– It is like in sport: if your team doesn’t win the cup, you change the manager. I believe that Sanna Marin deserves some time for herself, as she has been a prime minister in the toughest years of Finnish politics after the Second World War. The social-democrats will vote on the new leader, and they might elect someone like Blair or Romano Prodi – says Toivo Haimi, a thirty-year-old journalist and activist from Herttoniemi, Helsinki, who ran in the last elections from the list of the Left-wing Alliance.
Interview by Wojciech Albert Łobodziński.
The main topic of the electoral campaign in Finland was the public debt. Not NATO, not war in Ukraine, not China and US decoupling. It was public debt, why? The Finnish economy seems very lively and stable, there is actually the lowest unemployment rate in history.
Here the economic history of Finland comes first. Historically, Finland has traditionally been a country averse to debt, both in private as well as state meaning. In the II World War Finland was allied, as you perfectly know, to Germany and fought against the USSR. When the peace came, we had to pay a big amount of reparations, and later we were very, very proud that we paid every penny of it. Every single reparation to the Soviet Union was paid.
Finnish public economy, during the Cold War and after, was centered on export – both for the West and the USSR. However, it was very averse to debt. There was not any kind of deficit, any kind of public debt. And when there was, we devalueted our currency.
Thus, we have an economic history of avoiding debt. That has something in common with agrarian roots of our society, as many Fins take pride in owning their homes and paying their mortgages completely. Which is completely different than in Sweden: a Swede can take a mortgage of 30-40 years and it’s not meant to be paid off. So. when the state, the government is in public debt, it is something that makes a lot of Finns worried. It means that we, as a society, failed.
Another thing is that we are a very monoethnic society, we build our identity on being a part of one polis. We do not perceive the debt as the government’s: it is our debt. The opposition, particularly the National Coalition Party said in their election campaign that we must not leave this debt to our children, reinforcing this image of a common debt. That’s why it was the major talking point.
This debt originated during the pandemic, because there was some kind of reimbursement for business, just like in Poland or Italy?
Yes, there was. Of course, social care and healthcare skyrocketed during this period. The government of Sanna Marin, invested heavily in education, we extended the mandatory education age from 16 to 18. That was a huge investment. We did the same when it comes to jobs, economy etc. It was something that was already agreed on before COVID-19. There was a talk on major state investment fully funded by taxes, which were reformed. And after all of that the second hit towards the national pocket was the energy crisis.
Russia countered the Finnish declarations about NATO by unplugging some of the energy sources..
Yes, however the prices were high already due to the invasion of Ukraine. And the government took massive loans and transferred them to citizens which then paid their electricity bills. The tax for electricity was abolished completely in the of 2022, and this went as a windfall money to the electricity giants.
All these things, investment in education, jobs, energy crisis response, were things that were accepted with overwhelming parliamentary majority, opposition included. So it is a bit false from the right-wing politicians to say that all of the debt is to blame on the left-wing coalition and Sanna Marin. They all supported government spending increase.
This kind of investment also creates some kind of public trust, relation between the voters and government. What was the reaction on the side of citizens?
It was very polarized. It kind of depends on what was the opinion of someone on Sanna Marin and her team. If you were a supporter of the Marinn government – you liked it, if you supported opposition you were against it. All of it hanged upon her personal popularity: investment in education, extension of mandatory education, that was a big plus, a huge benefit to the whole society. The COVID-19 alleviation, especially giving the hand to business, was seen as really good. As was the response to the energy crisis. However when the opposition was using this kind of resentment towards debt, saying it was our national debt belonging to everyone, people got worried. They thought: OK, it was a good thing, but now we have to change our approach.
The Social-Democrats won three more seats in this elections – at the expense of the coalition partners. What did you mean when you said on your Instagram that the answers from the Left could not address those economic issues at the same level as the Social-Democrats or the right-wing opposition?
The Social-Democrats won more seats, which is very rare in Finnish electoral history. Broadening of a government party popularity – this simply does not happen. It is the third time over last hundred and more years.
But the reason for that is that the coalition partners, such as the Left Alliance, could not capitalize on the government accomplishments. As I have mentioned already, we reformed the education, we introduced the new model of family leave and the new, very equal maternity leave model, offered to both parents. We also did the social and healthcare reform, which was the biggest reform in Finnish history, and of course the good deal when it comes to pandemia and energy crisis. We all did that very well. These were all accomplishments of the government as a whole, and they were seen as such.
When the media and political discussions centered on who’s going to be prime minister, not on which party represents you the best, that played into a narrative of the main governmental party, and main opposition parties, the True Finns and the National Coalition Party. In the end Sanna Marin could take all the credit, and the Left Alliance and Green Party could not capitalize on their own achievements.
We could not say that “vote for us because we did this, or that!”. The Socialdemocrats, as the main party, capitalized on all of the reforms. They said vote for us because our government did this and that!
Why did the left-wing parties not go to the elections as a bloc, a big tent coalition?
The Social-Democrats and the Greens are very divided over economic issues. Some of them are market liberals and others are more social, socialist oriented. The Greens, in fact, are a ‘wild card’ party in Finnish politics, just like other center parties. Yes, they were in the conservative government from 2007 to 2011. They can form a government with left-wing parties or right-wing parties. And this is very advantageous when it comes to playing on the balance of power. That is why bloc politics such as in Sweden, Norway and Denmark is not very practical in Finland.
What next for Sanna Marin and the left wing of the Social-Democrats then?
She has resigned as party leader and she is not going to be a minister in the next government… if the Social-Democrats are to enter it.
And what do you think about this move?
I think it’s fair. It is like in sport: if your team doesn’t win the cup, you change the manager. I believe that Sanna Marin deserves some time for herself, as she has been a prime minister in the toughest years of Finnish politics after the Second World War. Her party will now elect a new leader, and they might choose someone like Blair or Romano Prodi. Then, they could join the right-wing parties in forming the government. And that is actually why the Left Alliance has to be a single party, and not a big tent party. Because we keep the Social-Democrats in check. If they go to the right, they lose voters to us, and now they went to the left, so we lost some of them. The Left Alliance is some kind of the conscience for the center-left parties.
Let’s talk about the Finns Party. There is a peril of a right-wing and far-right coalition. What about them?
They are like Le Pen…
Really? The stereotypical Finn is super progressive…
It is Le Pen actually. They are a national radical party. Right-wing radicals and conservative. It is not like religious conservatism like in Poland with the Law and Justice. It is just civic conservatism, anti-EU, anti-immigrant.
Yes, because they are really anti-Russian. Their main theme was about saving Finland. From what? This is clear populism. Because if you have in mind that Finland needs to be saved, then you can put anything in this. It shall be saved from the Greens? NATO? Street gangs? Islam? One of their slogans was “Vote for the True Finns, you know why!” It is as if they said: vote for us, because we are anti-immigrant. They are really good at shaping this kind of dog whistling in our discourse.
The main problem with them is, in my view, the same as with the Five Star Movement in Italy. They do not have genuine political experience and so it is easy for them to disagree with everything. That’s why conservatives might not create a coalition with them. Am I right?
I don’t agree.
The True Finns have a lot of university professors who are experienced in local governments and administration. Some of them worked for previous administrations before Sanna Marin government. They know how to make trains run on time. They could create a government and they want it badly, because they won more seats.
They are different from Cinque Stelle, because that one was a populist party, which was a vehicle for the general discontent. True Finns in 2023 are a genuine radically right-wing party, which envisions a homogenous society, doesn’t combat climate change and wants to privatize industries. This is something that Cinque Stelle never had. They are much more like Alternative Fur Deutschland style.
Right now they are a coherent party, unlike in the beginning. That’s what you mean?
Exactly. So they might go into government with our conservatives, and slash public spending on unemployment benefits. Luckily, unemployment is at a record low despite COVID-19, energy crisis and all of this. There have never been so many working Finns in our history. And it’s still going down for the last 8 years, I believe. The people who are left unemployed now are long term ones. The right-wing interpretation is that everyone who can be employed has been employed. So if you do not work now, it is your own fault, so you have to be forced to work.
This is Margaret Thatcher style, just like with the debt.
Yes, it is her all over again. And the victims of this kind of politics will be social spending: unemployment benefits. student grants, illness benefits. Not pensions, because old people vote no matter what, and they vote conservative. What can be possibly cut are social spendings and education – and they want to cut 9 billion euros in total.
One could argue that education is super vital. The perception of Finland is that it’s an educational juggernaut. The biggest asset of your society is education.
It is, but it’s also very expensive. If you want quality education, you have to spend a lot. The National Coalition Party wants to privatize it. In Finland we do not have any private educational institutions, they want to change it, adding tuition fees and the rest of the instrumentarium. It will not be a direct cut of budget, but something new to make money.
Scandinavian societies are very conscious and stable, and when it comes to changes, they are gradual. If anything goes wrong, there is a very good feedback culture. And this sounds like a conservative, neoliberal revolution…
Here we are addressing the greatest thing about the Finnish political system. We have only small parties. No party can ever get a majority by itself. It has to form a coalition. In addition, no party can get more than 20% of the votes. Therefore, in a new government you must include a party from the previous one. You have to move slowly. Even if you promise radical changes, you can not pull them off just like that, because you have at least one party from the new government.
And the True Finns and conservatives, even if their alliance becomes a fact, still do not have a majority.
Yes, that’s exactly what I am talking about. They either will create a minority government, which has not happened for 60 years, or they will include one of the previous governmental parties. Which is more likely. It could be the Greens or the Social-Democrats.
There are actually two options: one is a purely right-wing government, with the conservatives, the True Finns, Christian Democrats and probably the Center party. Or the so-called red-blue coalition, like in Germany. It would be the Conservative Party, the Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Swedish People’s Party. We have to wait to see which it will be.
The new government of Finland will be most probably known at the beginning of May. Sanna Marin will be thus replaced by Antti Petteri Orpo, the leader of the National Coalition Party since 2016. Having previously served as Deputy Prime Minister of Finland from 2017 to 2019, Minister of Finance from 2016 to 2019, Minister for Agriculture and Forestry from 2014 to 2015 and Minister of Interior from 2015 to 2016, Orpo as a candidate got 17,000 votes in this elections.