Glen Newey · Midsummer in Finland
We have a new prime minister, heading up a centre-right coalition, with a fondness for bear-shooting and cerise tops. It’s Mari Kiviniemi, elected on Tuesday by the Eduskunta, the Finnish Parliament, as leader of the governing coalition’s dominant Centre Party by a margin of 115-56. She takes over from the discredited Matti Vanhanen. Though the talk is that Vanhanen’s hand was forced by irregularities in party funding, he has blamed his departure on his leg (phlebitis). Vanhanen, like his successor, was chosen partly for his boringness: in a past life he was, incredibly, a teetotal journalist. He hadn’t even been through detox. But he then spoiled it all with a slather of extra-marital affairs.
Most of the time Finland is the Republic of Mogadonia. But the icebound stillness is tempered by the odd flare-up of public nudity or spree killing and – as Juhannus, this week’s midsummer blotto-fest, will again show – crapulence on an epic scale. A lot of Finns have birthdays late in March. On the other hand, it’s a bonanza for the grim reaper, too: a popular pastime is gambling on how many bladdered Finns will meet their deaths during Juhannus, usually at the bottom of a lake. The Helsingin Sanomat has stern warnings about diving off jetties into 10cm of water, and about urinating out of boats (‘ecologically irresponsible’). Last year Russian bootleggers were convicted of pumping moonshine over the border into Finland with a pipeline made of plastic biros.
As in the UK, sobering times lie ahead. In office Kiviniemi will be in partnership with the right-wing National Coalition Party, whose leader Jyrki Katainen continues to fill the Nick Clegg role of sub-prime minister. The new PM will seek to tame Finland’s budget deficit while reactivating its sluggish economy and cutting unemployment. Her administration has ten months till next year’s general election. She will be Finland’s second woman PM; the first, Anneli Jäätteenmäki, appointed in 2003, survived just two months before being forced out. In that year’s election campaign, Jäätteenmäki had alleged that the incumbent, Paavo Lipponen, had held secret talks with George W. Bush – the word being that Lipponen had pledged Helsinki’s backing for the Iraq invasion as a kickback for the US purchase of AMOS self-propelled mortar systems manufactured by the Finno-Swedish arms firm Patria-Hägglunds. It seems that Jäätteenmäki was stitched up by Martti Manninen, the Foreign Ministry mole who passed her the documents; although, like Jäätteenmäki, Manninen belonged to the Centre Party, he backed a rival, more pro-US faction. She quit when Manninen contradicted her story to Parliament that she had not, in breach of Finland’s official secrecy laws, solicited the documents. Jäätteenmäki was acquitted on all charges when the case came to court.
Non-alignment is a touchy matter in Finland. Jäätteenmäki’s real crime was against Finnish political etiquette, which is doggedly non-partisan in foreign affairs, at least on the hustings. Unlike former Warsaw Pact and indeed ex-Soviet republics like Poland, Hungary and the Baltic states, Finland remains outside Nato. Maybe the very lack of formal dominance by the USSR in the era of ‘finlandisation’ has made it harder, for Finland to flirt with Atlanticism than for its Baltic neighbours since the Cold War ended. Above all, the Finns don’t want to cross the Russians, now as in tsarist times their biggest single trading partner. On election as Centre Party chair, Kiviniemi, who passed a bear and elk-killing test last year, promptly invited Vladimir Putin to come to Finland on a bear shoot.