• Towards Building a New Left Alternative - The Crisis of the Left and the Case of the Left Alliance in Finland

  • Por Laura Tuominen | 22 Oct 09 | Posted under: Finlandia
  • The European Parliament election results have been disappointing for the left around Europe. One of the countries where the left suffered heavy defeat was Finland. According to the Nice Treaty, the total number of seats for Finnish representatives in the EP decreased to 13. In the EP elections of 2009 the overall support for the left was below 25 % when counting the votes of the social democrats, the Left Alliance and the small left fractions together. This is lower than ever before in Finnish parliamentary history.

    The Left Alliance, whose MEP had participated in the Euro Parliament’s GUE/NGL group, lost their only seat and 30 % of their votes (now down to 5,9 %). After the elections, the Left Alliance, which according to the results in the parliamentary elections in 2007 was the 4th-strongest party in the Finnish parliament, is now the only Finnish party with parliamentary representation that does not hold a seat in the EP. According to the results of the European elections, Left Alliance is now the 7th-largest – or the second smallest, to be more exact – party in Finland.

    The left does not seem to gain from economic downturns. The Social Democrats (SDP) also had their weakest result ever in the European elections. Their seats went from three to two and their parliamentary group now consists of a lobbyist for Finland’s membership in NATO and a well-known Greek Orthodox priest. However, it should be said that the two big parties of the centre-right, the Centre Party and the Coalition Party also lost seats. The biggest winners by far were the Greens and especially the True Finns, a right-wing populist party. The Greens doubled their seats to two and the True Finns got nearly 10 % of the votes. In 2004 their result was 0.5%. The Greens are currently part of the right-wing cabinet led by the Centre Party and Coalition Party. The True Finns are gaining support with their nationalist Euro-scepticism, which also includes a strong “immigration-critical” tendency.

    In this article, I will analyse the causes of the left crisis in Finland, especially the crisis of the Left Alliance. I will also give a brief overview of the party’s future prospects after the EU elections.

    In the shadow of the social democrats

    The popularity of the Left Alliance (and its predecessors) has been gradually declining since the 1970s. One of the major political turning points in recent years was the victory of the party in the1995 parliamentary elections, with over 11% of the votes and participation in the so-called “Rainbow government” in 1995-2003. After the economic depression of the early 1990s a broad cabinet was formed with the SDP, the Swedish People’s Party, the Greens and also the Coalition Party. Not all left supporters have rebuilt their trust after the Left Alliance participated in an SDP-led coalition that implemented severe cuts in social welfare services, such as introducing excess reductions in pensions and student benefits. The years of the “Rainbow Cabinet” saw a rise in income inequality. The SDP was in office until the 2007 parliamentary elections. Both the SDP and the Left Alliance were among the biggest losers in those elections.

    For the SDP, the gap between their traditional left supporter base and their neoliberal policies is wide. Left-wing social democrats have twice been defeated in the SDP party congress when trying to support their candidate, former Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, to run for president of the party. Their last congress was held in 2008 and the newly elected president Jutta Urpilainen defined the SDP as a party of the political centre. According to an opinion poll conducted after the European elections, Erkki Tuomioja would be the most popular candidate for chair of the SDP. Nevertheless, the supporters of Blair-Schröder Third-Way social democracy hold the key positions within the party.

    In contrast to Germany, the Netherlands or Denmark, the Left Alliance has not been able to gain much support from disappointed supporters of the SDP. There has been a slight leftward turn, but the Left Alliance has lost more voters than it gained from the SDP. According to voter surveys, the votes have gone to the benefit of the True Finns and the Greens, while some supporters have abstained from voting altogether. It seems apparent that the Left Alliance has not been able to establish an agenda that positively differentiates them from the social democrats.

    When analysing electoral defeats, the left usually tends to emphasise low voter turnout as a cause of unsatisfactory results. In the case of this summer’s EU elections, this analysis might contain some truth: the turnout was nearly one per cent lower than in 2004, namely 40.2 %. However, this analysis is inadequate when comparison is made to the 2008 municipal elections. There the voter turnout rose by 2.7 %, but the biggest winners were the True Finns, the Coalition Party and the Greens. In these elections, the Greens also held the position of being the 4th strongest party even though the Left Alliance had nearly twice as many candidates and over two times the elected deputies nation-wide. Emphasising low voter turnout might be too simple an analysis to account for the left’s results. More accurate would be an analysis of how up-to-date left policies and strategies are and whether the party apparatus needs restructuring.

    The problematic European Union

    The Left Alliance has not been able to build a coherent agenda regarding the European Union ever since Finland joined it in the beginning of 1995. The party did not have an official position on EU membership, but 76 % of its supporters voted against the EU in the 1994 referendum. After having to accept Finnish membership in the Union, the official strategy of the party has been to try to change the EU from within. What this policy means in practise is a matter of dispute.

    In 1997, the Left Alliance organised a ballot question for party members on Finland’s membership in the European Monetary Union. When the ballot was distributed it came with a disclaimer from the party leadership emphasising that a negative result would entail the Left Alliance’s departure from the Rainbow Cabinet. EMU membership was endorsed by party members and the Left Alliance stayed in office, although the process was criticised as having been manipulated.

    Open discussion of the Left Alliance’s EU policy has been very much avoided ever since. The party has not taken a strong stand on major political issues such as the EU constitution/the Lisbon Treaty. Its official statement called for a referendum, but it has not identified a clear position on the Treaty itself. The majority of the Left Alliance parliamentary group voted against the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 and the EU constitution in 2006. Some MPs, such as the party chairs at the time, Martti Korhonen (2008) and Suvi-Anne Siimes1 (2006), voted for ratification.

    A general assumption, especially among those who are most critical of the EU is that the leadership and the party’s trade-unionists lean toward pro-EU positions whereas the party’s rank-and-file and supporters have a more critical stance. According to a Finnish Business and Policy Forum – EVA survey, in 2008 the supporters of Left Alliance are, after the True Finns, indeed the most critical of the EU. The party MEP in 1996-2009, Esko Seppänen, was very popular among Euro-sceptical voters.

    One reason why Left Alliance did badly in this summer’s EU elections might very well be its lack of coherence and credibility in handling EU matters. The only direct conclusion we can draw from this is the need for a more open debate on the EU and subsequently building a concrete common agenda on what the left alternative should be. What we cannot completely verify, however, is the claim that the majority of the supporters of the party would demand a more Euro-sceptical position towards the EU. If we look at the parties – to which Left Alliance has lost votes – the Euro-sceptical and nationalist True Finns and the liberal and federalist Greens – we cannot assume that the party’s support base only consists of Euro-sceptics. Even though losing the only MEP seat was a catastrophe for the party, it has to be noted that the seat was lost by only a small margin of votes. Left Alliance came close to winning a seat without having a Euro-sceptic as a lead candidate on the list. This point should also be analysed.

    Old-fashioned and male-dominated image

    The majority of the members of Left Alliance are 60 years old and above. One third of the members are over 70 years old. The majority of the members and politicians are male. In the biggest cities, especially the Greens have a female majority in their parliamentary group and have been gaining votes from the left in many of their city council groups. After the resignation of the popular politician and controversial party chair Suvi-Anne Siimes1 in 2006, Left Alliance lost even more female votes. Following the parliamentary elections in 2007, the party’s parliamentary group is the oldest and most male-dominated (17,6 % women) of all of the parties. At the same time, the representation of women in the Finnish Parliament rose to an historic 41.5 %. 

    There is an anti-feminist backlash emerging in Finnish society, which is also directed towards the left, following the rise of the male-dominated True Finns. According to many analyses, the left is losing because it is losing male supporters. For example, after the EP elections the Finnish Broadcasting Company quoted a statement by Juha Eskelinen, the Director of the social democratic think tank Kalevi Sorsa Foundation, that “the core worker is being alienated from the SDP by the female faces in the party leadership”. Analyses of Left Alliance have likewise emphasised that in order to survive the party has to find new ways of appealing to traditional male workers.2

    This narrow definition of a worker – male industrial worker – points to one of the biggest failures of the left: the inability to understand the transformation of capitalism to the post-Fordist mode of production, a new class composition and a new worker subjectivity.3 Factories are being closed, but at the same time the importance of the service sector has been growing for decades. By holding on to a notion of “the traditional worker”, the left neglects today’s workers: low-paid workers with short-term contracts, with often changing workplaces and work units, with growing precarity and more difficulties in organising themselves politically. These people are very often women but also immigrants. The left has relatively little support among nurses and teachers, for example, and this cannot be explained only by their false consciousness. 

    The right and especially the Greens have been able to direct their message towards precarious workers and women. While holding the post of Minister of Labour, the Greens introduced some improvements for precarious workers such as social security for researchers with scholarships. They proposed changes in holiday legislation to have an equally long paid holiday for employees in short-time contracts. They have also produced their own model of basic income, which according to left critics is only a model for producing more low-paid workers in the labour market. The Greens, after all, are part of a cabinet that is widening the gap between rich and poor by gradually abolishing progressive taxation and weakening the public services. However, a left alternative for social reforms that meet the needs of precariously employed people is yet to be seen.

    Hoping for a new beginning

    In the week following the defeat of the Left Alliance in the EU elections party chair Martti Korhonen resigned from his post. An extraordinary meeting of the party council was called for June 27. Two representatives of the younger generation, MPs Paavo Arhinmäki (born 1976) and Merja Kyllönen (born 1977), were running for the chairship. The then vice-president of the party Paavo Arhinmäki won the ballot by 34-20.

    Paavo Arhinmäki has been seen as a left-green radical. While president of the Left Youth in 2001-2005 he was often involved in anti-nuclear power demonstrations and other political actions. After his election to the parliament in 2007, he has been emphasising the importance of climate change for the left agenda. When running for president of the Left Alliance he said: “We will not accept polluting the environment on the basis of creating jobs”.

    The Left Alliance has been officially red-green since its founding in 1990. However, the party image needs a political facelift. There is a minority within it, which includes the parliamentary group, that is in favour of nuclear energy and sees environmental issues as marginal. This has been actively used against the Left Alliance.

    After Paavo Arhinmäki’s election, there have been hypotheses in the Finnish mainstream media that a political shift might occur towards the Left Alliance from the SDP, the Greens and the True Finns. Arhinmäki is a charismatic public figure who knows how to use left rhetoric: some have even called him a populist. As a politician based in Helsinki, he has been able to gain support from young males from the suburbs and other groups of people among whom the True Finns are gaining popularity.

    The challenges still remain. It would hardly suffice for the Left Alliance to position itself as merely “the true social democratic party on the left” when the SDP is leaning towards the right. The Left Alliance must be able to establish a coherent political and social agenda independent from that of the SDP or the Greens. One important aspect would be updating the conception of who today’s workers are. The answer cannot be only to appeal to those “traditional industrial workers” who are now favouring the True Finns. There has to be a deeper analysis of precarity and feminism – and capitalism. In the upcoming five years, without a formal representation in the EU parliament, the party also has to initiate a discussion on a left policy vis-à-vis EU policy and to build stronger networks with other international and local left actors.



    1. During her presidency Suvi-Anne Siimes became a supporter of Finland’s membership in NATO, which stirred a lot of controversy. After her resignation she became the CEO of Pharma Industry Finland. In the EU elections, she supported one of the most famous neoliberals in Finland, Risto E.J. Penttilä who was running for the EP on the Coalition Party list.
    2. Helsingin Sanomat, June2 and June 28, 2009.
    3. For more, see: General Intellect: The Left and the New Workforce. This text is an English translation of a chapter of the book “Left Looking for Work” (Like Publishing Ltd. 2008). The book is the result of a project by the Left Forum and research co-operative General Intellect. 

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