angle-left Euroelections leave left wing in tatters

Euroelections leave left wing in tatters

By Kyösti Karvonen, June 11, 2009

Instead of the Centre Party, the left-wing parties took a severe beating in Finland’s European Parliament elections. It was the hardest the Finnish left has ever been hit, writes Kyösti Karvonen, managing editor of the newspaper Kaleva.

Decades ago, Finnish left-wing parties were a force to be reckoned with on the political scene, and once even held a majority in the national parliament. When the votes were counted in the European Parliament elections on June 7, glory days seemed far behind as the left had received the most drastic pounding in modern Finnish political history.

On the winning side, two parties – the Greens and the populist True Finns – advanced handsomely. The leading coalition partners – the moderately conservative Coalition Party and the Centre Party – suffered losses ranging from mild to severe, but saved face.

In Finnish terms, it’s a definite first that the Social Democratic Party (SDP) and the Left Alliance put together secured less than one-fourth of the popular vote. The represented a scathing disaster, particularly to the latter, a successor to the once-powerful Communist Party. The Left Alliance lost approximately one-third of its votes in five years. For the SDP, the outcome was its worst in the euroelections, right after its rock-bottom showing in local elections held late last year.

Urpilainen on notice

The left-wing parties are in opposition in the Finnish Parliament, and the world’s serious economic downturn has not spared Finland. These facts, usually turned easily into political gains, worked the other way round, following the general European pattern. The Social Democrats lost a thick slice of its normal share of votes and won only two seats, one less than in the previous elections five years ago.

“In politics, it is an unpleasant truth that loss of votes really stops only when there are no more of them,” writes Erkki Tuomioja, former foreign minister and perennial Social Democratic dissident, acidly in his blog.

The poor Social Democratic results did not elicit immediate calls for the SDP leadership to step down. However, it put SDP chairwoman Jutta Urpilainen on notice. These elections were supposed to have formed a stepping stone for her before the crucial parliamentary elections in 2011.

In yet another twist, the outcome was all the more disappointing to the SDP because one of the two elected MEPs is not even a party member. Orthodox pastor Mitro Repo ran as an independent on the SDP list and reaped the most votes, beating the SDP old hands.

Outcry on the far left

The outcry was all the noisier within the Left Alliance. Esko Seppänen, recently retired from the European Parliament, called outright for party leader Martti Korhonen to throw in the towel.

Embarrassingly enough, the party lost its only European seat. In the first European Parliament elections, held in 1996, the party captured even two seats. Because Finland is sending only 13 MEPs to the European Parliament this time around – one less than before – it goes without saying how much political value each seat carries.

 Three days after the election, Korhonen did indeed step down, although the Left Alliance’s press release points out that the blame should not rest on the shoulders of a single person. The party’s ratings have long been in a downward spiral. In this election it ranked a distant seventh, now dropping into the minor leagues after a couple decades of being considered midsized. It only recently lost its number four status to the Greens.

Centre Party off the hook

During the campaign, a lot of attention was paid to how the Centre Party, the leading coalition partner, would fare. There air was thick with speculations that the party chairman, Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen would be forced to resign from the party post in case of a major election defeat.

The Centre Party held four seats in the outgoing European Parliament. It was widely anticipated, even within the party, that an extraordinary party congress would be convened were the party to garner only two seats.

 Even though it lost an even greater portion of its votes than the SDP, the Vanhanen’s Centre Party was lucky enough to acquire three seats. In the aftermath, the public eye was mostly on the left-wing parties, letting Vanhanen off the hook. His political future is secure until the next parliamentary elections.

The Centre Party’s one-seat loss didn’t feel so bad, with a little help from its coalition friend, the Conservative Party. The conservatives kept the number-one standing they’d attained in the previous local elections for the first time in its history, but lost one seat out of four in the new European Parliament.

The draw, in terms of seats, between the leading coalition parties maintained political balance in the government. A two-seat Centre Party loss and at least a four-seat result for the Conservatives might have rocked the coalition.

Populist proves pretty popular

As expected, the populist party calling itself the “True Finns” won big-time, especially its chairman, Timo Soini. He harvested four out of every five votes cast for his party and was elected to the European Parliament by a landslide.

The True Finns inflicted most of the losses suffered by the other parties as their regular supporters voted with their feet. Soini’s party collected about 10 percent of the vote in the whole country. The party ranked fifth.

The Christian Democrats, shrewdly joining forces with the True Finns through a technical electoral bloc, won one seat on Soini’s coattails, thus returning to the European Parliament. The Greens also did well, winning two seats, one more than previously.

The outcome was a flying start for the new Green chairwoman, Anni Sinnemäki, elected in May. These elections solidified the Greens’ position as the fourth-largest party. The 13th seat went to the Swedish People’s Party, which managed to get the vote out in an election that exhibited a lackluster overall turnout of 40.2 percent of eligible voters.