Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Finnish election

The night the Berlin Wall came down, I was spending time with a Finnish journalist who was pretty certain the East Germans would be less likely to celebrate if they had any idea what was in store for them.  She pointed out a serious list of the things DDR did well.  She was actually pretty depressed about the whole affair.  After awhile she decided it wasn't the time to be so gloomy and she suddenly brightened and said, "But I forget the greatest tragedy of all—if the Berlin Wall disappears, where are USA Presidents going to go to give their hopelessly embarrassing speeches about democracy?"

At that, I dissolved in laughter because that crack was funny on about a dozen levels.  I have lived in Finland and met doormen and cab drivers who had probably forgotten more about Russia / USSR than the whole Russia section of USA State Department will ever know.  My journalist friend spoke five languages fluently and lived close enough to Leningrad / St. Petersburg to get their TV shows—she was several clicks more informed than the cab divers.  The Finns have a vested interest in understanding their big neighbor with whom they share a 1000 km border.

But what made her remark especially funny was the simple fact that compared to the Finnish multiparty democracy with her informed and committed participants, the goofy version we have in USA is really a joke.  Here in Minnesota, we brag about our nation-leading voter participation rates of nearly 70% in presidential elections.  In Finland, 70% would be a bad day in Black Rock.  There a many nations with much healthier democracies than in USA, but Finland really does have a perch from which to point out our flaws.

All this comes back to mind when I read the results of Finland's most recent election.  I am quite certain that she wants to be an excellent member of the EU but if she doesn't have a healthy relationship with Russia, her economy will suffer badly.  As one Finn once told me, "Whether the EU succeeds or fails, we will still have a 1000 km border with Russia."  Finland cannot afford to indulge the foolishness / evil of the USA neocons.

Finland: Exhibiting strain of northern independence

Patrick L Young April 21, 2015

Finland has struck a blow for genuine exceptionalism in Europe. Anti-NATO parties dominated polls while Euroskeptic cred was championed not only by the longstanding anti-EU party, but also, uniquely within the eurozone, by the Social Democratic party.

Depending on your perspective, Finland may conjure recollections anywhere from Sibelius’ exquisitely lyrical Karelia Suite to the speedy monosyllables of Formula One champion Kimi Raikkonen...via multiple thoughts in between. Nevertheless, it doesn’t link easily in the mind to the Mediterranean. Yet the new Finnish government may be about to make an indelible impact on the eurozone’s profligate south.

Let’s back up for a moment: the Finnish General Election campaign concluded at the weekend with a popular vote amongst the population of 5.5 million. Western media saw the Finnish vote as a very insignificant sideshow to the 2016 Clinton coronation (which probably won’t be...but that’s another story) or the current British borefest of economic illiteracy.

Yet the Finnish election of 2015 may have more ramifications for Europe than who governs either the UK or US in the near future. That’s not because the Finnish economy is rebounding fast - rather the backdrop to the vote was one with GDP still 5 percent below the previous peak.

Nevertheless, the Finns aren’t profligate. Their debt to GDP is a modest 57 percent, vastly below even Germany (80 percent) or the UK (90 percent), and a fraction below the Mediterranean spendthrifts. Finnish unemployment is an uncomfortable 9 percent - true that is less than say France, but in Helsinki government retains pretensions to economic credibility which Paris has clearly long since abandoned.

Even the last Finnish government, despite apparent pro-EU credentials, was skeptical about the retention of Greece in the eurozone. When the Greeks passed around the begging bowl, the Finns, uniquely, demanded €1 billion in collateral from Athens in order to support the 2011 bailout. If anything, since then, Finnish opinions about the Mediterranean have become even less sympathetic. Reports continue to suggest it was a hardening of Finnish opinion which resulted in Syriza being forced to accept a three-month debt reprieve in late February. Ever since, Athens has been in a desperate struggle to meet its obligations and the noose continues to tighten, as the Greek nation struggles to accept that it is willfully strangling itself within the single-currency straitjacket.

Against this background, last Sunday’s Finnish general election may have appeared a largely local political event, but it is in fact another step towards the likely breakdown, or at least shrinkage, of the eurozone.

The winner of the election, ousting pro-NATO, pro-EU PM Alexander Stubb, was Juha Sipila, a millionaire executive in, perhaps appropriately for the nation of Nokia, the telecoms industry. The new PM-elect is expressly anti NATO membership as are three of the leading four parties in the election who together garnered more than 55 percent of the popular vote. That suggests recent NATO sabre rattling against folks to the east has not rung a chord with Finnish voters…

However it is in the euro arena that matters perhaps look most fascinating. A strong second in the poll was ‘The Finns’ party, which dropped the ‘True’ epithet from its name this time around, but retains a very strong Euroskeptic tone. ‘The Finns’ are highly likely to form a key component of the government and their role as runner up party means they have the right to nominate the finance minister.

While ‘the Finns’ toned down the rhetoric of previous campaigns this time around, the simple truth is that even a pro-EU PM was previously twisting the at every turn on the Greek economic meltdown. With Finland taking a clear turn towards euroskepticism, the euro endgame has taken an interesting new twist. Well, unless you are Greek, with citizens harboring a curiously stubborn desire to retain the euro - despite that slight blurry attitude towards debt. Thus, events at the weekend mean resolution of the Greek’s stay-or-leave euro dilemma took a step towards eventual resolution.

If you want to save time, you can safely ignore the breathless discussions as negotiations drag on through another cycle of emotive Greek drama in Riga this week. The Finnish elections have merely confirmed the fate of Athens’ futile endeavors to remain a fully ‘unpaid up’ debtor member of the flawed eurozone.

Prepare for a new drachma, from Helsinki with love more

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