Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Helsinki Voted: The Also Rans

I didn’t manage to cover, as I originally planned to do, all the parties involved in the Helsinki city council election, at least not before election day itself, this past Sunday. 

So, for the sake of tying up loose threads, I’m going to briefly mention the seven plus parties that also ran. 

Liberaalipuolue, (The Liberal Party). This is another one of those very minor parties, and a new one. It was registered as a formal party only last year, after existing briefly as an unofficial protest group called the “Whiskey Party”. I’m guessing by its slogan Vapaus valita (“Freedom to Choose”), that it has a libertarian bent. It won no seats on the council. 

The Liberal Party. "Cheaper housing, freer Helsinki."

Itsenäisyyspuolue or IPU, (The Independence Party). Another small, fringe party, whose main program is Finland’s exiting the EU. It won no seats. 

The Independence Party. "Decision-making close, humanity the priority."

Perussuomalaiset, (The True Finns). This party has gained some international attention as one of those rising anti-immigrant, xenophobic, EU-skeptic right-wing parties, like France’s National Front or UKIP. It seems, however, that PS is rising no longer. 

In a US context, PS wouldn’t be seen as so completely right-wing, in the sense that it has no desire to touch Finland’s generous welfare system, a system which any right-thinking American conservatives would recoil at as being “socialist”. PS would probably argue that it’s safeguarding the social welfare system -- by keeping unwanted and undeserving immigrants from accessing it. It may not be a winning argument. 

In the Helsinki city council PS lost two of its previous eight seats. Its municipal support in the country overall dropped by 3.5%, making it this election’s biggest loser. 

True Finns. "Your vote worth it, because of True Finns"

Svenska folkpartiet i Finland, (Swedish People’s Party of Finland). This is the party that has traditionally advocated for the interests of Swedish speakers, Finland largest linguistic minority (about five percent of the country). Other than protecting the official status of the Swedish language in the public sphere, the party has a broadly liberal agenda that no doubt attracts the votes of some non-Swedish speakers. The party retained its five seats (eller, dess fim platser). 

The Swedish People's Party. "Near you in Helsinki."

Suomen Keskusta, (The Central Party of Finland). This is one of the three major parties nationwide, along with Kokoomus and the Social Democrats. It is basically an agrarian party, so naturally its support base is concentrated in the countryside. Urban Helsinki, no so much. The party lost one of the three seats it held in the last council.

Keskusta. "Caregivers in Helsinki."

Kansallinen Kokoomus, (The National Coalition Party). Finland’s pro-business party, which you might think makes it analogous to the American Republicans, or at least old fashioned “Country Club” Republicans. That is, it’s pro-business without the social conservativism and anti-government obsessions of modern-day Republicans. 

Kokoomus gained two seats in Sunday’s elections, strengthening its position as the council’s biggest party with 25 seats. 

Kokoomus. "The makers of Helsinki's future."

Vihreä liitto, (The Green League). The Greens, a well-established, yet relatively young party (30-years-old, this year), was the big winner in the election, increasing its support nationwide by almost 4%, the most of any party, and adding three seats in Helsinki, bringing it to 21. 

It is, naturally enough, a party dedicated to environmental and human-rights issues. 

The Greens. "Together a better Helsinki."

Otherwise in the election, the SDP lost 3 seats, holding its position as the third-biggest party, with 12 seats. Vasemmisto gained one seat, bringing it up to ten. The Feminist party won its first ever seat, as did the Pirate Party. 

The Christian Democrats kept its two seats, though one will now be filled by Keskusta politician Paavo Väyrynen, whom I was earlier shocked to see on the Christian Dems list. I have since learned that Väyrynen joined the CD list after Keskusta refused to allow him to run in his native Lapland. The move seemed to work out for him. 

Parties that won not even a single seat were the marginal leftist parties the Communist Workers’ Party and the Communist Party of Finland, which lost the one seat it did have. 

Some parties I’d never even heard of, such as the Suomen Eläinoikeuspuolue (Animal Rights Party) and Edistyksellistä Helsinkiä (Progressive Helsinki) also got no seats. 

I’m happy to say voter turnout in my neighborhood was 71.8%, better than the 61.6% for Helsinki overall. We are some politically engaged folks around here! 

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Helsinki Votes: Not So Marginal Leftists

There are four parties in the Helsinki city council race that can be described as “leftist”. The two that I’ve talked about already I called “marginal”, as in totally insignificant. The remaining two are anything but. 

The biggest of these, the Social Democratic Party of Finland (“Suomen Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue”, or SDP) is one of the nation’s three bellwether parties. Of the four presidents who have been in office since I first came to Finland in 1982, three have been Social Democrats, including Finland’s first woman president Tarja Halonen. 

I’ve always imagined the demarit, as they are nicknamed, sit somewhere between capitalism and actual communism, with strongly pro-labor values, but with no intent of imposing on Finland anything like a dictatorship of the proletariat. 

No similar party of any note exists in the US, certainly not the Democrats. Of all America's household-name politicians, only Vermont’s Senator Bernie Sanders self-identifies as a Social Democrat, which makes him an outlier in American mainstream politics. Here, he’d be the mainstream. 

Until 2004, the SDP was the second biggest party in the Helsinki city council, behind business-friendly Kokoomus. Since then, it’s often come in third place behind the Greens. And so it was in the last election, in which the party won 15 seats (Kokoomus 23 and Greens 19).

This time around it’s fielding 127 candidates. 

The SDP list. "Anna ääni kaupungille!" ("Give a vote to the city!")

To the left of the SDP, but smaller, is the Left Alliance (Vasemmistoliitto), which currently has nine seats in the 85-seat city council. 

The Left Alliance was founded only in 1990 (compared to 1899 for the SDP), and my impression is that it rose from the kind of messy splitting and merging of various leftist parties that leftist parties everywhere seem to be known for. Think of the old Monty Python joke in “The Life of Brian” – where the bitterest enemy of “the People’s Front of Judea” other than the Romans were, naturally, “the Judean People’s Front”, if not "the Popular Front of Judea".  

While a truly “leftist” party, the Left Alliance is not fringe by any means. Its 29-year-old leader, Li Andersson, has been prominently featured on all the public-affairs shows and televised political debates, something the small Communist parties can only dream of. 

The party currently accounts for about 6% of the national parliament, and for a while even occupied a cabinet seat in the government's famous “six-pack” grand coalition a few years back. Chances are that won’t happen again any time soon, but keeping its seats in the Helsinki city council is a much surer bet.

The 127 Vasemmisto candidates for the Helsinki city council. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Helsinki Votes: Marginal Leftists

Not surprisingly for a European country, and you might say especially for one that was on the fringes of the Russian Revolution, leftist politics has a long and storied history in Finland.  

When under threat of arrest in Petrograd in 1917, it was to Finland that Lenin – apparently not a man of great personal courage -- had escaped, living some months underground in Hakaniemi, the traditionally “Red” part of Helsinki.  

In a Hakaniemi bar called Juttutupa, there is still today a table where Lenin and Finnish Bolshevik Otto-Ville Kuusinen used to sit, maybe having a drink or two, but no doubt mostly discussing Marxism and revolution and other such breezy topics. It’s called “The Revolution Table”.  

(On an American-related note, the leader of the Communist Party USA was for some forty years a man named Gus Hall, the son of Finnish immigrants to Minnesota.)  

So, it’s perhaps not shock that there is an assortment of leftist parties to choose from in Finland, though for the most part, their influence has been greatly diminished over the last few decades.  

Two of them could be charitably called “marginal”, at best.  

The Communist Party of Finland (Suomen Kommunistinen Puolue or SKP), won only 9 municipal council seats in the 2012 election – in the entire country. One of those was in Helsinki. In this election, they are fielding 53 candidates (including unaffiliated ones) for the Helsinki city council.  

The SKP list. "Helsinkimme ei ole myytävänä" ("Our Helsinki is not for sale")

The Communist Workers’ Party – For Peace and Socialism (Kommunistinen Työäenpuolue – Rauhan ja Sosialismin puolesta) is even more marginal. In the last election, it didn’t win a single council seat nationwide, and got a total of only 704 votes -- also in the entire country. It has only seven candidates in the Helsinki race.  

The Communist Workers' Party -- For Peace and Socialism.

I don’t have the deep understanding of Marxism (or any for that matter) or patience to tease out what sets these two parties apart. Way too esoteric for me. I also can’t be bothered to contemplate how many angles can dance on the head of a pin.  

In any case, the SKP is described as a Marxist party, while the other one is described as a Marxist-Leninist party. With only 704 votes last year, the extra ingredient of Leninist doesn’t seem to be doing the trick.  

A side note: the term “Leninism” has popped recently in American political discourse, since Donald Trump’s “Senior Counselor”, Steven Bannon, has described himself as a “Leninist” -- in the sense that he wants to blow up the status quo, in particular the “administrative state”. 

Of course, as of this writing, it seems Bannon’s star is falling, so you might say he’s being marginalized. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Helsinki Votes: Feminists and Pirates

Unlike the United States, Finland has quite a few political parties to choose from, including some fairly small ones. Many of the small fry, it has to be said, hold no real sway over public affairs. Or ever will. 

Still, compared to the US paradigm where you basically have the choice of voting for one of two big parties, even if those parties only partly match your view of what matters in public life, Finnish voters can probably take some satisfaction in being able to cast a ballot for a more personalized party, one that much better fit their points of view. Even if those may be very niche points of view.

One such "niche" party I've noticed now fielding candidates in the Helsinki city election is a completely brand new one: Feministinen Puolue (The Feminist Party). Color-branded in pink, naturally enough.

The party's three focus areas are gender equality, non-discrimination, and human security. In other words, an overarching concern for human-rights issues. This dovetails, from a progressive perspective, with some of the most relevant -- or some would say contentious -- issues in Finland today: immigration and multiculturalism.

This progressive bent is reflected somewhat in the makeup of the 24 candidates in the Helsinki race. Two are wearing hajids, for example. 

Of course, multiculturalism and gender issues figure prominently in other Finnish parties on the progressive side, so you might think there's some redundancy in launching a new, narrowly focused party. But, if you really wanted to concentrate your political energies on these particular issues, a new start-up targeting a niche of voters could be the right way to go. The marketplace at work in politics, you could say. 

"Kaupunki ilman rasismia" (City without racism.) 
Another niche party is, in a sense, an immigrant. Okay, more like an import. The Finnish Piraattipuolue (Pirate Party) was created in 2008, a couple of years after its sister (or maternal?) party was founded in Sweden. 

While the party has a unsurprisingly computer-geek/renegade vibe to it, many of the issues it is concerned with are now -- in this age of Wikileaks and surveillance worries -- a big part of today's mainstream news cycle. 

The party's wheelhouse are "information" policies that touch on privacy, transparency, freedom of speech, and -- as you might expect for a party with "pirate" in its name -- the overhauling of copyright and patent restrictions. The temptation to say "keelhauling" instead was very hard to resist. Arrr!

The party also proposes replacing the existing social welfare system with "basic income", which has been widely discussed in Finland in recent years, and is in fact being trialed on a limited basis. 

It's a distinctive set of issues that might very well pique the interest of some voters, though in its nine years of existence, the party has apparently never had a candidate elected to any office. With that in mind, it will be interesting to see how its 31 candidates for the Helsinki City Council fare on Sunday. 

Some of these guys do have a striking resemblance to Johnny Depp.
Well, maybe one anyway

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Helsinki Votes: Christian Democrats

In the Helsinki City Council election this Sunday, one of the mainstream parties vying for my vote is the Christian Democrats (Kristillisdemokraatit). It’s a somewhat minor party, currently holding only two seats in the city council and only five in the national parliament.

The national party is led by Sari Essayah, a 50 year-old woman who I still more often think of as a champion race walker. She competed in the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. She also enjoys, in a sense, some name-recognition due to having a decidedly non-Finnish family name, Essayah, which comes from her Moroccan father.

As I scanned the list of KD’s 123 candidates displayed on a placard at the end of my street last week, I was shocked to see among them Paavo Väyrynen, a veteran Finnish politician. Very veteran. He’s been around forever. What surprised me was that, as far as I knew, Väryrynen has always been a member of a different party, the Keskusta, for which he has been a parliament and cabinet member and two-time presidential candidate. And, I thought he lives in Lapland, at least officially, not Helsinki. As it turns out, in the KD list he is marked as sitoutumaton (unaffiliated), which means he’s attaching his wagon to the Christian Democrats only for this race.

As the name Christian Democrat implies – well not implies, but states outright – the party is based on a particular religion and reflects the concerns of the more religious elements of the Finland population. My sense is that KD supporters are drawn mostly from Lutherans, and not so much from the Russian Orthodox.

As an openly religious party, you might compare the KD to America’s Republican Party, which is now, more than ever, an implicitly Christian party, despite recently electing the most un-Christ-like president you can possibly imagine.

But there are big differences. On the KD’s website (available in Finnish, Swedish, and English), you’ll find that its concerns are mainly health and well-being for families and the environment.

Some of the specific aims detailed in what might be called its manifesto for the municipal elections, entitled in English “Called to Care”, are such goals as: 
  • Services for families must be increased to support parenthood and to help manage everyday life.
  • School performance must be improved. Finland succeeds with know-how.
  • We want mould resistant municipalities. [For Americans, this would be "mold resistant".]
  • We want a comprehensive [health] service promise. Treatment must be available quickly and neighbourhood services accessible. Health inequalities have to be decreased.
  • We defend smooth and affordable public transport
Missing from the list are many of the hot-button issues that get Republican Christians in the US so riled up. There’s no mention of abortion. There’s certainly no mention of same-sex marriage or which public bathroom a transgender person should be allowed to use. No mention of "religious freedom". (Of course, you might not expect such national-level issues to feature in local elections anyway.)

Now, I can’t say for certain that such culturally conservative topics aren’t, in fact, motivating issues for some Christians in Finland, and maybe even internally within the Christian Democratic Party. 

But, if so they aren’t widely discussed, perhaps due to the fact that such socially conservative views would be considered far outside the Finnish mainstream. Religious Finns don’t typically wear their faith on their sleeves the way Americans do and certainly don't political about it. You might say this reflect a general Finnish "live-and-let live" attitude.  Or maybe it's a reluctance to stray far outside a relatively narrow consensus of society.  

In any case, the word “Christian” (or any kind of reference to religion) appears only once in the KD "manifesto", in the following statement:
  • Let’s play Suvivirsi. We cherish the Christian cultural heritage of Finland.
Now, this is an interesting issue, and it involves a song. 

Suvivirsi, which translates to “Summer Hymn”, is a song about the end of the school year and the beauty of the approaching summer. As any parent who has attended a year-end grammar-school happening will tell you, Suvivirsi is a firmly embedded Finnish traditional. After the schoolkids have finished their little plays and musical performances, after the ceremonious handing out of certificates for graduating students, after the fidgeting of the kids in the audience reaches a critical mass, everyone in the auditorium stands up and sings Suvivirsi as a long-awaited denouement to the school year.

In years past, I took part in this sing-along many times but, as with any song in Finnish, I was able to only hum along, since I had no clue about the lyrics. Everyone else in the auditorium knew the words by heart. And it’s an issue over those words – including a couple of references to God, the Creator – that has caused the song to be specifically mentioned in KD’s manifesto.

I have heard that, as highly secular Finland has become perhaps more conspicuously less Christian than in years past, Suvivirsi has created a controversy of some sort. 

Some people have questioned why schoolkids who are non-religious or of another faith, for example Muslim, should have to sing a hymn that flatters a Lutheran deity. I think there may even be cases where schools have already dispensed with the song altogether. This, naturally, can rub some people the wrong way.

Since our kids left school some years ago I can't say if anything has actually changed at our local school. I'm guessing the song is still being sung at the end of the year, the lyrics unchanged. And, personally, I don’t see why this should be a big deal.

Okay, it’s true that it’s a Lutheran hymn, referencing Jumala (“God”) and Herra (“Lord”). So, the song obviously assumes some religious belief. Naturally, I can't say for certain how Muslims see it, but – wading into some tricky theological waters here – I’ve understood they worship the same “God” as the Lutherans do, so singing a line or two about that god shouldn’t seem so out of line. Perhaps they would take issue with Herra, which I assume refers to Jesus. Still, how much of an affront should this be to the average Muslim? Again, I can't claim any special insight to that question. 

In many ways, it's the atheists who should have more cause for objecting to Suvivirsi. and perhaps do. Yet, I know atheists, principally in my own family, who have no problem with singing it. They see it as more "cultural", than actually "religious". I tend to agree. Perhaps another example of the Finnish live-and-let-live attitude. 

In any case, Suvivirse may be a natural talking point for the Christian Democrats that sets them apart from most of the other parties, but I can't imagine it will be a big enough issue to garner another Helsinki City Council seat or two. Guess we'll see after Sunday's election.