How do Finland’s elections work?

Dylan Difford, guest contributor. Opinions and research are solely the author's and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ERS.

Posted on the 20th March 2023

On Sunday 2nd April, voters in Finland will go to the polls to elect a new parliament.

Finland’s parliament, known locally as the Eduskunta, contains exactly 200 MPs. 199 of these are elected by Party List PR in twelve constituencies that elect more than one MP each – most of which elect between 14 and 19 MPs, using the D’Hondt method. The remaining seat is elected by the small autonomous Åland islands by First Past the Post, though the election is not particularly competitive with all the major Åland parties typically fielding a joint candidate.

Finland’s open list proportional representation system

Voting in Finnish elections is rather unusual. Unlike in other countries where you have to choose from some form of printed list of candidates or parties or both, a Finnish ballot paper is just a blank piece of folded card with an empty circle printed on the inside. In this circle, you have to write the unique number assigned to your preferred candidate (with the lists of candidates, by party, displayed in each polling booth – each party usually stands multiple candidates).

Finnish Ballot Paper

Voters write the number of their favourite candidate in the circle. Photo by Santeri Viinamäki, CC BY-SA 4.0 Wikimedia

These personal votes are hugely important as Finland operates a truly open list system. If a party wins three seats in a constituency, it is their three candidates with the highest personal votes who get elected. This is combined with membership primaries for deciding which candidates get on the list in the first place. In all, central party leaders have much less influence over who is elected than in most other countries.

This open list system has been attributed as the reason behind Finland’s particularly high level of demographic representativeness in parliament. In 1907, Finland elected the first nineteen women MPs in the world. By 1991, when just 6% of British MPs were women, they made up over a third of Finnish MPs. In the last parliament this figure had reached 47%.

Finland’s major and minor parties

The uniqueness of Finland’s politics extends to its party system, which is unlike those of its Scandinavian neighbours. The social democrats have nowhere near the dominance they have in Sweden or Norway and, rather than minority governments built around one of two blocs, Finnish governments are typically large ‘oversized’ coalitions.

The party system itself displays a clear and fairly stable balance between three or four larger parties who win around 15-25% of the vote and a similar number of smaller parties who take around 4-12% of the vote.

Of the larger parties, the three ‘traditional’ members are the centre-left Social Democratic Party (SDP), the formerly agrarian Centre Party (Kesk) and the conservative National Coalition Party (Kok). All recent Prime Ministers have come from one of these three parties and typically two of them are in government at any one time. The right-wing populist Finns Party (PS) have won a similar level of support to these three in recent elections.

The four smaller parties at present are the Left Alliance (Vas), the Green League (Vihr), the Christian Democrats (KD) and the Swedish People’s Party (SFP), who represent Finland’s significant Swedish-speaking minority and are nearly always in government. In recent years, it has increasingly looked like Centre might fall into the smaller group, while the Greens have occasionally polled on a par with the larger parties.

Highly consensual form of government

When we say that Finnish coalitions are ‘oversized’, we mean that they contain more parties than are strictly needed for a majority in parliament. For instance, Sanna Marin’s current coalition includes the SDP (40 seats), Centre (31), Greens (20), Left (16) and SFP (9), yet would reach the 101 seats needed for a majority with just the first four.

This highly consensual form of government is partially a legacy of the fact that, until 1992, one-third of MPs could delay a bill coming into effect until after the next election; having two-thirds of MPs on side was therefore the norm. Despite the abolition of the procedure, consensualism remains deeply ingrained.

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