It’s been a challenging week to keep the promise I made to myself in my last entry here, especially when it comes to my interactions with Americans. It’s only a year and a half before they elect a new president, and for various reasons all of the advance campaigning I’ve been seeing on line seems to be based on trying to scare people away from “the other” guy, or gal.
Meanwhile in Britain there’s a general election heating up, reflecting their on-going struggle in trying to become a genuine European multi-party democracy rather than a traditional two party state based on pre-industrial societal dynamics. No one there seems to like the two party system much, but getting properly beyond it doesn’t look like it will be happening any time soon. And in an effort to get out of a need for coalition building and to get back to simple dominant party ruling dynamics, the conservative prime minister took Easter as a time for posturing regarding the traditional “Christian identity” of the U.K. It was extremely difficult for me to resist the urge to lecture on line about everything that is wrong with that idea, but I’m glad I did resist the urge.
As it happens though, there is also a Finnish parliamentary election going on this month –– the first since I have acquired Finnish citizenship. I’ve always been active in the discussions of such matters here, but now I finally get to vote myself in a national election.
For a long time as a permanent resident here I’ve been eligible to vote in municipal elections, which I have done with a fair amount of diligence, though hardly ever successfully in terms of getting my candidate of choice elected. In the last two city council elections I voted for different friends of mine who happened to be running on the Green Party ticket. Neither made it. In fact is somewhat of an inside joke among my colleagues at work that my candidate received a total of three votes in the precinct I voted in, and I can know for sure exactly who the other two were. Even so, I took part.
Elections here also have their own entertainment value. All of the special purpose billboards full of slogans and candidates’ mug shots, and all of the posters tacked to telephone poles and sheds and farm equipment by the roadsides, are the ripest field possible for new comedy material. Some jokes about such things become part of the shorthand of coffee shop conversation. Others become one-off giggles such as the truck driver speaking to a call-in radio show about which parties and which provinces seem to have the ugliest candidates on their posters this time around. To me this time one of the funniest things to notice is how Jussi Saramo –– a neo-Marxist candidate for my district who some of my more liberal friends are supporting, who is advertising quite heavily on Facebook these days –– is a dead ringer for Ryan Dobson –– a second generation would-be provocateur for the US Religious Right. It’s little ironies like that which keep the smile on my face…
Like most European countries, politics here are not a simple, binary process of the old party of the business owners vs. the old party of the manual laborers. With less than a hundred years of independence under its belt, Finland has largely overcome the traditional divisions of management vs. labor, Swedish-speaking vs. Finnish-speaking, Marxist sympathizing vs. Anti-Marxist reactionary politics, and for the most part even urban concerns vs. rural concerns. As I wrote earlier, Finland is now in an unsettled interregnum period between major political eras. No one is really sure who or what will replace the Nokia cell phone production and design operations as the dominant economic motor and political interest factor in national politics. People are clearly a little nervous about that, but so far they have not been panicking and running to extreme new “answers” to the current dilemma. That is probably a good thing. That is the running theme of the current election season.
The center-right party which is currently leading the coalition in power has been suggesting that, with the collapse of the Nokia revenues to keep the generous social welfare system going, a new round of belt-tightening is in order. They would rather do that than put new taxes on those who have most benefitted from the Nokia era, which could conceivably scare them away to tax havens further south, where international venture capitalists are known to hide their resources from their respective governments. The belt-tightening idea has limited support here, however, because human rights as the basic task of government is quite thoroughly understood and respected here. For Finns human rights are not an excuse for invading other countries, but in theory at least an operational guiding principle for all levels of government. Supporters of all mainstream parties seem to fundamentally agree that freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear of attack and freedom from extreme poverty –– ideas picked up from FDR and company when as a nation Finland was still going through puberty –– are the primary responsibilities of any government. Beyond that there is a strong public consensus that education is not only a basic human right, but a strategic priority for building a sustainable national future.
The functional challenge is in finding ways to get people to work together to enable these rights to be better realized. The center-right National Coalition Party is talking about supporting these same goals and priorities, using “encouraging private sector job creation” as the means of getting there, but the public isn’t really buying it. And in fact they are unlikely to be able to bring about the sort of “business friendly” adjustments they would like to see introduced. They can speak in vague terms of a need for austerity and lower taxes, but in terms of actually cutting services and/or taxes there is little they can get away with. Cutting public support for those in seriously disadvantaged positions and especially reducing investment in education systems are largely out of the question as far as the electorate here is concerned. So it seems that all they can really do this time around is to make people nervous with their cutback talk. In spite of their efforts at responsible and intelligent management over the past few years then, they are more than likely to lose power this time around.
Altogether there are somewhere between 10 and 15 other parties on the ballot, where winners are chosen in proportion to the number of votes each party receives over a broad geographical area. (Gerrymandering is a very foreign concept here.) Among these parties there are some distinctly reactionary, single issue oriented and hate-mongering fringe groups. Some are out to reduce the number of foreigners or foreign influences in Finland. Some are obsessed with preventing various industrial “bad guys” from having their way with natural resources and the local labor forces. Some are out to prevent what they see as “moral decay” in a vague, broad, religious tradition-based way. Many of these sorts of groups will probably come to have a seat or two in the parliament, where they will play a role in making other politicians lives a little more difficult, without really doing much damage overall. In between there is a pretty broad mainstream, wearing all sorts of different labels.
I was somewhat surprised when I started playing with the on-line “candidate matching” data-base games that news organizations here have set up. After asking about everything from potential NATO membership to educational spending, to opposition to marriage equality, to areas for tax increases the “election machine” offered me a list of candidates whose public positions and campaign promises are closest to my own preferences. The surprising thing was that the party platforms for pretty much all of the mainstream parties –– from center-right to nominally neo-Marxist to the Greens –– were over 70 % agreed with the personal preferences I typed in. That says something rather positive about the political atmosphere here, in spite of all the current challenges and uncertainties.
This broad political agreement leans towards an understanding that there is no going back to any sort of “good old days” or to the moral standards of some earlier “greatest generation”; the only way we can move from here is forward, even if we don’t know what that means in practice. A few things that this future direction has to emphasize though are education, diligence and mutual trust: Whatever new hope there will be for Finland’s economy, it will not be based on doing things cheaper than they can be done in warmer climates closer to main international trade routes. The only way to be economically competitive up here is to continuously be thinking of new, more efficient, less traditional and more interesting ways of doing things. This requires taking education at all levels seriously. It also means being ready to work hard and work together with others to achieve the goals we set for ourselves. That can’t be based on complaining about how lazy or greedy or careless the next guy is; it has to be based on believing that he wants many of the same things I do, and if we work together in a smart way we can improve our odds of realizing those personal goals. Building this sort of trust must be at the core of the new political and business culture if anything positive is to come from either.
Whatever the other flaws in the structure of the system here, it has the advantage of having to vote for someone you believe in, because there’s not any way to use your vote to prevent an offensive candidate who happens to be popular among local idiots from getting in. Voting your hatred for alternative candidates just doesn’t work in this system, and I believe the political system here is healthier for it.
Tommi is an aging Finnish rocker whom politicians have been trying to recruit as a minor vote magnet for their parties for as long as I’ve lived in Finland. For some years he stepped out of the spotlight, living abroad with his wife and son as she pursued her own international career. When they returned to Finland Tommi’s son then ended up in the international school where I teach. I thus got to know Tommi from parent-teacher conferences as one of the most personable, helpful, cooperative and positively oriented parents I have ever had to deal with. There was never anything awkward or intimidating about his minor celebrity status; it was just part of the glue that ended up bonding the kids in his son’s class and their parents into an exceptionally mutually supportive unit. Those are the skills Tommi most wants to take into the parliament. Those are the reasons I believe he could be an excellent MP.
Beyond trying to play a role in improving the atmosphere in the parliament in terms of communication, cooperation and creative positive thinking in general, Tommi has taken on the personal issue of improving mental health services for young people in particular. The stress of remaining internationally competitive, together with all of the traditional factors which have historically tended to make Finland a rather melancholy nation, are taking a toll on young people here in a number of measurable ways. Doing more to make sure that, regardless of how tight things get economically, these young people get the support that they need in order to move forward in life, is something that I completely agree is a worthy goal in politics.
Tommi’s choice of the Social Democrats as a party to run with is neither a motivational factor nor a problem for me in supporting him. The SDs are another mainstream group with a long history of contributing to public affairs management in mostly competent ways. They’ve had their fair share of scandals, but they also have had their fair share of exemplary statesmen over the years. For the last decade or so they’ve been sliding down the popularity scale, largely because for all their years in power they never really initiated any recognizable positive changes in society. They are identified as the party of status quo, particularly in terms of protecting the status quo for blue collar unions, though that actually ceased to be a particularly important topic in political discourse here soon after the Soviet Union collapsed.
If I was looking for substantive changes in the system I might find this a disappointing choice. But I’m not actually looking for substantial changes in the system. I’m looking for representatives with a positive attitude towards the future, who are not prone to panic reactions in the difficult times we may have coming. I’m looking for competent management of basic structures that keep protecting human rights and encouraging cooperation. For those things the SDs are pretty much as good as any, probably. For those things I trust Tommi more than any of the others I’ve seen on the local billboards.
This is the sort of style I’d like to see politics done in. What do you think? Could it ever be made to work this way in English-speaking countries? I’d like to hope that maybe someday, but… life goes on.