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Finnish MPs return to work after turbulent summer

After the political upheavals of spring and early summer, Prime Minister Juha Sipilä's cabinet goes into the autumn term with a precariously narrow majority – and MPs' eyes on elections in 2018 and 2019.

Eduskunnan istuntosali
The House of Parliament has been refurbished in time for Finland's 100th anniversary. Image: Jani Saikko

The Finnish Parliament begins its autumn session on Tuesday afternoon after a 10-week summer break.

Since the legislature broke up on June 30, a thorough renovation of Parliament House has been wrapped up, so MPs are returning to the plenary hall for the first time since 2015. The restoration was originally supposed to cost 125 million euros, but last autumn's budget documents reveal that the price tag swelled to at least 272 million euros.

The political groups in the legislature begin the fall session with an unusual tenuous balance, and eyes on elections in 2018 and 2019. The first round of presidential elections is just four months away in mid-January, with parliamentary elections looming in April 2019.

The parties are already positioning themselves ahead of these votes, says Yle's political reporter Pekka Kinnunen.

Dramatic shifts in power

Since spring there have been several dramatic shifts in the strengths of the country's main political parties. Polls suggest that support for the conservative National Coalition Party (NCP) has surged past that of Prime Minister Juha Sipilä's Centre Party.

Meanwhile the third original government partner, the Finns Party, split in two in June. The main party left the coalition under the leadership of hardline MEP Jussi Halla-aho, with the more moderate splinter group now known as the Blue Reform (or simply the Blues) remaining in government.

They are not yet a political party, only an association, and need to collect at least 5,000 supporter signatures to register officially. They have so far gained little traction in public opinion polls.

Also during the summer, polls suggest that the Greens have risen to match or even surpass the Social Democratic Party (SDP) as the main opposition party.

Since Petteri Orpo took over as leader of the NCP in mid-2016, the party scored a big win in last spring's local elections and now looks to be ruling the political roost, says Kinnunen.

In the 2015 Parliamentary elections, the NCP was third with just 37 seats behind the Centre's 49 and the Finns Party's 38, although the NCP actually garnered slightly more votes than the latter.

Government's wobbly majority

After the upheavals of last spring and early summer, Sipilä's Centre still has 49 MPs while the NCP has nudged up to 38 and the Blues have just 19 votes. That gives the coalition just a six-seat majority in the 200-member house.

The now-opposition Finns Party has just 17 representatives, led by newcomer Leena Meri – and her seat depends on whether Blues-leaning MEP Pirkko Ruohonen-Lerner's decides to stay in Brussels.

New party chair Halla-aho is also not an MP and is expected to stay in Brussels until the next parliamentary election. And as Kinnunen notes, the party's informal leader in Parliament may actually be presidential candidate Laura Huhtasaari rather than Meri. Huhtasaari is expected to be the party's presidential candidate.

SDP in disarray

The biggest opposition party, the SDP, is in a confused state, says Kinnunen. Since former union boss Antti Rinne took over in 2014, he suffered a loss in the following year's parliamentary elections but did manage to fend off a leadership challenge last year.

This year the party has suffered an almost farcical situation as none of its political veterans agreed to run for president. Last week the party finally selected former Minister of Social Affairs and Health Tuula Haatainen to carry its flag into a race that is widely expected to be a shoo-in re-election of President Sauli Niinistö. 

In the current parliament the SDP still have a broad edge over the upstart Greens, with 35 seats to their 15. The opposition Left Alliance have 12.

Green upstarts

The Greens steadily gained a record level of popularity under the leadership of Ville Niinistö, including a strong showing in last spring's municipal elections. He stepped down in early summer – and the upsurge seems to be continuing under his successor Touko Aalto, who Kinnunen now describes as a prime ministerial candidate.

The Greens' presidential candidate, former environment minister and UN official Pekka Haavisto, has the strongest position behind the incumbent, says Kinnunen. The two faced off in the second round of the last presidential election in 2012. Haatainen and the Left Alliance candidate, former transport minister Merja Kyllönen, will likely struggle to pick up other left-leaning voters. Huhtasaari will probably attract some on the right, while former NCP chair – and now independent – Sauli Niinistö is set to attract most centrist voters, notes Kinnunen. His only competition in this area will be former Centre PM Matti Vanhanen.

Yle Areena will stream the parliamentary proceedings live beginning at 2 pm on Tuesday and Wednesday.

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