the process of reporting threats of violence and racist slander.
Finns enjoy freedom of religion. The Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Orthodox Church are both state churches and receive public money from the income taxes of members; citizens may exempt themselves from contributing to those funds, but must renounce their membership. Religious communities other than the state churches may also receive state funds. Religious education is part of the curriculum in all secondary public schools, but students may opt out in favor of more general instruction in ethics. Academic freedom is respected.
Freedoms of association and assembly are upheld in law and in practice. Workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively, though public sector workers who provide services deemed essential may not strike. Approximately 70 percent of workers belong to trade unions. In 2012, the Confederation of Finnish Industries aggressively pushed for an ahead-of-schedule renegotiation of the comprehensive labor market reform reached in 2011, on sick leave compensation and hiring and firing, arguing the need to control labor costs due to shrinking domestic demand. The government was divided on this issue, with the Social Democrats traditionally having close ties to the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions, while the KOK, Swedish People’s Party, and Christian Democrats favor a renegotiation.
The constitution provides for an independent judiciary. The president appoints Supreme Court judges, who in turn appoint lower-court judges. Finland has been criticized by the European Court of Human Rights for slow trial procedures. The Ministry of the Interior controls police and Frontier Guard forces. Ethnic minorities and asylum seekers report occasional police discrimination.
The criminal code covers ethnic agitation and penalizes anyone who threatens a racial, national, ethnic, or religious group. The constitution guarantees the Sami 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 also make up a very small percentage of the population, they are more significantly disadvantaged and marginalized.
Immigration issues remained divisive in 2012, in part fueled by the rapid political ascent of the True Finns in 2011. The political identity of the True Finns on the subject of immigration remains a controversial subject, both within and outside the party. While leader Timo Soini has sought to maintain a more moderate stance on immigration, several high-profile party members who served in Parliament also belonged to the nationalist group Suomen Sisu, and have expressed fierce disagreement with party leadership on this issue. However, the True Finns’ political emphasis in 2012 was on opposition to EU bailouts rather than immigration. Soini ran in the 2012 presidential election, but failed to advance to the second round runoff.
Women enjoy equal rights in Finland. Women hold approximately 43 percent of the seats in Parliament, and 9 of 19 cabinet ministers are women. Despite a law stipulating equal pay for equal work, women earn only about 85 percent as much as men with the same qualifications. Domestic violence is an ongoing concern. Finland remains a destination and a transit country for trafficked men, women, and children. Amendments to the Alien Act in 2006 allow trafficked victims to stay in the country and qualify for employment rights.