Yle election analysis: Party leaders clash over Sote policy, immigration, taxation

Yle has hosted a series of debates between party leaders this week ahead of county council elections on 23 January.

Riikka Purra (left), Sanna Marin (centre) and Petteri Orpo (right) preparing for the county council election debate on Yle TV1 on Thursday evening. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

The leaders of the three parties topping opinion polls faced off in a county council election debate hosted by Yle on Thursday evening.

During the debate, the leaders of the two main opposition parties — Petteri Orpo of the National Coalition Party (NCP) and Riikka Purra of the Finns Party — challenged Prime Minister Sanna Marin (SDP) over the current government's social services and healthcare, or sote, policies.

NCP chair Orpo — whose party topped the poll at last year's municipal elections and has consistently ranked as the most popular party in the country since — said his party was now willing to commit to revamping the provision of social, healthcare and emergency services in line with the historic reform approved by Parliament last June.

The NCP had vehemently opposed the government's model in the run-up to the parliamentary vote, arguing that the proposal would not reduce costs or speed up access to treatment.

During Thursday evening's debate, each of the leaders were asked whether the reform could maintain the level of service in the social, healthcare and emergency sectors in the future.

"It can be, if sensible policies are followed," Orpo replied. "The fact remains however that budgets will be really tight. The current service system cannot be maintained without smart solutions. We need to use all of the resources available. The government's model must be used even more for the benefit of the third sector and Finnish companies so that people can access services quicker."

"Unfortunately, I do not think that the level of service can be maintained," Finns Party chair Purra said. "The ageing of the population alone will ensure that increases in sote spending will be needed. At the moment, our system does not work, and simply by organising it in a new way or by providing some services privately and others publicly, this will unfortunately not fix the problem."

"My party chair colleagues here are painting a rather bleak picture of the future," Marin responded. "The SDP believes that services will improve. Services will be available on time. The services will work. Problems will not grow and accumulate, so that they would cost more."

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The three leaders speaking off-set before the debate. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

The biggest divisions between Finland's three main parties became clear, as the debate often moved from county council election issues into wider discussions about national policies.

Each of the party leaders would have also been looking ahead to next year's parliamentary elections, when they are likely to be vying with each other for the position of prime minister.

Finns Party leader Purra spoke about what she described as harmful effects of immigration almost as much as she did about social and healthcare policy. She also said that she believes the price of petrol and diesel is an important issue in the county council election.

Orpo and Marin also clashed over the current plans for sote reform, with Orpo criticising the government's model and adding he doubted the main issues would be resolved on a practical level.

In response to Orpo's criticism, Marin cited how the government's inclusion of a law guaranteeing 24-hour care of the elderly was an example of how services will improve.

Marin also disagreed with Orpo's prediction that a regional tax required to fund the sote reform would lead to an increase in taxes paid by the average citizen, saying that the overall tax rate is not likely to rise.

This week's episode of All Points North heard from voters and specialists on the main issues ahead of next week's poll. You can listen to the full podcast using the embedded player here, via Yle Areena, Spotify (siirryt toiseen palveluun), Apple Podcasts (siirryt toiseen palveluun) or on your usual podcast player using the RSS feed.

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Christian Democrats, Movement Now question reform

The pattern of opposition parties challenging the government was also in evidence on Wednesday evening, when Yle hosted a debate between Christian Democrats chair Sari Essayah, Movement Now leader Harry Harkimo and Swedish People's Party chair, and Justice Minister, Anna-Maja Henriksson.

During the debate, Christian Democrats chair Essayah noted the potential "democratic deficit" in how the county councils will be elected and formed.

"When electing delegates to the welfare councils, the majority of votes are cast in the centre of cities. We find it strange that the model does not take into account the votes of smaller municipalities," Essayah said.

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Christian Democrats leader Sari Essayah questioned whether people in smaller municipalities would be left without a representative on the newly-formed welfare assemblies. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

In Essayah's view, people living in rural areas face not being represented on the county councils as voters in bigger municipalities will vote in larger numbers for candidates from their own locality.

Movement Now leader Harkimo meanwhile criticised the number of county councils, or welfare regions, that will emerge from the vote. A total of 21 new regional assemblies are set to be created, which Harkimo argued was far too many.

"There are too many constituencies here. For example, Uusimaa is divided into four, five parts. They are far too small areas," Harkimo said, adding that his party would not seek to begin a new reform of social and healthcare services, but would instead try to gradually expand regional cooperation.

In response, Henriksson pointed out that the transferring of responsibility to 21 councils is already a significant reduction from the 300+ municipalities that have organised the provision of social, healthcare and emergency services under the previous model.

Government parties clash over wage increases

Yle's first ever county council election debate took place on Tuesday evening, featuring the leaders of three government coalition parties; Finance Minister Annika Saarikko of the Centre Party, Education Minister Li Andersson of the Left Alliance, and interim Green League leader Iiris Suomela.

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Green League interim leader Iiris Suomela (left), Left Alliance chair Li Andersson (centre) and Centre Party chair Annika Saarikko (right) just before Tuesday evening's debate. Image: Silja Viitala / Yle

Although the three party leaders were broadly in agreement on many of the issues ahead of next week's election, they did differ over potential wage increases for healthcare workers and across the wider social services industry - an issue which may help to resolve "severe" labour shortages in the sector, but will not be decided by regional councils.

"Without money, the labour shortages will not be resolved. It is our responsibility to pursue a responsible economic policy, even if wage decisions are made during the labour market discussions," Suomela stated.

Finance Minister Saarikko meanwhile wondered if the county council election debate would also leak into negotiations about nurses' wage levels, which have just begun.

In response, Andersson pointed out that Saarikko's Centre Party were in power during the last round of talks.

"At that time, it did not bother to interfere in the labour market negotiations," Andersson said.