Explained: Finland’s latest government crisis

Antti Rinne comes out fighting and calls the Centre Party's bluff - he won't give in to their demands to quit and he's issued an ultimatum to them for supporting the government.

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File picture of Prime Minister Antti Rinne, Helsinki, 29th November 2019 / Credit: VNK

Finland is going through something it likes to call a ‘government crisis’. In other countries these sort of issues would rise only to the level of political rough and tumble, but in Finland they’re a genuine full-blown crisis that could still bring down the prime minister – and potentially also the government – this week.

For a country that prides itself on the strength of its democratic institutions, Finland seems to lurch from one government crisis to another.

Remember in spring 2019 when the government of Juha Sipilä (Centre) collapsed just five weeks shy of the general election?

Or what about the several times during 2018 when the government was said to be close to collapsing over social and healthcare reform?

Or summer 2017 when the Finns Party split in half and the prime minister was on his way to hand in the government’s resignation to President Niinistö when Blue Reform appeared out of nowhere with a new compromise party to stay in government and save the day?

So here we are again, the beginning of December, Antti Rinne‘s (SDP) government is not even six months old and he could be about to get replaced.

Meeting of Finnish Government, Helsinki, 27th November 2019 / Credit: Kosti Keistinen, VNK

Where do things stand? 

Antti Rinne is in the firing line because of his government’s handling of the recent postal worker strike. It’s a classic political tale of who knew what, and when, and what they’ve told parliament they may – or may not – have done.

When did Rinne know specifically about plans to move hundreds of Posti workers on to significantly worse terms and conditions of employment? Did he knowingly, willfully mislead parliament about this? His political opponents scream yes, and look for blood in the water, but at this point nothing has categorically been proved.

The minister handling the issue Sirpa Paatero (SDP) fell on her sword on Friday, but it hasn’t kept the sharks at bay.

“It’s not enough that Sirpa Paatero resigned. Usually this is the case in Finland if there is a scandal in the government, it usually revolves around one minister, they resigns, it blows over and it’s back to biz as usual” says Jenni Karimäki from Turku University’s Centre for Parliamentary Studeis.

“But not in this case. Antti Rinne has made himself part of this ‘Posti-gate’ scandal and Paatero resigning is not enough to smooth things over” she adds.

File picture of Centre Party leader / Minister of Economics Katri Kulmuni / Credit: Lauri Heikkinen, VNK

Who is backing Rinne, who is not? 

The Swedish People’s Party said that while the postal worker strike was not handled well, they’ll continue to support the government and reckon Antti Rinne deserves another chance, even if mistakes were made.

At first the Greens seemed to come to the same conclusion but since then Interior Minister Maria Ohisalo has said during a trip to Brussels that the party’s leadership will have to give it some thought. She seems to be hedging her bets to see which way the prevailing winds will blow.

But it’s the Centre Party – Keskusta – who hold all the cards. They say that they can support the government, but that they don’t have confidence in Antti Rinne himself.

“Keskusta is the kingmaker here. I think that there is in the Centre Party a lot of resentment overall about the decision to enter government” says Jenni Karimäki.

“You just have to take one look at the polls and you can understand why the Centre Party is keen on hanging on to the government but not necessarily hanging on to Antti Rinne. But there’s no desire for a new election or anything like that because they’re not doing that well at the moment” she explains.

“I think they might be hoping this satisfies the Keskusta activists and gives [party leader] Katri Kulmuni a bit of a chance to get a higher profile or show that she can be a firm leader” Karimäki adds.

After several hours of meetings with Social Democrat party leadership, Rinne himself came out fighting on Monday night. He’ll not capitulate to Centre Party demands that he step aside, and he’s demanding an answer from them on Tuesday about whether they’ll still support the government or not.

Prime Minister Antti Rinne sets out Finland’s EU Presidency priorities to parliament, 26th June 2019 / Credit: Laura Kotila, VNK

What are the opposition doing?  

In recent weeks the opposition has shown their teeth to the government, spotting a weakness in the way that former union boss Rinne and his cabinet have handled the issue of collective bargaining agreements during the Posti strike.

The National Coalition Party and Christian Democrats endured more than a few such problems with unions during the last government – in fact, there was a fundamental breakdown of the usual tripartite system Finland has used for with Juha Sipilä in charge.

Rinne had been reversing these problems and working to build better relations with unions, the government and employers, but a combination of what he may or may not have said to parliament, and good old fashioned politics, have undermined a lot of that damage control his government has done.

The current government of course has the numbers in parliament to survive a vote of no confidence brought for Wednesday by the National Coalition Party and the Christian Democrats (the Finns Party, the second largest in parliament, declined to join) but it remains to be seen whether Rinne will eventually quit under pressure from the Centre Party, or if they’ll extract a lot of compromises from Rinne to allow him to stay in the job.