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.