Party leaders rally around education as primary campaign issue ahead of local elections

Early childhood education, the school system and the future of the country’s universities appear to be taking centre stage as the campaign for Finland’s municipal elections in April begins to pick up speed. This is partly because the looming overhaul of the social and health care administration could strip local government of the responsibility for these services, leaving day care and schooling as the main line items in local councils' budgets.

Top party representatives took place in a panel discussion on Saturday at the Educa fair in Helsinki. Image: Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva

Finland’s top political parties weighed in on education Saturday at the Educa Fair, organised by Messukeskus Helsinki and the Trade Union of Education (OAJ). The annual fair attracts close to 15,000 teaching professionals each year, making it the largest event in the education and training sector.

A panel discussion was arranged on Saturday about the future of Finnish education, and each of the major political parties sent a representative, as they prepare for April’s municipal elections.

Centre Party secretary Jouni Ovaska, Finns Party parliamentary group chair Sampo Terho, National Coalition Party chair Petteri Orpo, and Social Democratic Party chair Antti Rinne joined the Green Party head Ville Niinistö, Left Alliance chair Li Andersson, Swedish People’s Party’s deputy chair Silja Borgarsdottir Sandelin and the Christian Democrats’ deputy chair Sauli Ahvenjärvi on the stage.

It is clear from the turnout and preliminary comments, that local election campaigning will pivot on the topics of education and culture in 2017.

Everyone agrees education is key

Saturday’s discussion found all of the party delegates agreeing on the importance of education to Finland’s future. In terms of local politics, education may be one of the only administrative tasks left to municipal workers if the slated overhaul of Finland’s social and health care system becomes a reality and administration of these services switched to a new state-supervised network of larger counties.

Party secretary Jouni Ovaska spoke on behalf of the prime minister’s Centre Party.

“The Centre Party’s municipal election campaign promise is to guarantee that Finland’s local schools are healthy and safe throughout Finland,” he said.

Finance Minister Petteri Orpo represented his coalition partner, the conservative National Coalition Party (NCP).

“When the social and health care reform moves those services out of the municipalities, city administrations can concentrate on early education, primary and secondary schools, upper secondary schools and vocational education. Education will be the number one issue in future municipal council work,” he said.

Head of the leading opposition party, Antti Rinne of the Social Democrats (SDP), maligned the government parties for their recent cuts to education in Finland.

“The Social Democrats promise that early education will be equally available to everyone again. We have to return the subjective right to day care,” Rinne said.

Capital city leader Greens kick off campaign

Later in the day in Vantaa, opposition Green Party chair Ville Niinistö said that his party’s four election themes were education, the environment, stopping inequality and improving employment opportunities. 

“[Prime Minister Juha] Sipilä’s government has made one poor value judgement after another while in power. It has imposed cuts to just those things about our society that should be championed,” he said.

Commissioned by the public broadcaster Yle, a January poll of voter intent in the upcoming municipal elections suggested that the Greens now enjoy more support than the traditional winner of the most capital city votes, the NCP, in Helsinki. At present, the NCP hold 21 Helsinki City Council seats, while the Greens have 19.

Niinistö proposed at a his party’s campaign unveiling on Saturday that Finland’s municipalities could “chose a different path” and invest in education, potentially avoiding the secondary education cuts that the government’s austerity measures have in store.