It’s the Friday before Christmas and Parliament has the atmosphere of school on the last day of term.
When the division bell rings at 10:00, MPs make their way into the chamber to vote on a slate of budget proposals, giving their staff and assorted journalists some breathing space to get a coffee in the cafeteria.
MTV’s political correspondent Antonia Berg spends four days a week here, so she’s well placed to comment on the ebb and flow of politics in Finland over the last twelve months.
So what’s it been like?
“A totally crazy year! We had two caretaker governments in six months!” she exclaims.
“It’s been a very turbulent year. First in the spring we had the sote [social and health care reform] negotiations which made ex-Prime Minister Juha Sipilä from the Centre Party resign, just before the parliamentary election.”
“And then of course the new government with Prime Minister Antti Rinne who pretty often made some sudden moves here in the parliament, and that’s the reason why he had to leave as the prime minister of course” she explains.
Berg has summed up a whole year of political highs – or lows – but there’s plenty of blanks to fill in.
Protracted and fractious negotiations at the beginning of 2019 over social and health care reform known in Finnish as sote spelled the beginning of the end for Juha Sipilä’s (Centre) government. He had staked his political reputation on passing the reforms but was hamstrung by competing demands from his government partner, the National Coalition Party.
Although elections were anyway scheduled for April, there was a period ahead of the vote where Sipilä had handed in his government’s resignation to the president, but continued in the role of caretaker PM for five weeks.
The drawn-out general election campaign produced a narrow victory for Rinne’s Social Democrats, even though he himself had been absent for half of the campaigning due to illness, allegedly in a coma and near death. He made a remarkable personal and political recovery.
Finns Party continues to stay strong
The Finns Party came second in the general election, for the third parliamentary vote in a row, but unlike four years ago they were shut out of government this time – considered too toxic by the other political parties.
“I think there was quite a dramatic change in the political discussion at the beginning of the year” says Anders Adlercreutz, Parliamentary Group leader of the Swedish People’s Party.
“If you look at the polls in November, look at where the True Finns were at that time, 9% or something like that, then we had this sex crime case in Oulu which suddenly turned the whole political discussion again towards immigration which benefits the True Finns greatly and their rise started from that” he explains.
“And it resulted in a really tight election. If the election had been held a week later, we would probably have had a different outcome, and I’m happy we didn’t!”
The Finns Party continues to enjoy robust poll numbers, but Adlercreutz says he hopes that most Finns don’t share the right wing party’s views on immigration and foreigners in society.
“I think the discussion in itself lacks every sense of perspective. In Finland this year we’ll have around 3000 asylum seekers. That’s nothing. That’s really small numbers. It’s at the level of the 90s and beginning of the 2000s.”
“So it’s not a thing that should even be a topic of discussion.”
New red-green coalition government formed
After a month of negotiations Finland’s new, progressive red-green government programme was launched with five coalition partners: Social Democrats, Centre Party, Greens, Left Alliance and Swedish People’s Party.
They were sworn in on 6th June by President Niinistö.
“In the government programme you can see it’s totally different from Sipilä’s government. This is more liberal, and you can see that people people are accepted in a totally different way when you compare to the last government programme” says MTV’s Antonia Berg.
Anders Adlercreutz from the Swedish People’s Party – a party that has managed to fit in with most Finnish governments, left or right, over the last 30 years – sets out his optimistic vision of this government’s programme.
“I hope that Finland is a country where it’s worthwhile to study, to work where you can see a path ahead for yourself. That you can believe in your education and it gives you the tools you need. A country that is just and equal, whether the gender or sexual orientation or the age, you have a country that is sustainable and from that perspective can be a beacon in the European context.”
Hello Helsinki, this is Europe calling
In between domestic politics, election intrigue and government negotiations, Finland had a year of politics that took it to the heart of Europe.
May’s European Parliament elections saw a slight increase in voter turnout from the Finnish public, but it was a draining campaign coming so soon after the general election and the feeling of political fatigue was palpable.
The EU elections strained political party volunteer networks, candidates and party finances and in the end the makeup of Finnish MEPs was basically unchanged from before.
In July, just three weeks after the government was sworn in, Finland took over the rotating six month Presidency of the European Council.
Finnish diplomats like to say they were setting the agenda for Europe, but in reality it’s more of a bureaucratic task – and a thankless one at that. There was a lame duck Commission and Parliament in Brussels largely treading water until Europe’s new political administration took the helm by the end of the year.
The EU Presidency inevitably took its toll on Finnish domestic politics, with simply too many EU-related plates to keep spinning for the government to be able to fully focus on its domestic agenda.
“Of course that has to have an impact. And it should. Because we should take care of the Presidency in as good a manner as we can” says Anders Adlercreutz.
“A big part of the criticisms has been that the government, us, not having done more as far as national legislation goes, and much of the blame if you want to use that word, can be directed towards the Presidency” he explains.
Heading into 2020
With Marin as PM it means all five coalition parties have female leaders.
“It was something of course the members of their party wanted. They wanted a younger generation, they wanted to change to something new, and now it’s the young women’s turn. It’s really nice, but let’s see how the politics will work out” says political correspondent Antonia Berg.
Marin’s leadership, as the world’s youngest sitting prime minister, was feted by international media but there was no honeymoon period at home with two votes of no confidence in a week over the government’s programme and it’s handling of the al-Hol refugee situation. It passed both, comfortably.
Still, with the EU Presidency now over, Anders Adlercreutz says it “has to lead to a bigger influx of legislation” from the new administration.
Throughout 2019 the government has been running the country with the previous government’s budget, but come the beginning of 2020 they’ll be able to kick-start their own spending plans into action.
“We live in the economic climate of the last government, so whatever happens now to the Finnish economy it’s due to that budget. But now from the 1st of January next year some things will change and of course we in government think it will be for the better” says Adlercreutz.
“We know the challenges around us, we know the world around us is maybe more unstable than we thought at the beginning of the year and that puts some stress on the economic calculations, but it forces us to really do things to help employment” he says, adding that the government is willing to look at good ideas from outside the prism of political ideologies, if they’ll ultimately be beneficial to the economy and employment.
Changing atmosphere for politics
One thing that’s unlikely to change during 2020 is a trend that’s been very evident during 2019 as well, and that is a more fractious atmosphere in Finnish political discourse.
“Everyone is talking about the atmosphere has changed. That it used to be more polite and now it’s not so polite any more” says MTV’s Antonia Berg.
“Now everyone tries to speak like these extreme things. They talk in the hall like they do on Twitter. And that’s something the elder parliament members talk about these days, they have one minute, and you have to say extreme things so you will get noticed” she adds.
“I think in the committees where most of the work is done here in parliament people can talk or can be friends even though they are from different parties and they can concentrate on their work”
“But in the hall you see the extremes.”