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Elections on the Islands of Peace

by NordicStorm Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 08:07:18 AM EST

Last week not only meant election time in Poland and Switzerland, but also in the small autonomous Finnish region the Åland Islands, where elections for the 30-seat Lagting, the regional parliament, were held on October 21st. While perhaps not as significant or newsworthy as the elections in the aforementioned countries, I nevertheless found the results fascinating (though as an Ålander in exile, there may be a slight regional bias in play). Besides, all politics is local.


First, a little bit of background. The autonomy of Åland can be considered one of the few success stories of the League of Nations. Before 1809, Finland, including Åland, had been a part of the Swedish empire. However, Sweden was forced to cede Finland to Russia after being defeated in the so called Finnish War of 1808 and 1809. The loss of Åland was particularly painful, due its close proximity to Stockholm.
In 1917 Finland declared itself independent from Russia. The people of the entirely Swedish-speaking Åland, however, wanted the isles to once again become part of Sweden. The compromise decision was to grant Åland far-reaching autonomy, with a regional parliament (the Landsting, later renamed the Lagting) and a regional government (the Landskapsstyrelse, later the Landskapsregering) and provisions to preserve the Ålander's language and culture. While few Ålanders were happy with the decision at the time, a majority have since come to accept and even cherish it. (For a more detailed description, please see the Wikipedia entry and the official website of the Åland Islands). Partially due to Åland's strategic location in the middle of the Baltic sea, Åland is also completely demilitarised (earning the isles the nickname "the islands of peace"). Unlike the rest of Finland, Åland is not part of the EU VAT area, allowing for duty-free shopping on ferries and flights to and from Åland.
To this day, Åland has been a model of sorts for peacefully resolving conflicts with ethnic minorities. Not long before this year's elections, Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili, whose country is struggling with the separatist regions of Abkhasia and South Ossetia, visited Åland in order to learn about its autonomy.

The Finnish political parties have no presence whatsoever on Åland; one assumes this is the case so as to ensure no interference on internal matters. In fact, prior to the late 1960s, there wasn't really much of party system on Åland at all, but merely loose electoral associations. Two of the earliest "bona fide" parties to emerge where the Åland Social Democrats and the right-wing conservative Freeminded Co-operation. A few years later the then principally agrarian Åland Centre and the liberal Liberals for Åland emerged; to this day, they have been the two largest parties in the Lagting (thought both the Freeminded and the SocDems have at times come close). The current Lagting is rounded out by the conservative Non-Aligned Rally and the separatist organisation Future of Åland. To assign the labels "right-wing" and "left-wing" to the Åland parties might be a difficult proposition, but the SocDems and the Liberals (perhaps somewhat counterintuitively) are generally considered to be on the left, the Centre being smack in the middle and the Freeminded and the Non-Aligned being on the right. As in the Finnish mainland, the parliamentary government of Åland has primarily consisted of coalition governments. Coalition governments spanning the ideological spectrum is not uncommon; these coalition governments generally do not last a full four-year term, and many of the parties will spend time both in the government and in the opposition between elections.
Following the 2003 election, the Centre, Liberals, Non-Aligned and Freeminded formed a coalition government, which folded after about a year. The coalition government prior to this year's election consisted of the Centre (who held seven seats out of 30 in the Lagting), the SocDems (six seats) and the Freeminded (four seats), with the Centre chairman being the Lantråd, or premier of the Åland government. The largest opposition party was the Liberals (seven seats), followed by the Non-Aligned (three seats), the Future of Åland (two seats) and the small one-man protest party Åland Progress Group (one seat).

Okay, that's quite a bit of background. The outcome of the election was a spectacular defeat for two of the government parties; the SocDems lost half its seats in the Lagting, while the Freeminded lost one. The Centre managed to increase its share of the vote somewhat, and captured an additional seat. The Non-Aligned made large gains in its vote share, though only managing to gain one seat, but the big winner in the election was the Liberals, who captured a stunning 32% of the votes, the largest share of the vote captured by any party since 1983, and 10 seats in the Lagting, in the process reclaiming its title as the largest party on Åland. The Future of Åland, who were expecting to make large gains, while increasing its share of the votes, did not win any additional seats in the Lagting.

As is usually the case, the election results could have been caused by a number of reasons (and, needless to say, this is all in my humble opinion). Both the Social Democrats and the Freeminded lost high-profile and popular members of the Lagting, vote-getters they apparently were unable to replace. Additionally the chairwoman of the SocDems had been involved in a few scandals that seems to have hurt the party. The SocDems had also been the party primarily associated with a controversial and much-maligned school reform that drew significant opposition from just about everyone and that hopefully, with the SocDems likely in opposition, will be put to rest. Their massive defeat had been presaged earlier in the year, when the Finnish parliamentary elections where held. In the election for the constituency of Åland, two electoral associations had nominated candidates for the election: the SocDems and an electoral alliance featuring much of the rest of the Åland political parties. The end result was a 86%-14% thrashing of the SocDems, with both the winner (and thus elected member of the Finnish parliament) and the runner-up on the winning list receiving more than twice the votes of the entire Social Democratic field combined.
The Liberals, on the other hand, managed to re-recruit a former member of the Lagting and long-time Åland representative in the Finnish parliament, who received the most votes of all candidates. Additionally they seem to have spent the last years in opposition well, absorbing much of the left-wing votes lost by the SocDems.
The Future of Åland's disappointing results are interesting. The party's main goal is the creation of an independent Åland microstate. While I personally don't view their goals as particularly realistic or desirable, I expected them to pick up a lot of protest votes, but this did not occur. The Liberals clearly managed to position themselves as a clear and viable alternative to the current state of affairs, thus eliminating the need for protest votes. Additionally, while the leadership of the party itself are serious and fair people, it seems they commanded a lot of support from outright xenophobic corners, which probably scared off a lot of voters. Besides that, they never seemed to adequately explain how exactly one would combine a microstate and a modern Nordic welfare state.
Furthermore, most of the other parties moved significantly on the issue, by vowing to work for greatly expanding the autonomy of Åland and greatly increasing its influence in EU matters, thus being able to capture many on-the-fence voters. In that regard, the Future of Åland "won" by moving the Overton window towards independence.

As always after an election, the bargaining begins. The Liberals, being the winners of the election, will most likely be part of the new government. They and the Centre could form a coalition government on their own, with their combined 18 seats. Then again, the last coalition with the two parties lasted about a year.
One would think the two big losers of the election, the SocDems and the Freeminded, will bow before the will of the voters and not participate in the next government, but that may not necessarily be the case. The Non-Aligned could be part of a coalition government, but there would need to be at least two more parties in the coalition. The Future of Åland is not likely to be part of the government, with it's relatively insignificant two seats and significant ideological differences.

Some 67.8% voted; on par with elections in Finland. The preliminary results are available in the Wikipedia entry (full disclosure: I am the principal author of that page) and full results will be available on the Åland election website.

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Okay, a bit longer than I expected. Not expecting a whole of comments on this one, but that's what's going on in my neck of the woods...


"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde
by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 08:10:05 AM EST
Thank you for the diary, very interesting! Did the language question play any part this time? If I've understood correctly, the SocDem want to guarantee the teaching of the home language (whether it be Finnish, Persian or whatever) in schools and the Centrists are against that. What is the Liberals' position?

You have a normal feeling for a moment, then it passes. --More--
by tzt (tzt) on Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 09:51:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It did to some extent (as it always does, I would say - it is one of the principal reasons for the existence of the autonomy, after all),  but I think other issues overshadowed it (much to the chagrin of the independence party, I imagine). I think the Liberals are fairly non-committal on the issue, but I'm not sure...
Also, in light of the botched school reform, the SocDems had absolutely no credibility on matters education, which couldn't have helped any of their subsequent educational proposals.

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde
by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 10:31:18 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Thank you for the detail.

This diary seems to suggest that after a long period of stable devolution, there is now a desire for greater autonomy although perhaps not complete independence.

That gradual movement to greater autonomy seems of wider significance. Both Scotland and Wales seem to have a trend to extend autonomy, even over quite a short time since devolution started.

by Gary J on Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 10:04:29 AM EST
Hmmm...it's an interesting thought. I suppose if the nation-state becomes less important in our ever closer European Union, the regions will increase in significance.

Take for example one of the campaign issues in the Åland election: its relationship with the EU. Most of the parties agree that Åland should be allowed to interact directly with the EU, instead of via an intermediary (the Finnish government). Some even go as far as outright demanding a seat in the European parliament. Whether handing a seat in the parliament to an island of 27,000 people is a good idea is of course another matter. I suppose it's a desire to "be the masters of our own destiny".

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde

by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Tue Oct 23rd, 2007 at 11:03:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
How very interesting.

What strikes me is the seeming ease and efficiency with which representational government works. Might this be attributable to the nature of a limited yet cohesive, island population.

I am increasingly convinced that gigantic nations, like the US, Russia and China, manage to be governed, by hook or by crook, but that by definition the first casualty is adequate representation. Psst, don't tell any ETers but this is of real concern to me with regard to the EU.

In any case, what lovely islands!

by Loefing on Thu Oct 25th, 2007 at 04:25:40 PM EST
Unlike the rest of Finland, Åland is not part of the EU VAT area, allowing for duty-free shopping on ferries and flights to and from Åland.
This must have a nonnegligible economic impact. In 1999 I discovered that the ferry from Umeå and Vaasa had been cancelled (wrecking my Scandinavian Tour travel plans) and that all ferries between Stockholm and Helsinki had added a stop in Åland in order to keep the benefits from duty-free travel.

Non-nordics may not realize that one of the main reasons why Nordics take the ferry is to be able to drink themselves under the table duty-free.

I wonder what the accession of Estonia has done to the Helsinki-Tallinn-Helsinki overnight ferry (yes, overnight! it took 2 hours to get to Tallinn and then spent the night going around in circles to allow people to sleep their alcohol off). Has the ferry been rerouted to Saint Petersbourg, or something?

We have met the enemy, and it is us — Pogo

by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Wed Oct 31st, 2007 at 04:04:53 PM EST
Yup, it pretty much killed the ferry traffic further up north. Some of the Stockholm - Tallinn routes go via Åland as well. Always transport available whenever I want to go home, although unfortunately one has to put up with the drunk-under-the-table Finns and Swedes that tend to be along for the trip. It gets old rather fast.

Dunno about the Helsinki - Tallinn routes, it seemed to do okay the few times I've been to Tallinn (though I went by day. I prefer experiencing new cities while sober. I know, I know, not very Finnish of me!).
Finnish expansion into the Estonian market might have picked up the slack left by the boozers. Apparently a not insignificant amount of people commute from Tallinn to Helsinki.

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde

by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Fri Nov 2nd, 2007 at 06:34:58 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, considering the trip between Umeå and Vaasa is about 126Km with the ferry and 836Km around the gulf (via Tornio), the ferry line definitely made sense. Google Maps is convinced the ferry connection still exist. Maybe it was reinstated?

We have met the enemy, and it is us — Pogo
by Migeru (migeru at eurotrib dot com) on Fri Nov 2nd, 2007 at 06:41:21 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Aah, "pretty much killed it" was a bit of an overstatement on my part. What I meant to say was that it's not been doing particularly well financially since Sweden and Finland joined the EU. It does still exist, barely (http://www.rgline.com/).

"The basis of optimism is sheer terror" - Oscar Wilde
by NordicStorm (m<-at->sturmbaum.net) on Fri Nov 2nd, 2007 at 07:06:38 AM EST
[ Parent ]


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