Saturday, April 18, 2015

Machine Politics

As I mentioned in my last post, I’m preparing to vote in Finland’s parliamentary election for the first time.

In the past, I haven’t honestly paid enough attention to national politics here to have a clear idea which party would be my natural political home. In the US binary system of Republicans versus Democrats, my choice has always been much more clear cut. For someone who is severely liberal, as I like to think of myself, there is only one way to go.

In Finland, however, with almost 10 viable parties, some more major than others, I’ll have to give the matter a bit more thought.

In past city council elections, I’ve voted for the Green Party, out of  if nothing else  a vague sense of shared philosophy and the hope that it could affect more eco-friendly policies at the city level.

Of course, when it comes to the broader national government, there are other issues beside waste disposal or public transport to consider.

It often seems that Finland is a very consensus-based country, with no contentious issues seriously polarizing the population. For example, unlike in the US where the two parties are diametrically opposed to each other on government’s role in health care (the Republicans vowing time and again to roll back Obamacare), no credible party in Finland, on the left or the right, would advocate anything as radical as dismantling the state-run healthcare system.

To be sure, there are differences between Finnish parties on other issues, for which the two parties in the American system would be practically indistinguishable, such as the role of capitalism in the economy. (Despite what a Tea Partier would tell you, Democrats are no socialists.) I assume the tiny (only 0.05% of the vote last time) Communist Workers’ Party – For Peace and Socialism (that’s its name, Kommunistinen Työväenpuolue – Rauhan ja Sosialismin Puolesta) truly does want to toss capitalism onto the dustbin of history. You can’t say that about Hillary Clinton.

Still, this Finnish election cycle seems unusually lively, with more placards along the roadside, advertisement on buses, commercials on TV than I ever remember seeing before. Perhaps it’s just because I’m trying to pay more attention, but my sense is that this election is seen as more crucial than most.

Since my command of Finnish still isn’t up to following the political discussions on TV or even always in the print media, my impression of the issues that might make this election so urgent (or seem so urgent) is a bit vague, and perhaps totally incorrect.

Off the top of my head, I can think of three.

I can’t say whether Finns vote with their pocketbooks any more than anyone else, but the economic situation of any country is always an issue. And the situation in Finland isn’t sterling at the moment. In fact, it’s dismal.

Unemployment currently stands at a tad over 10%, not the highest it’s been since the start of the Great Recession, but still up two percent since the last election four years ago and three percent since the summer. Clearly, not a good trend.

Finland has been in a recession off and on for the past seven years, with seven quarters of negative growth (out of 15 reported so far) since the last election. Projections for the next couple of years are for weak growth, at best. Though Finland still retains a AAA credit rating from Fitch and Moody’s, it lost the top rating from Standard & Poors in autumn, sending a minor shock wave through the government.

A recent blog post by Edward Hugh, a Welsh economist and blogger, paints a very dire picture of the future Finland is facing due to something called “secular stagnation”.

For someone like me, who is not an economist and barely a blogger, Hugh’s erudite thesis requires a bit of digestion.

After two readings, what I was able to gleam (or so I think) from it is that the runaway success of Nokia, the bellwether of the Finnish economy back in the pre-crisis glory days, distorted the national labor market (by inflating incomes) to the point that Finland now finds itself uncompetitive against its main trading partners.

The combination of that with a growing population of aging pensioners and a shrinking population of working-age folks threatens to make economic stagnation a permanent feature of Finnish life. That is, at least, without some unpopular and unpleasant changes in government policy, especially related to labor.

Whether Hugh’s post has affected the election campaign in any way, I can’t say, but another economics assessment certainly did create some waves. It was related to another big issue in this campaign – immigration.

As in any country, immigration is a touchy issue here. With Finland’s climate, difficult language, and the current state of the economy, you might wonder there would be any rush to migrate here in the first place.

That said, some 32,000 people moved here in 2013. That’s the highest yearly influx ever, though that’s still only 0.6% of the population (one-fifth of the per capita legal immigration into the US). It has changed Finnish society, no doubt, though to what degree or to what lasting effect might be debatable. Many people I know see immigration as having a neutral or mostly net positive impact on Finnish life.

Others would disagree. And those Finns who feel uncomfortable, even hostile, over the prospect of more immigration have increasingly been drawn to the xenophobic Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset), which upset the apple cart of Finnish politics in the last election with its unexpected success in parliament, boosting the party's presence from 5 to 34 seats.

Since then, the Finns Party doesn’t seem to be softening its stance any on immigration. A paper by a think tank associated with the party made headlines recently when it claimed to show how much immigrants from different countries cost Finnish taxpayers, with those from war-torn third-world nations (Iraq and Somalia, in particular) not faring well at all by comparison. Even if the numbers crunched in this analysis are valid, breaking down the cost of immigration along ethnic or nationalistic lines unfortunately adds an element of divisiveness into the election. Which, I guess, was largely the point.

The Finns Party is also strongly Eurosceptic, which brings us to the last big issue in this election, Finland’s relationship with the EU, Russia and NATO. Well, actually, relations with the EU isn't a big issue. My impression is that support for the EU is still strong among most Finns, despite complications with Greek debt and Russian sanctions. 

A major issue that wasn't even on the horizon four years ago is relations with Russia. In the marathon TV debate Thursday night between leaders of the eight major parties, I kept hearing the word "venäjä" repeated over and over.  

Russia's annexation of Crimea and sable-rattling elsewhere, especially in the Baltic Sea, has also breathed some life into the perennial, but usually peripheral, question of whether to join NATO. 

The current Prime Minister Alexander Stubb and many in his National Coalition Party support NATO membership. Most Finns (57%) still oppose it, though with Russian nationalism and military adventurism on the rise, support for joining the Western alliance has increased to 27% from 16% about four years ago. 

NATO will surely be one of those issues on the minds of voters this Sunday, though there are many others. Which can make choosing the right candidate or party a challenge, especially for me.

Luckily, there is a tool called a Vaalikone (“Election Machine”) published by the Helsingin Sanomat, to help you gauge which is the correct party for you. It’s a questionnaire, covering the economy, laws, society, and world affairs, that attempts to match your views to the positions of different parties. Several of the 30 questions have to do with the role of government in social services and the balance between environment and business. And naturally, there are questions about NATO, the EU, and immigration, but also about the government regulation of taxis, apparently inspired by Uber. That’s an issue I didn’t see coming.

Maybe I’ll also be surprised by the results I get from the Vaalitkone. We’ll see, though I'm pretty sure the “machine” won’t be telling me I should be voting for the Kommunistinen Työväenpuolue on Sunday. Too bad for them. They could probably use the votes.


  1. Interesting essay.

    Reading your stuff about Russia is like reading the right wing news here in the USA. I can almost see your stance having been unduly influenced by your newly-minted citizenship. I don't understand the recent concern by you liberals over Russia's so-called "military adventurism". Where is it? What nation have they invaded? Where are all of their foreign military bases? (The USA has something like 600 foreign military installations.) How many brown people have the Russians killed in the past ten years? (USA/EU count is well over one million mass murdered over that span.)

    I have always tended to see my own nation and its military alliances as the most dangerous and "adventurous" of the world's armed forces. Far more harmful than anything from Russia or China or any of the other nations we're told to fear and hate.

    All of the liberals--yourself included--harp endlessly about Ukraine, when it was the USA and forces in the EU and NATO who overthrew the elected government of Ukraine to install a hard right pro-EU government (with neo-Nazi help).

    I have noted with interest the number of political murders committed by the power elite in Ukraine over the past couple of weeks.

    And yet you complain of "Russian adventurism".

    I have to laugh.

    Still and all, you guys seem to have actual choices in your elections. Unlike here in the States. I always vote the straight Democratic ticket. Always have and always will. It's a joke, of course, as ultimately there is only the most minor of differences between the two wings of the capitalist rulers here. We get slightly better environmental legislation under Democrats, and slightly better civil rights legislation under Democrats. But ultimately, they both pander to the economic elite who pull the actual strings and make the final decisions. It's a sad joke.

    But I'd rather have Finland's parliamentary system with some actual choices than what I face here every couple of years. (Yes, even though I know it's a sham, I still stubbornly vote in practically every election. Why? The "stubborn" part, I reckon.)

    1. Look, Jimmy-Bob... May I call you Jimmy-Bob? Perhaps I shouldn't.

      Anyway, Russian actions look quite different you're across the border from them in a country of 5 million than when you're across the globe in a country of 320 million. For years, they've been on a quest to become a strong geopolitical player again and that means being aggressive on things and messing with other countries. It's not nice to be a neighbour now, though, to be fair, it never really has. From a strictly Finnish point of view it seems as they're extremely committed to getting Finland to join NATO, which we don't really want to do.

      I should also point out that the American adventurism does not in any way justify the Russian actions. It's not a counter-balance, it's just more people making a mess. The adventurism is one of the reasons many people don't want to join the NATO: You become a target for the enemies the US keeps making and creating. Being spied on, etc., isn't fun either. The Russians, though, seem hell-bent on getting their superpower status back, which means projecting their power on and establishing a sphere of influence. They're not targeting the US, that's a lost cause, they're targeting others and it's not exactly all done above board. Ask the Russian mothers of "Ukrainian rebels" who are going back to Russia in a box. You don't get casualties if they're not fighting somewhere.

      The talk about political assassinations committed by the Ukrainian government sounds very much like something the Russian "troll factories" pump out daily, like the talk about the demonstrations and the change of government being orchestrated by the US and the EU. Influence: yes, probably. Orders, instructions, suggestions: no. The Ukrainians have lived under Russian rule and as their neighbours. They know to be wary. The divide in the country follows the borders of the historic, Western Polish and Lithuanian rule. It's not any more foreign or illegitimate than the "Russian" side is.

      Even when the Russian stance wasn't as aggressive as it currently is, and even when they supposedly didn't have those "troll factories", they did this shit. Take it from a Finn. This shit drops on our lap on a regular basis. They've had quite a few "scandals" about how we do things - like the child service thing, where the agency couldn't respond to the false allegations because they had to maintain privacy of the people concerned. I felt the idea that a government agency would respect the rights of individuals seemed curiosly foreign and hard-to-get for them.

      You seem to have a blind spot. Just because the American mainstream media sucks, it doesn't mean the alternative, more sincere sources are necessarily any more reliable. Smaller operation means they're likely to be more gullible (less resources for independent, in-depth fact-checking and digging in deep to verify the original source). They've really driven the independent news sources underground in Russia. Remember Politkovskaya? I think they've shut down or taken over a couple of the more prominent outlets since then and the smaller ones we don't get to hear about. Earlier you could read their stuff as reliable, accessible source. Now, those sources are either less accessible or taken over and, thus, less reliable.

    2. As for voting and election systems, I agree with you. The winner-takes-all system is stupid as it either presents false choices, false dichotomy and false consensus being the most obvious ones.

      What I think you should do is to vote in the democratic primary to push for a more liberal, leftist, progressive, etc. policy (which is what I assume you want) within the party and within the candidates. That's where the party line and policy is made in a system like yours.

      If the Republicans had done that, they hadn't driven their party off the cliff the way they have. They only had the minority voting and that minority push tends to always be towards the political right, because that's where the powerful and the wealthy want it. They are the interested minority with the most resources to push their agenda. That's why the left has traditionally fought (and won) with numbers, the head count, and not with individuals. The main symbolic difference between a group of right-wingers and a group of left-wingers is whether they fall in line behind a guy.

    3. Bob, what has influenced my “stance” has nothing to do with citizenship status. It’s not as if the new Finnish citizenship package comes complete with Dr. Molotov’s Russophobia indoctrination program (in 10 easy steps!). Jeeze.

      No seriously, my attitude toward Russia has evolved over the years. To be honest, until recently I hadn’t given Russia much thought. Though it is right next door, the hurdles to traveling there are higher than elsewhere in Europe, so we never really bothered going there on holiday. Much easier to go to Paris than to Moscow. And I do love Paris. We had been considering taking a boat trip to St. Petersburg last summer, then after events in Crimea, I lost interest.

      Until recent years, I had been optimistic that Russia was well on its way to becoming a “normal” European country. Life is surely better there now than immediately after the Soviet collapse. Still, there have been occasional signs that things have started to regress a bit. The arrest of Pussy Riot, the arrest of Seppo Knuuttila, the Arctic Sunrise case, the gay propaganda law, these all got a decent amount of attention here in Finland and contributed to the image of Russia as something of a banana republic.

      That said, a year ago I could not have imagined Russia would militarily annex one part of a neighboring country and wage a proxy war in another part (and not in a distant, tiny place like Georgia, but in a major nation much closer to Europe). It was shocking. It changed many people’s perception of the nature of modern Russia, mine included.

      Now, I realize you would never recognize Crimea’s annexation as an invasion or occupation, or that there is any Russian participation in the fighting in Eastern Ukraine. Maybe you accept the idea that fresh-faced Russian conscripts from Perm or Novosibirsk, pumped up with Russian nationalism, are willingly volunteering to fight and die in a country they’ve probably never been to. And maybe they are. Maybe Russia’s much better at stoking patriotic fervor than America is.

      And about American military adventures, these are well known. Even liberals have not forgotten Vietnam, at least not liberals of my age. If I were writing about Iraq, or Vietnam (circa 1967), or Grenada (circa 1983), or Dresden (circa 1945), then perhaps I should have brought up the sins of the Americans. However, I was writing about the Finnish election and the issues that most concern Finnish voters. At the moment, those include the actions (recent and possible future) of Russia, not the actions of the US. Not everything is always about America.