The Finnish government marks a milestone today, one thousand days on the job with Juha Sipilä (Centre) as Prime Minister.
Compared to some recent previous Finnish governments, that’s positively ancient.
Alexander Stubb was Prime Minister for just about 11 months before leading his National Coalition Party to a third place election defeat in 2015. And while Jyrki Katainen (NCP) managed three years and two days before leaving for his Commisioner role in Brussels, Mari Kiviniemi (Centre) before him lasted only exactly a year in the role of PM.
Barring some catastrophic event, Juha Sipilä and his centre-right coalition comprising the National Coalition Party and Blue Reform – the former pre-split Finns Party – will leapfrog Katainen in another 100 days to become Finland’s 9th longest serving government since independence in 1917.
Perhaps surprisingly, Sipilä is on course to be the first Finnish Prime Minister since Paavo Lipponen (SDP) in 2003 to last a full four year parliamentary cycle.
So what have the last thousand days been like? We asked party officials, policy experts and political insiders for a deep dive on Sipilä’s reign so far…
The bold headline of Sipilä’s first thousand days in power has been Finland’s economic turnaround. Unemployment is down, and employment is up. Foreign trade exports are doing brisk business as well. There’s growing consumer confidence. More hiring on the horizon and a positive outlook for many small and medium sized businesses.
Even Finland’s competitiveness, once falling woefully behind countries like Sweden and Germany, and which contributed to reduced exports of Finnish products, has leveled out.
“All the statistics were going down and the economy was getting worse. Thinking about the current news for today that the employment rate is almost 71% that’s only 1% lacking from the goal the government set up. The shift in the Finnish economy has been really really huge, and now after a thousand days we’re achieving the goals we set up” says the politician.
But the economic turnaround hasn’t happened overnight, and it hasn’t been painless. One of the first casualties was education budgets, which suffered swingeing cuts despite pre-election promises from the main coalition party leaders they would leave education alone.
More austerity measures followed, with opposition parties and trade unions complaining that Finns with already poor economic prospects were getting hit the hardest.
“It hasn’t been easy. We’ve been doing some serious budget cuts and savings that are hard to do in a public economy. And we’ve got a lot of criticism and feedback from our voters as well. And we see from the current polls we’ve paid the price” says Kulmini, a first term member of parliament from Lapland, who is also celebrating her one thousandth day in office today.
“But still in the end of 70,000 people more are back to work […] and of course now while the economy has changed we would like to see more stress on issues that people are concerned about. One of those is the question of social issues, all related to social security, how flexible it is, how the development of equality is proceeding in Finland, and when the economy is coming to bloom, how we can spread the wealth” she adds.
Missed Economic Opportunities?
While the big picture economic indicators look good for Finland during Sipilä’s first thousand days, there have been missed opportunities.
“We don’t really know how much that is due to changes the government made, and how much those are due to the pick-up in global growth and the eurozone especially” says Tuomas Malinen, CEO of GNS Economics, a Helsinki economic forecasting and analysis firm.
“I think it has been a government of failed promises. They promised a lot, and the active model of employment and the competitiveness pact, those were kind of a success in a sense. It seems to be going in the right direction. But we really should have done more to ease the regulations and restrictions in the job market” Malinen says.
“Probably the biggest thing they are not really truthful about is what being in the eurozone will require from us in the future. Every time we face a downturn, it will require another competitiveness pact. And it took two years to negotiate the current one” he adds.
Another big issue the Finnish government is facing is how to swiftly balance the national budget. Malinen, who also serves as an Adjunct Professor of Economics at the University of Helsinki, says this isn’t going to happen any time soon, and that the government should be doing more in the good times to offset the bad times.
“There is still quite a large budget deficit and the government has done very little to balance it. If they are unable to balance the budget now, when we have a growing economy, it will come back to haunt us in the future” he says.
While Sipilä’s government has spent the last thousand days focusing on the economy, some areas have been allowed to slip somewhat from the government’s grasp.
Finland’s President Sauli Niinistö – elected for a second six-year term in office at the end of January – has taken a more hands-on role in foreign affairs, landing notable bilateral meetings with Trump, Putin and Xi in the last year alone. Although constitutionally, Finnish presidents take the lead in foreign policy in cooperation with the government, Sipilä has been content to be a back seat driver.
This is something of a role reversal with his predecessor Alex Stubb, who was much more interested in being in the limelight in London or Brussels, or popping up regularly on CNN than the relative tedium of municipal reform, social and healthcare overhauls or the granular work of domestic government. President Niinistö reportedly also didn’t care too much for Stubb’s style, and finds Sipilä a much better fit in many ways.
“In terms of foreign policy, this is probably the most inactive government we’ve had in years and it’s partly due to Sipilä himself. He’s an engineer by background so it’s not that he doesn’t like foreign policy, but that’s not his expertise” says Matti Pesu, a Reserach Fellow at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs FIIA.
“When it comes to European integration, the government’s lack of vision has been criticised. It depends on what happens in Germany, and depends on the Franco-German axis, where there might be some European integration reforms in the pipeline. And maybe Finland is not proactive. In the 90s and early 2000s Finland kind of had a grand vision about Finland’s place in European integration, but now that seems to be lacking” says Pesu.
“It looks really unclear what the EU policy of the government is. Practically the government has three different EU policies, of the Blues, the Centre Party and one for the National Coalition Party” says Tikkanen, who recently started working for the NCP in a parliamentary group communications role, but was speaking in his capacity as the head of the well-funded Finnish branch of the politically non-aligned Young Europeans network.
“I think Sipilä is pro-EU but he is not that interested in the matter, and that results in the current situation where we have no ambition and no discussions” Tikkanen adds.
Analysts see that while other governments are taking leading roles in tackling Brexit-necessitated EU reform discussions, the Finns have made a conscious decision not to get actively involved. There’s also little public discussion in Finland about what the future role of the EU might be, or how future reforms might look.
“In public, Sipilä talks about Finland’s EU integration middle ground. But when it comes to institutional reforms, Finland is starting to say no. They’re looking at no movement, but not proposing any positive alternatives themselves” explains Tikkanen.
“We have a vacuum in EU discussions where the government says little or nothing about EU affairs” he adds.
Bright Foreign Policy Moments
Still, it’s not all doom and gloom on the EU front for Finland. Finnish MEPs have taken a very proactive role to protect the Finnish forestry industry in the face of unhelpful new carbon capture regulations. Finance Minister Petteri Orppo (NCP) has starting making more pro-EU noises in public, at one point saying he was ready for Finland to become more deeply integrated – a warming-up from his default position.
Defence Minister Jussi Niinistö (Blues) – no relation to the President – has become practically an evangelist for stronger EU defence cooperation. Then again, Finnish politicians are on fairly safe domestic ground talking about more EU military cooperation than bringing up the thorny subject of joining NATO (just 22% of Finns currently support NATO membership, and 60% actively oppose it).
And Education Minister Sanni Grahn-Lassonen (NCP), an Alex Stubb protege, has been a strong champion along with Sipilä for expanding the Erasmus+ programme into Africa with even more vigour than present EU plans envisage.
Juha Sipilä’s Centre Party is hovering in third place in recent polls, a few percentage points off the boil. But they’re very much looking ahead to scheduled elections in 2019 and working to burnish their credentials as the party that fixed Finland’s economy.
The Coalition weathered the acrimonious break-up of it’s largest partner The Finns Party in summer 2017 and now operates on a reduced majority of just six MPs.
Sipilä also faces a rather ludicrous challenge for party leader from veteran warhorse MEP Paavo Väyrynen who has started his own party, but retains Centre Party membership and wants to take on Sipilä this summer. Väyrynen burned many bridges with the Centre Party when he ran against their official candidate in January’s presidential election – former Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen – and beat him.
Väyrynen won’t mortally wound Sipilä this summer but he is a very annoying distraction, especially with the Finnish media easily attracted to every statement he makes, and stunt he pulls.
Winning the party chair role again at the summer congress will lock Sipilä in before the next election where he may not emerge as leader of the biggest party, but could easily be the junior coalition partner in an NCP-lead government as one of several possible post-2019 coalition combinations in the next Finnish government.