Finnish history at a glance

The Finnish War (1808-1809) finally put Swedish rule over the Finnish lands to an end. The Fredrikshamn Treaty (1809) established the autonomous Grand Duchy of Finland under tsarist Russian rule. The change meant that the territory which had merely formed a group of provinces under Swedish rule was united for the first time. The era of the Duchy brought about great autonomy for the young state. The national movement gained momentum under the Russians, and the status of the Finnish language became the primary issue of the nationalists. In 1892, the language strife paid off as Finnish was recognized as an official language alongside Swedish. From 1863 and onwards, the Finnish Diet met regularly.

At the turn of the century, Russian nationalism was on the rise resulting in growing intolerance of non-Russians within the empire. The February Manifest of 1899 declared that the tsar - who was also Duke of Finland - had the authority to rule Finland without consulting the Finnish Diet. In the subsequent years, Russian was introduced as the primary administrative language (1900) and the Finnish army was incorporated into the Russian army (1901). By 1914, Finland was in effect reduced to a Russian province governed from St. Petersburg.

The 1917 revolutions in Russia paved the way for Finnish independence as the Russian tsar, and Finland’s Grand Duke, was dethroned. The declaration of independence was approved by parliament in December 1917 and acknowledged by Bolshevik Russia a month later. However, the Russian revolution had already spread to the Finnish territory, the political tensions ran high and the events eventually led to the break-out of a civil war where the socialists (the Reds, supported by Soviet Russia) fought the non-socialists (the Whites) from January to May 1918. The 1920s were accordingly marked by the brief but bitter strife between the leftist (communists) and the right-wing groupings. The following decade brought about a quieter political climate, economic development, and social legislation laying down the basis for the welfare state.

During World War II, Finland fought the Soviet Union both in the Winter War (1938-1939), and in the Continuation War (1941-1944), as well as Germany in the Lapland War (1944-1945). The Finns preserved both their independence and the democratic constitution. However, the losses of the war were great: about 86,000 Finns died, one-eight of the territory was lost, and a huge financial burden was placed upon the country owing to the costs of warfare and reparations to the Soviet Union. The Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Mutual Assistance (1948), in which the Soviet Union recognized Finnish independence, sovereignty and neutrality in change of a mutual (military) assistance pact in face of a possible attack from the Allied Powers, established the foundation for the Finnish-Soviet relationship in the following decades.

The 1950s and 1960s were marked by frequent government changes. Conflicting issues related primarily to domestic policy. However, political stability was somewhat maintained through the presidency: Kekkonen (representing the Agrarian Party later known as the Centre Party, KESK) served as president in a 25-year period starting in 1956. In the initial decades after World War II Finland underwent a major transformation from an agrarian to a modern urban society. Whereas the Soviet Union remained Finland’s greatest trading partner, Finland was allowed to become an associate member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 1961, which eventually led to greater economic independence from the Soviet Union. The country experienced rapid economic growth and increasing political stability. In 1995, Finland joined the EU. The country has partner status in NATO.

Politics in the new era

Finland has a semi-presidential system of governance. The president is directly elected (since 1994) every six years and serves as the head of state. The Finnish president has traditionally held extensive executive powers. However, following the constitutional amendments in 1991 and the rewriting of the constitution in 2000, Finland’s political system has been "parliamentarized" and presidential powers have been curtailed. Now most executive power lies within the cabinet lead by the prime minister who is elected by parliament and heads the government. The unicameral parliament, Eduskunta , has 200 members and is elected every four years.

When Finland entered the 1990s, Mauno Koivisto (SDP) had served as president since his election in 1982, whereas the government offices were occupied by the conservatives in the National Coalition Party (KOK) and the Social Democratic Party (SDP) since 1987. The parliamentary election of 1991 produced a centre-right, four-party government coalition comprising the Centre Party (KESK), KOK, Christian League (SKL, later known as Christian Democrats - KD), and the Swedish People's Party (SFP) under the leadership of Esko Aho (KESK). The period was characterized by economic depression and high unemployment rates.

Following the 1995 election, Finland entered the Rainbow Coalition era. Under the leadership of the Social Democrats and Paavo Lipponen, two politically and ideologically exceptionally broad coalitions followed one another. Lipponen's first cabinet comprised, besides the SDP, KOK, SFP and the Green League (VIHR), which thereby became the first European greens ever to join a government. Following the election in 1999, the coalition was extended to include the Left Alliance (VAS). Thus, the Rainbow Coalition ranged from the moderate right (National Coalition Party) to the successor of the communists (Left Alliance). While succeeding in the EU and foreign policy area, Lipponen's rainbow coalitions were unable to solve the major domestic political issue of unemployment.

The "Iraqgate" scandal, in which Lipponen while visiting President George Bush pledged Finland’s support for the decision of the USA to invade Iraq without a mandate from the UN, was thought to have been instrumental in the defeat of the SDP in the 2003 election. The Centre Party, headed by Anneli Tuulikki Jäätteenmäki, won a narrow plurality of the votes. She became the first female prime minister of Finland and headed a government comprising KESK, SDP and SFP. However, only two months later she was forced to resign after having been accused of lying to the parliament and the public about how she acquired confidential Foreign Ministry documents. She was succeeded by Matti Vanhanen but was acquitted on charges relating to the incident in 2004.

In 1994, the Social Democrat candidate Martti Ahtisaari became the first directly elected president of Finland after having defeated Elisabeth Rehn (Swedish People's Party) in the second round of the election. He was particularly active in the fields of international affairs and contributed to Finland’s accession to the EU in 1995. After he declared that he would not run for a second term in office, Tarja Halonen (SDP) narrowly defeated Esko Aho (KESK) in the second round of voting. Halonen was elected for a second term in office in 2006.

The largest parties at the national scene are also the major players in European Parliament elections. Throughout all three elections conducted so far (beginning in 1996), the six largest parties have been the National Coalition Party, the Centre Party and the Social Democrats (coming either first, second and third) and the Greens, the Left Alliance and the Swedish People's Party (coming either fourth, fifth or sixth). Turnout has varied greatly. The first EP election was held concurrently with municipal elections, and it brought about the highest turnout at 57.6 percent. In 1999 turnout in EP elections dropped sharply to 30.1 percent while participation somewhat recovered in 2004 with a 39.4 percent turnout.

The 35th Parliamentary election was held in Finland on March 18, 2007. Eight parties gained parliamentary representation. KOK emerged as the biggest winner and increased its representation by 10 seats, which made it the second biggest party. The Centre Party kept its position as the biggest party while the Social Democrats suffered a defeat and fell to the third position among the three bigger parties. The outcome led to the formation of a new center-right government which left the Social Democrats in opposition for the first time since 1995. Incumbent Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (KESK) formed a new government consisting of his own Centre Party, the National Coalition, the Greens and the Swedish People's Party.


Nurmi, H. and Nurmi L. "The parliamentary election in Finland, March 2003". Electoral Studies 23 (2004).