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I have neglected this blog during the past week. Mainly because I’ve been busy at the office and that the weather has been so good; my free time has been occupied by putting it to good use. A lot is also on the go in Finnish current affairs. Here’s a quick summary of some of the ‘high’lights of the recent days.
Party funding scandal, Vanhanen’s Centre party in the spotlight
Parliamentarians, but most especially the government and more especially the Centre Party, are in turmoil due to campaign financing scandals. There’s so much to say on this that I can’t possibly manage it in this brief entry. And a new revelation seems to come out every day. Most of the worst news is, as said, surrounding the Centre party and financial grants given by a mysterious organisation called Kehittyvien Maakuntien Suomi (KMS, very liberally translated to “Finnish association for districts under development”) backed by various financiers – mainly businessmen (It should be said that KMS also gave grants to a much more limited number of members of other parties than Centre). There are various stories going about – was KMS founded in the office of the Centre party secretary Jarmo Korhonen? How much did prime minister Matti Vanhanen (centre) know about it? Did KMS money influence decisions made by the politicians who received it? Why is so much secrecy involved? Was it Centre party officials managing KMS’ bank account?
Frankly, it’s exhausting keeping up with it all! But in any case, Prime Minister Vanhanen is looking weakened and this morning’s Borgåbladet even reports that one betting company (Unibet) now thinks there’s a higher chance he will have resigned before the end of June than still be in the job on 1 July. As for now, he’s flown off to do a tour of Asia (where he amongst other things gave a strange speech in Seoul where he drawed upon the similarities of the Finnish and Korean languages). One amusing reader comment on the website of Vasabladet suggested that it might be best if he didn’t fly back. The bad news is that all Finnish politicians are looking less trustworthy amongst the electorate because of this scandal. It’s not good for encouraging the people’s participation in the democratic process when that process looks corrupt and broken. Expect new election financing laws already before the autumn as politicians try to regain the people’s trust.
Jutta Urpilainen is new Social Democrat leader
The Social Democrats elected a new party chairman yesterday at their conference in Hämeenlinna/Tavestehus. Jutta Urpilainen from Karleby in Österbotten becomes the SDP’s first female leader. In the second round of the party’s election, SDP delegates gave Urpilainen 218 votes, defeating former foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja who got 132 (both pictured). The choice of a youthful female leader (Urpilainen was born in 1975) will make it easier for SDP to change its image and present itself as a fresh alternative. Municipal elections are coming up this autumn and with Centre and Kokoomus faring worse (or at least getting worse publicity) in the above mentioned financial scandals, SDP should be looking to a good result. If the economic situation becomes more unstable – even more so.
Sfp party day in Åbo
The Swedish Peoples Party (SFP) holds its annual conference – the ‘party day’ – today in Åbo (Turku), in the shadow of the financing scandal (and indeed SDP’s leadership election). Sfp politicians and delegates will be hoping that they can avoid being tarred with the scandal brush in so much as is possible. KMS only gave money to one Sfp member during the last election campaign. That was party leader Stefan Wallin, who received 10 000 euro. However, he has said this he passed this on to Sfp’s general campaign fund for his Åboland constituency. Sfp has had its own mini-KMS type scandal. It was revealed recently that an almost equally mysterious organisation, Stiftelsen för ett tvåspråkigt Finland (‘The Foundation for a Bilingual Finland’) provides a large amount of Sfp’s monetary resources. This foundation sourced its money from business leaders and Svenska kulturfonden (The Swedish Cultural Fund). This has been met with far, far less negative publicity than the KMS/Centre affair, largely because it was no great surprise to anyone that Svenska kulturfonden was providing money to Sfp. It was, if you like, a “well known secret.” When this came to light, Sfp party secretary Ulla Achrén immediately took responsibility for how these funds were shared out within Sfp and to members seeking election. This rather took the heat out of any possible scandal – particularly as her ‘trust’ is harder to call into question, as she is (unlike most other party secretaries in other Finnish political parties) is simply an employee of Sfp – rather than the holder of an elected office.
One of the main issues for this year’s conference will be energy – and in particular nuclear power. The party has indicated, in the context of climate change, that it wants to relook at its negative stance towards the building of further nuclear power stations in Finland. Members are however divided, so a lively debate can be expected.
Sfp will look to recent opinion surveys for a source of optimism; Hufvudstadsbladet reports that they have shown that support for Sfp has significantly strengthened amongst Swedish-speaking young people. It also shows that support from the wider Swedish-speaking population has improved slightly (to over 67%), at the expense of the SDP and Greens.
Finnish politicians, or at least those in the governing coalition, appear to be split on whether or not they should boycott the summer olympic games in Beijing.
Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (centre party) has made it clear that he will attend the opening ceremony and stay for a few days to watch events with Finns competing in them. He made it clear that he thought that Olympics is a sporting event and not a political one. Vanhanen’s decision has been criticised by all of the candidates for the chairmanship of the opposition SDP. Although, interestingly, it seems that President Tarja Halonen (who is a nominal social democrat, although Finnish presidents resign party membership when elected) will attend.
The Minister of Culture and Sport Stefan Wallin (Swedish peoples’ party Sfp) has made it clear that he will be on his summer holiday during the period of the Olympics, with no further comment, clearly trying to avoid entering into the controversy.
Today, in a prominent difference of opinion with the prime minister, the foreign minister Alexander Stubb (coalition party Kokoomus) said that he wouldn’t attend if he were invited. He did say he thought it would be ok to participate if China began negotiations with the exiled Tibetan leader, the Dalai Lama. Clearly, Stubb does not share Vanhanen’s opinion that the olympics is just a sporting event.
From both the statements and the actions of the Chinese government, it’s hard to see how the games are removed from politics. The Chinese domestic media’s coverage of the worldwide torch relay has clear propaganda undertones, with the protests that dogged the torch’s progress in places like London, Paris and San Francisco glossed over and choice pictures of the flame with dignitaries emphasised (and often the only pictures shown). The Chinese government were probably hoping to use the Beijing Olympics as the ultimate propaganda tool – a way to make China look great and impressive on the world stage and show their own people that China is popular abroad, with world leaders there sharing in China’s achievement. Their plans for this have horribly back-fired, with it instead focusing the world’s gaze towards China’s human rights abuses. It’s hard not to imagine the Communist party’s top officials cursing over ever applying to host them.
Sport, ideally, should be apolitical. It would be grossly unfair to prevent the athletes from attending and competing at the games. After all, many of them will have spent the entirity of the last 4 years (if not longer) preparing for olympic competition. It would be cruel to deprive them of their chance to compete. However, politicians do not need to be at a sporting event for it to take place. In fact, politicians – who are, to state the obvious, political in nature – give the event a political aspect by their very attendance. People like Vanhanen and Halonen are, after all, not going as private people to spectate. They’re going to represent Finland by virtue of their political roles. So, it’s rather rich for them to suggest there’s nothing political about the games in that context. Thus, I do think they should reconsider their decisions to go. They can send a message to the Chinese regime that they will not endorse a country which is grossly violating human rights by staying at home. Better still, they can use the Olympics as leverage. Tell China they’ll come – but only if China improves its human rights situation markedly and starts talking to the Dalai Lama. This event might be the only opportunity the rest of the world has this much leverage over China for a long time. Perhaps our politicians use take it.
Because I know how much you all like gossip (but of course, would never admit to) – and because I don’t have much time at the moment to write something more intellectual (or at least lenghier!), here’s a picture of Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (centre) together with his girlfriend Sirkka Mertala from yesterday evening. They are seen being received by the President of the Republic Tarja Halonen at the annual dinner for foreign diplomats at the president’s palace in Helsinki. It’s the first time they’ve appeared together in public since the Emma Gala (music awards) at the beginning of March.
To bring a glimmer of credibility to this posting, Hufvudstadsbladet reports that President Halonen used her dinner speech to speak on the topic of climate change, international development funding and Finland’s role in the international community. She emphasised the effect of climate change on the lives of women in poor developing countries.
Picture: Lehtikuva/Jussi Nukari via Hufvudstadsbladet’s website
None of the Nordic countries’ prime ministers are ready to boycott the summer Olympics in China.
“I’ll make my decision in the summer but I’m likely to take part in the opening ceremony” said Finnish prime minister Matti Vanhanen (centre) from Sweden.
None of his colleagues are planning to travel to Beijing but the Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen underlines that this shouldn’t be seen as a political position, “I didn’t take part in the opening ceremony in Greece either”
The Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg commented that one should never say never but was extremely doubtful that a boycott would have the desired effect, “Even the Dalai Lama isn’t calling for a boycott”.
The prime ministers are taking part in the Nordic Globalisation Forum in Riksgränsen in Sweden. The host is the Swedish prime minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, who also has firmly rejected the idea of a boycott, “Sweden shall not boycott the Olympic games, neither opening ceremony nor any other aspect”.
Reinfeldt has come under a lot of criticism during the last few weeks, particularly from the Swedish opposition Social Democrats, for his planned official visit to China this coming Saturday.
Finland’s Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (centre party) has ruled himself out of the 2012 presidential election already. Vanhanen told the newspaper Itä-Savo that he doesn’t want to be president and had already experienced one presidential election (the last one in 2006 where he ran and was eliminated in the first round after coming in third place with 18,6% of the vote). Vanhanen did however state that he was aiming for a third term as prime minister.
This leaves potentially both Centre and the Social Democrats without obvious candidates for the 2012 elections, although it is obviously still a long way off and the SDP will get a new chairman this summer.
Their main rivals, the National Coalition party Kokoomus do however have one obvious candidate, Sauli Niinistö. Niinistö came second in 2006 with 48,2% of the vote in the second round against Tarja Halonen. This was a respectable result considering highly popular Halonen got 49,4% in the first round and before that took place, people were tipping the election to be already settled in one round. Since then, Niinistö has been elected to the Finnish parliament in 2007′s election, getting the most personal votes ever in a parliamentary election, and become speaker of parliament. He’s seen to be popular and easily the favourite right now to become Kokoomus’ first president since Paasikivi who left office in 1956. Still, if a week is a long time in politics, 4 years is surely an eternity.