I must admit that, despite having lived in Umeå with Va(a)sa just across the Bay of Botnia, Finnish politics is not my specialist area. Still, in political terms Finland is not quite what Finland used to be, which this weekend’s selection of Mari Kiviniemi as chairman of the Finnish Centre Party is another indication of. Just to put the prejudices in place – Finnish political culture is generally seen as rural and – for want of a better English word – gubbig. Imagine old-boys’ network with quite an element of laddism thrown in for good measure and you’re there.
As it is, Kiviniemi is not the first female party leader in Finland, nor even the first female leader of the Centre Party and prime minister: That honour goes to Anneli Jäättenmäki who served as party leader between 2002-2003 and as prime minister for a few months in 2003 before being forced to retire in a scandal relating to Finland’s position in the process leading up to the second Iraq War. Jäättenmäki was later cleared of any legal wrongdoing so the question is if she had been exposing her inexperience at the international level or if (male?) forces within her own party were conspiring against her. In any event Matti Vanhanen took over as party leader and prime minister and continued in those functions until he was brought down over a scandal relating to covert campaign contributions.
The 41-year old Kiviniemi faced Mauri Pekkarinen, a candidate which fitted better with the image of a typical Finnish politician from the Centre Party: Male, old, rural. Even Paavo Väyrynen, unsuccessfully, attempted a comeback. Kiviniemi is far from unexperienced, though: She has been an MP for 15 years, minister for trade and development and later minister for local government. The interesting point is that in 2007 Kiviniemi changed constituency so that she now represents Helsinki instead of Vaasa in the Finnish parliament. Considering that the Centre Party very much has been a party of the Finnish periphery, the selection of Kiviniemi may also point to a change in political strategies.
The local government portfolio may hold a nasty problem in store for Kiviniemi as she takes over as prime minister in a week’s time: If I understand Finnish (Swedish-language) media correctly, she is involved in a battle over Karleby/Kokkola’s administrative position – which again has something to do with the role of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland. It’s not quite BHV but it is potentially politically troublesome. She will also be facing a conflict over the teaching of Swedish in Finnish schools.
Finland will be holding elections next year, so who will Kiviniemi’s opponents be? Well, the other main contenders for the prime minister’s office will be the National Coalition Party’s Jyrki Katainen (born in 1971) and Social Democrat leader Jutta Urpilainen (born in 1975). Just as in the Netherlands, government formation is a bit of a three-party affair with the Centre, the National Coalition and Social Democrats in varying constellations with one or more of the smaller parties joining, so there is a 2/3 probability of the next election yielding a female prime minister. The only thing which is 100% certain is that the Swedish People’s Party will be in the government after the 2011 elections.
If we look at the male/female set-up in the run-up to 2011, the Centre Party, the Social Democrats, the Green League and the Christian Democrats have women as leaders while the National Coalition, the Left Alliance, the Swedish People’s Party and the True Finns have male leaders. The face of Finnish politics is indeed slowly changing.
In the other Nordic countries, female party leaders are far from unknown these days. In Norway, all parties represented in Stortinget either have or have had a woman as leader, in Sweden only the Moderates and Christian Democrats have not had a female leader (even if the Liberals’ Maria Leissner did not stay in office for very long for both political and personal reasons), and in Denmark five out of eight parties in parliament are at present led by women. Iceland has a female Prime Minister, Johanna Sigurdardottir, who is also the leader of the Social Democratic Alliance.
Oh and by the way: Kiviniemi has prepared for her new status – the fringe is gone and replaced by a more serious hairstyle.
Just in case you have missed it: (Tarja) Halonen is Finland’s (female) president since 2000.