2.1 General description, history, and key data of the political system

The principle of democracy is in Finland basically realized indirectly through the elections and participation of elected representatives on different levels of government. Finland was the first country in Europe that allowed universal and equal suffrage (in 1906) and Finnish women were the first in the world to obtain full political rights. A total of 19 women were elected in the first parliamentary elections. Currently, 38% of members of the Finnish Parliament are women. Today the Parliament, the President of the Republic, the councils of the municipalities (448), and Members of the European Parliament (16) are elected through general elections. The President is elected every six years and Local councils, as well as the Parliament, every four years. European elections are held every five years. To complement the representative government there is a possibility to organise a consultative referendum.

Finland has a multiparty system currently with eight parties in Parliament. The Finnish political party system has been relatively stable during its history of approximately hundred years. The broad outlines, essential structure and basic party lineages have remained essentially unchanged throughout the years since independence. The party divisions have during the decades been based on the ideal of nationality, the language, the socialist versus non-socialist divide, representation of the rural population, and the two way division of the political left. In Finland there have been few ethnic, cultural, religious or linguistic controversies whereas the class-divide, based on socio-economic status, have been sharp and split the society into factions. In 1918 the class-divide escalated into civil war, after which the classes remained separated in terms of work, economics and culture. Since the 1960s the Finnish social structures have nevertheless undergone changes and the class-based models of political behaviour have become less and less pronounced. The strong position of the agrarian party prevented the class tensions becoming a decisive factor in the political life of the country. The traditional divine between left and right has especially during the 1990s been supplemented by a new dimension of centre-versus-periphery. The Finnish politics is nowadays characterised by pragmatism and the political community of Finland can be seen highly consensual. The situation may nevertheless limit the degree of freedom of parties to articulate their ideologies and programmes and implement them.

The members of the parliament are elected from each electoral district in proportion to the population. On average one representative is elected for every 26 000 people. The maximum number of candidates that each party or constituency association can put up in each electoral district is the number of representatives that are chosen from the district in question.

The four parties (the Agrarian Party/the Finnish Centre Party, The social democratic party, the National Coalition Party and the Democratic Union of the Finnish People/the Left Alliance,) that became the dominant political grouping in the first elections after the Second World War in 1945, remain still the largest parties thought the order of them has varied. In Finland's multiparty system the three biggest parties each have approximately 20-25% of the popular support and half a dozen smaller parties compete for the remaining part. Party pluralism in Finnish Parliament is ensured by the electoral method, with proportional representation and large electoral districts. Proportional representation makes it possible also for minor factions to be heard on the political arena. The peculiar electoral method, not based on party lists, gives the representatives also an individual popular mandate. One feature of the multiparty situation is that no single party is likely to gain an absolute majority in parliamentary elections. Thus the country invariably has a coalition government enjoying confidence of the Parliament. The leader of the largest parliamentary party usually serves as Prime Minister.

Mattila and Raunio (2002) have compared the main features of Government formation and Party systems in Nordic Countries in 1945-2000. As regards to effective parties in parliament, the Finnish parliament is the most fragmented. The Finnish party-system has also been the most polarised. In Finland the President has frequently intervened in government formation. The presidents Urho Kekkonen (1956-1981) and Mauno Koivisto (1982-94) used frequently wide-ranging constitutional and political powers to influence government formation. The new Constitution (2000) practically excludes the president from the process. In other Nordic Countries (excluding Iceland) the government formation has been based on blocks. In Finland, instead, cross-block coalitions are the norm. Since the Finland's independency the Centre Party (formely the Agrarian party) has been in a median position bridging the gap between left and right and this ensured its representation in almost all of Finnish post-war governments. Since the late '80s the crucial question in the formation of governments has been the shifting relations between the three largest parties - the SDP, the Centre Party and the National Coalition Party. Since 1995 Finnish governments have been so-called "rainbow" coalitions uniting five parties across the political spectrum. Government coalitions in be large and their composition politically unconventional. The representatives of the parties who are Government ministers are traditionally loyal to the Government's line and the opposition parties do not normally form strong coalitions.

Municipal democracy

Finland is divided into 431 municipalities. The administration of municipalities shall, according to the Finnish Constitution, be based on the self-government of their residents. In addition to legislation, extensive local self-government is based on a long tradition; it was established already on the period of autonomy. The municipalities' joint co-operative organ is the Association of Finnish Local and Regional Authorities, which represents the common interests of municipalities and sees to the establishment of their objectives

The activities of Municipalities are guided by political decision making and their operations must comply with the principle of democracy. The highest municipal decision-making body, the Council, is elected by the residents of each municipality in every four years. It has the general decision making authority in local affairs and it appoints members of the municipal board that carries out the preparatory and executive tasks. The number of councillors depends on the population of the municipality. According to the Local Government Act for instance the municipalities with the population of 2001 - 4000 should have 21 councillors when the municipalities with more than 400 000 residents should have 85 councillors. Candidates for councillors must have the municipality in question as their municipality of residence and they have to be entitled to vote in municipal elections in some municipality. Parties entered in the party register and constituency associations established by people entitled to vote can nominate their candidates. In Åland municipal elections are also held every four year but at different time than in the rest of Finland. The voting turnout in municipal elections has declined markedly in Finland in the last few decades; municipal elections of the year 2000 saw the lowest in voting turnout ever (55.9%).