Parliament returns to business this week for the autumn session, although this year Finnish politics never really took much of a holiday.
The coronavirus pandemic kept politicians at work through the summer dealing with the ongoing crisis domestically, then engaging at European level as well while details of the €750 billion EU coronavirus recovery fund were hammered out.
And it’s coronavirus which dominates almost every aspect of politics in Finland for the foreseeable future, and infringes on all areas of policy making and political discussions.
“We can clearly see that the autumn is not going to be normal. There are a lot of uncertainties in the air for both citizens and decision makers” says Antti Lindtman, the Chair of the Social Democrats Parliamentary Group.
“Even if we are more prepared in autumn than we were in spring, unfortunately the big decisions are still made in the midst of uncertainty and without full knowledge.”
There are two big issues looming first – a September deadline for national parliaments across the European Union to approve the recovery fund which was agreed by leaders in July; and then the 2021 budget.
But against the backdrop of all of this is increasing pressure on Sanna Marin‘s coalition government to re-vamp its policy programme with a renewed focus on job creation and economic growth, as economists expect the autumn impact of coronavirus on the economy to be more painful than it has been to this point.
From the spring, we survived in Finland reasonably well from a health point of view compared to many European countries. It also seems that in terms of the economy, we fared better than other countries. That does not change the fact that we are facing economic downturn and in the autumn and upcoming years we need to make big decisions” Lindtman tells News Now Finland.
Lindtman also cites reforms that improve the situation for municipalities; social and healthcare reform (a topic that has bedeviled successive Finnish governments); following through with plans to raise the compulsory education age; reforming family leave and reducing daycare fees as issues he says the government needs to tackle.
“In addition to the measures included in the government program, new measures are also needed to create new jobs in Finland […] it is responsible that economic policy is adjusted according to economic situation and the needs of employment” SDP’s Antti Lindtman explains.
“Avoiding the social costs of the crisis and the sustainable recovery of society are at the heart of current economic policy.”
Government’s chance to pivot
Åsa von Schoultz, a Professor of Political Science at the University of Helsinki says the government certainly has problems to deal with, but they also have an opportunity to seize as parliament returns.
“Before coronavirus hit us in March we had a feeling that now the government needs to prove that they will act on promises made in their programme. But then came corona, and they handled that very well. They really increased their support. They bought time” Professor von Schoultz explains.
“But now if we are coming out of that and things become more normal the pressure on the government will increase again. This is a brilliant opportunity to say we can’t deliver on all our promises, we need to have a fresh start and make all our goals realstic. And they can do that without losing face” she tells News Now Finland.
However, Professor von Schoultz sees a new round of negotiations inside the coalition government as the place where cracks will appear – especially with the Centre Party who will feel like they can’t give any ground on their own policy ‘red lines’ even as they’ve watched their support haemorrhage over the last 18 months.
“The government are in a difficult position and it’s caused by the Centre Party, and the fact they are a lost party in the way they don’t know where they are going” she adds.
Opposition also calls for a new mandate
Perhaps unsurprisingly the opposition is also calling for the government to admit it can’t go through with the policy programme as laid out in June 2019, and re-affirmed in December that same year when Sanna Marin became PM.
“They actually should seriously consider whether it would be more clear to actually upgrade the whole government programme, and then to also agree about those tools they will be able to use [to create jobs] and then come with the government programme to the parliament which would then confirm the government programme by approving it” says Kai Mykkänen, the Parliamentary Group leader of the National Coalition Party.
Mykkänen’s focus is also on more job creation, and he’s calling for the government to be more ambitious and double its target from 60,000 to 120,000 new jobs.
He tells News Now Finland that while it seemed as if Finland weathered the economic storms of the coronavirus crisis better than anticipated so far, a ‘second dip’ in economic terms is likely to be deeper, and hit harder, than before.
“Finland is usually lagging behind the normal fluctuations, and now we are starting to see decisions from industrial companies, and this is of course something at the heart of parliamentarian discussions and decision making because this will heat up the struggle of what is the government doing to save jobs, and is it actually doing more to destroy work from Finland” he state.
His comments come as a number of large Finnish companies including Finnair and UPM announced cost-cutting measures including job cuts. The closure of Kaipola paper mill in Jämsä in particular has provoked both sides of the political aisle into harsh rhetoric.
Espoo MP Kai Mykkänen notes wryly that the same week Sanna Marin was elected unopposed as chairperson of the Social Democrats and promoting again her idea of shortened working hours, UPM announced the closure of the Kaipola plant citing the relative competitiveness of Finnish workers.
As an opposition party, the National Coalition Party – known colloquially as Kokoomus in Finland – is really starting to sharpen its teeth against the government.
“I think Kokoomus are still coming to terms with the terms with the fact they are in opposition, and somehow building up their opposition politics” says Dr Jenni Karimäki a Senior Researcher at the Centre for Parliamentary Studies in the University of Turku.
“I think it was to be expected that Kokoomus in particular is not going to challenge the government during the spring. Now I think that the tables have turned in some sense, that this upcoming autumn is going to be a lot different than the spring was” she says.
Karimäki says she expects the discussions in parliament to broaden when it comes to coronavirus-related issues, to include space for debate on economics, job creation and employment levels. She also predicts that the main three opposition parties in parliament might find common ground here.
“I think the economy is the issue where opposition parties like Kokoomus, the Finns Party and Christian Democrats could find some unified actions in parliament, but the issue of the EU coronavirus recovery fund is probably not one of them” she says.
“I think the Finns Party and Christian Democrats could find some common ground on EU issues but that is not enough to really challenge the government.”