Helsinki and Porvoo, Finland. Europe Day, 9 May 2014
Voter turnout at the 2009 European Parliament elections in Finland stood at just over 40%. To combat this in 2014, European Movement Finland has set out an ambitious challenge of hitting the road for a number of weeks to campaign for greater voter participation in the European electoral process. While other EU Member States have resorted to holding other forms of elections simultaneously to boost electoral turnout (for example, Ireland are also holding local municipality elections and parliamentary bye-elections, while Denmark are holding a referendum on the Unified Patent Court), Finland are going it alone with focus given solely to European elections.
With the plan set, the biggest cities and towns will be visited by European Movement Finland and their fold-out truck with an army of volunteers to get out the message. Whilst the array of political parties within the most north-easterly member state will be virtually unknown to outsiders, the main parties consist of what is relatively common in European democracies – a centre party, a centre-left, and a centre-right, with emerging factions on either side. The most prominent Finnish politician that Irish people would be familiar with is the current Vice-President of the Commission, the Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, Olli Rehn, who has featured predominantly due to the EU/IMF bailout arrangements that were put in place for Ireland in 2010. He himself is standing as a candidate for the European Parliament in Finland, notwithstanding his initial expression of interest in seeking a third term in the Commission, including the Presidency.
The new European party strategies of yielding their candidate for the President of the Commission in advance of the elections can be safely said to be making little on the ground, with little sense of the public noticing who the likes of Juncker (EPP), Schultz (S&D) or Verhofstadt (ALDE) even are. The Finnish electorate aren’t alone in this regard, with it becoming clearer that such discrepancies are prevalent right throughout Europe with political debates nearly always domestic in nature – so-called ‘second order national elections’. An indication of this occurring in Finland is a number of weeks is real. In 2011 parliamentary elections against the backdrop of the prolonged Eurozone crisis (Finland being the only Nordic country within the Euro), the Finns Party, a populist and Eurosceptic movement went from holding 5 to 39 seats out of 200 in total, a 15% jump from 2007 parliamentary elections and is now the leading opposition party within the country.
This national dimension of transformation is also internal within various party structures, with just this week seeing internal party elections being the political talk of the week. During Europe Day, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (also the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance) was ousted in an internal election battle by a trade union leader with no parliamentary or Ministerial experience whatsoever. Change is also underway in the lead part of Government, with the current Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen stepping down as Chairman of Kokoomus (the National Coalition Party) shortly, and is expected to take up a senior position in Brussels later this year, widely anticipated to be in either the Council or the Commission. A leadership contest is currently underway to find a successor with three leading candidates eyeing the top job: Jan Vapaavuori, the Minister of Economic Affairs; Alexander Stubb, the Minister for European Affairs and Foreign Trade; and Paula Risikko, the Minister of Health and Social Services. The winner in June will assume the Chairmanship of the party, and more prestigiously, hold the office of the Prime Minister in the run-up to next year’s parliamentary elections. With the leaders of the two main parties in Finland changing in quick succession, the national elections scheduled for April 2015 will certainly be one to watch.
This campaign undertaken by European Movement Finland and all the various political parties would suggest, despite the entire country being a single constituency for European Parliament elections, that having boots on the ground and engaging with voters on a one-to-one basis in still vitally important for portraying the message and importance of these upcoming elections. Recent polling conducted throughout the geographically large but least population dense EU member state anticipates that over 60% of people hold the intention to vote on Sunday, 25th May. If the actual figures turn out this way, Eurooppalainen Suomi ry (European Movement Finland) will have much to be proud of.
Graham Butler travelled to Finland as part of European Movement Ireland’s participation in Campaign Europe!, an international project, devised and led by European Movement Finland, which aims to boost awareness of and engagement with Europe in Ireland, Finland, Albania and Slovenia through 2014. Learn more about Campaign Europe! here.