On March 18, 2007 parliamentary elections took place in Finland. The result was a victory for the opposition National Coalition Party, i.e. the conservatives. The party obtained 22.3 % of the votes, an increase of 3.7 % compared to the previous parliamentary elections. The losers of the elections were the Social Democratic Party and the Left Alliance. The social democrats received 21.4 % support (-3.1 % compared to the previous parliamentary elections) and the Left Alliance 8.8 % (-1.1 %). The combined support of the left parties was at a record-low level within the 100-year history of Finnish popular elections. Moreover, the 67,9 % turnout was the lowest of the post-war period. As a result of the elections, the former Centre-Left government was replaced by a Centre-Right government, consisting of the National Coalition Party, The Centre Party (23.1 % of votes, -1.6 %), the Green League (8.5 %, +0.5 %) and the Swedish People’s Party (4.6 %, 0.0 %), a party representing the 5 % minority of Swedish speaking people in the country.
The Social Democracy largely failed because of credibility lost during their 12-year administration of the country. Their slightly left-inclined electoral programme apparently did not convince the voters that they would really do what they promised. In addition, the party’s recently elected chairperson, Mr. Eero Heinaluoma, was considered a colourless former trade-union bureaucrat without a sense of how to appeal to people.
The Left Alliance, in turn, had seen turbulent times after the resignation of the previous chairperson Ms Suvi-Anne Siimes in March 2006. As a liberal-minded female economist and a prominent media figure, Ms. Siimes had since 1998 been a guarantee of reformism in the party for many. These non-traditionalist supporters were likely to be lost after the extraordinary party congress chose Mr. Martti Korhonen, the chair of the Left Alliance parliament group, as the new party chairperson. The public image of, and media interest in, Mr. Korhonen, a former car mechanic, were nowhere near those of Ms. Siimes. Hence, the worst was to be expected, but peculiarly enough, the pre-election opinion polls showed a slight increase in the percentual support of the party. The shock was therefore huge when the activists of the party on election night realised what was happening. Although a 1.1 % loss may not be considered big in many other political cultures, it was a dramatic change in Finland where the results tend to be more or less steady. In addition, it was the worst result for the radical left in Finland since its re-legalization in 1944.
However, it seems increasingly evident now that losing the elections was what the left parties in Finland needed to motivate the process of their own reform.
The Social Democrats established an internal “truth commission” to determine the causes of the electoral disaster. The report was published and lists as one of the reasons for the defeat the burden of the long period in government, in which harsh economic measures were put into effect, which actually benefited the well-off social strata. What the report does not directly say, however, is that under the leadership of the previous chairperson, Mr. Paavo Lipponen, the Social democratic party became a neoliberal party with very few policy elements which could be characterised as left.
The report led the party to approve a 10-item reform programme, but it is noteworthy that the programme does not contain a single item ad-dressing the actual contents or goals of politics. This suggests that the Social democratic party is destined to continue its rightward drift. The three big parties of Finnish politics, the Social Democrats, the Conservatives and the Centre, are thus increasingly coming to resemble each other.
If the social democrats decide to move further to the right and attempt a Finnish version of Tony Blair’s Third Way, they will leave a significant vacuum on the political left. The question is how the Left Alliance could occupy this vacuum.
The social democrats’ move to the right is only possible because there is no credible leftist alternative to hand. The Left Alliance has acted like a second social democratic party, but one a little more eager to defend the welfare state. The Left Alliance has not provided a vision of the future.
A mere defence of old achievements is doomed to failure. Old social democratic ideas do not respond to the changes in the structure of production, for example in the proliferation of part-time and short term work contracts or the increasing dominance of capital in all levels of society.
Moreover, environmental thinking is inadequately represented by the Greens who are in the government. Thus far, the government has been promoting anti-ecological policies, including the construction of new nuclear power plants, defending the interests of agriculture in the issue of catastrophic eutrophication of Finnish sea water, putting on the agenda the possibility of harnessing protected rapids for electricity production, etc.
Hence the Left Alliance has room to develop in a red-green direction. However, its newly elected parliamentary group, the size of which fell from 19 MP’s to 17, looks very homogeneous:
It contains only three women (!) and most of the members are 50–60 years old. It is difficult to see how potential new supporters of the left, young people in precarious situations, academic intellectuals, environmentalists, migrants, women, etc., could see these people as their representatives.
In addition, the Left Alliance is hindering its own success by allowing dissonant policy lines in the nuclear power question. Although the party programme has always had an anti-nuclear power position, more radically after the party congress in June, some representatives of the party in the northern part of Finland use their election mandate to promote a nuclear power plant in Lapland. As long as such policies continue, it is hard to see how the Left Alliance could be a credible green alternative to the Green League. The true nature of a political party is judged by what it does, not by what is written in its programmes.
However, despite all the problems, signs of a new era for the Left Alliance are emerging.
The party congress in June elected a new leadership. Although the chair of the party, Mr. Martti Korhonen, 54, was re-elected without any rival candidates, some new faces rose to the top ranks of the party. Paavo Arhinmaki, a 30-year old MP, former chair of the Left Youth and media celebrity, was elected as the first vice-chair of the party. Aino-Kaisa Pekonen, a 28-year old nurse, was elected as the second vice-chair, and Sirpa Puhakka, a 50-year old female communications manager, became the party secretary. It is likely that with the help of the new team and Mr. Korhonen the party will appear more energetic and progressive.
The party also approved some new programmes in the party congress, including the Party Programme and the political programme for the period 2007–2010. The party board’s proposal for the political programme was almost completely re-written by the congress delegates, resulting in a compact document of well-argued demands which reflect the state-of-the-art of political debate.
A completely new political culture is gaining ground in the Left Alliance, with a strong presence of young people. One example is the movement for the “New Left”, an unofficial group of activists gathered around Mr. Arhinmaki, whose aim is to put the Left Alliance on a new track of progressive and creative policy making, leading to a rising support curve and eventual election victories. There is thus sound reason to say that now is the time for a new beginning of the Finnish Left.