Jarmo Mäkelä: secret defence policy deal sealed between Finnish parties

Jarmo Mäkelä
, kolumnist
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Heads of Finnish political parties have agreed regarding defence policy different than thus far presented to public, Finish journalist Jarmo Mäkelä tells Estonian Newspaper Association conference this Thursday.

Underneath, find full text of report by Jarmo Mäkelä.

About a month ago there was a short sketch played out in the YLE Leaks, a popular news comedy television show, where the host was asking a panel of experts, what they thought about the results of the general election in Estonia. This seemed to take the panelists totally by surprise and none of them had anything to say. The topic was dropped.

I am sure that this audience is better informed about the details of the political life in Finland than the experts of the YLE Leaks were on Estonia, but just in case, I go over shortly the main features of where we are right now.

The latest poll conducted by Taloustutkimus for YLE, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, included an ambitious attempt to forecast also the number of mandates the parties will gain in the next parliament. Here is what was predicted.

We have eight parties represented in the parliament. Out of the eight one seems to be clearly ahead of all others, three belong to the middle sized group and four parties are considered to be small.

The one in the lead was the biggest looser of the last general election four years ago, when its position changed from being the leader of the government and the biggest party in parliament into being the smallest party in opposition. I am speaking about the Center Party – which should not be mixed with the party with a similar name in Estonia. 

According to the latest poll the Center Party is going to have about 25 percent of the vote and 56 mandates in the parliament – an addition of 21 mandates – which is more than this party has ever had. Mr. Juha Sipilä, the chairman of the party will most probably be our next Prime Minister.

The three middle sized parties are all fighting within a margin of one percent point from each other – the Social democrats with 17 percent and 35 mandates, the National Coalition Party, our conservatives, presently the biggest party and the party of the Prime Minister, is now running at 16 percent and is expected to reach 33 mandates – which will make it the biggest looser of the election – and the True Finns with 15 percent and 31 mandates.

Out of the four small parties the Left Alliance and the Greens will both be able to reach 9 percent of the vote and 16 mandates. The Swedish People's Party and the Christian Democrats will share the rest.

According to the pollster the figures given above should be ”reasonably reliable”. I don't believe in it. Almost half of those interviewed for this poll refused to state their preference. This is more than ever. Therefore we should expect a surprise in one way or another. We are going to see one more round of polls before the election takes place on April 19th. Perhaps they will indicate what kind of surprise we should be looking at.   

But if the polls have any value at all, we should be able to assume, that the Center is so much ahead of all the others that its leader will form the next government. But how?

As the figures show, two biggest parties cannot form a majority government. In the best of case number one and number two will have 91 mandates out of two hundred. If you add one of the small parties, the majority will be held hostage by that party. That's a no-go.

In order to form a solid majority government two of the three middle sized parties are needed. But which two? Theoretically there are three combinations which all produce a majority ranging from 110 mandates to 114. In any of these combinations one or more smaller parties could be added without them holding the majority as hostage.  

My prognoses is the  following: Three parties will enter the next government for sure – the Center Party, the Swedish People's Party and the True Finns. This combination will be amended with the party which will come in second in the general election, that is, either the Social democrats or the conservatives.

With the exception of the biggest party what finally matters is not the order in which the parties reach the goal. What really matters is that they are ready to cooperate with one another. It also matters a lot which way the future Prime Minister will make his choice. And here I come to the topic of my presentation, the foreign and security policies.

Finland's external position has changed profoundly within just a year due to reasons known to us all: Russia's aggression in Ukraine, its hostility towards its neighbors, the EU and the USA, its violation of international law and basic accords of European security architecture and its military build-up. The economic sanctions imposed against Russia by the EU and the counter sanctions have had a significant impact on the Finnish economy. 

One might think that due to these reasons foreign policy and security issues would play a major role in the electoral campaigns of the Finnish political parties. This is not, however, the case.

In order to understand this I have to make you familiar with the three iron laws of the public political discourse in Finland. The laws are not well known and understood by our friends, not even by our Estonian relatives.

Law number one: What is strongly and absolutely denied is always true. Law number two: What is never spoken of at all is always important Law number three: What is spoken of endlessly is of no significance.

Thus if you hear a chorus of Finnish politicians shouting that Finland is under no threat or pressure by Russia – just the opposite is the case. If they keep silent about the direction of the internal developments in Russia, it means, that something very important is going on.

Now when you know this it comes to you as no surprise that out of the eight parties represented in the parliament, three do not have an electoral platform on foreign or security policies at all. One has only a platform on national defense,  and the word Russia is mentioned once in the platforms of the two of the parties.

It is fairly obvious that the strategic challenge Russia is posing on the European Union has an impact also on Finland. It also clear that Finland is a target of many forms of Russia's information warfare. Only one candidate, Center Party's Olli Rehn, deputy speaker of the European parliament, has openly stated that these threats are real and that against them Finland is practically helpless. None of the parties have, however, anything to say about these challenges in their programs.

But there is an explanation to all this. Shortly before Christmas the President of Finland invited all party leaders for a confidential discussion. There is no public record of the meeting, but it is assumed that a fairly broad consensus was reached on the most sensitive issues of foreign and security policies.

This is my purely personal assumption of the substance of the consensus:

  1. When the previous government was formed four year ago, it was agreed, that the government would not even make preparations for an eventual Finnish membership in NATO. Now it was agreed that such a stupidity will not be repeated;
  2. None of the parties would insist on leaving an application for NATO membership during the next four years – and none of the parties would object to Finland's option to seek membership if that would be considered necessary. The cooperation with NATO will be intensified by utilizing the possibilities opened by NATO’s summit in Wales;
  3. The defense cooperation with Sweden will be continued towards an eventual defense alliance. This is where the young leader of the Swedish People's Party Carl Haglund has played a major role – and may play also in the future; 
  4. The national defense will be taken care of and a major investment in the armed forces' capabilities will be made during the next government's term in office. It shall be made clear that Finland is both able and ready to defend herself militarily – a point that is important for our neighbors as well as our friends to know. This is the key demand of the True Finns – in all other matters they are supposed to be flexible.

The fact that there is so little public discourse or that it takes place on an incredibly low professional level, does not mean that we don't understand.  Conclusions have been drawn and active measures will be taken even if the politicians do not seek a democratic mandate for them.

What then lies behind the President's Christmas intervention? Many of the party leaders are very inexperienced, almost incapable of dealing with such questions of national security. In these matters they are more than ready to hand over the leadership to the President and to concentrate in internal matters of economy and social security – which can clearly be seen in the parties' programs. 

Since the conservatives have a clear policy on NATO and are firmly committed to Finland's position in the western family of democratic nations and within the EU, the key question is, what is the real foreign policy line of the Center and that of the Social democrats.

In their long electoral programs both have a few very general lines of very little substance on foreign and security policy. The reason is clear. Basic differences on the Finnish foreign and security policy divide both parties. There exists an influential wing in the Center Party according to which Finland should never go against Russia and should give up the EU sanctions. At the moment this wing is considered to be a minority.

The problem with the Social democrats is different. It is a firmly held belief by the Finnish left that the real enemy of all progressive people and of the working man in particular, is the United States. They know very well that in Europe there is not a more reactionary government of exploitative capitalism than that of  Russia. But since the enemy of my enemy is my friend, they are ready to forgive Russia of all its shortcomings. There is a strong wing within the Social democrats holding this belief. Those following the true Social democratic line of Western European origin are in a small minority. 

Finland used to be a presidential democracy. This is no longer the case. According to the new constitution the President directs the foreign policy in cooperation with the government. This has been interpreted in the way that Finland's policy vise-a-vise the EU is directed by the Prime Minister – otherwise the President is the principal actor.

Under peaceful conditions this division of work might play out well. But in the present international situation it doesn't work. It is, f.ex., impossible to separate the Finnish policy vise-a-vise Russia from its policy to the EU. Therefore, already by now, all decisions taken on the Eu’s policy vise-a-vise Russia and Ukraine have been taken together with the president. In the future, however, a totally new interpretation will be needed.

It is not clear how all this will play out after the election. But taking into consideration the seriousness of the international situation and the possibility, that we have not seen the worst of it yet, and the inability of many of the party leaders to take upon themselves the responsibility the situation requires, I think there is only one alternative. The President, who in Finland is elected by direct popular vote, should take upon himself the leadership and leave it to the Prime Minister to make sure, that the government and all other party leaders will follow his line.