Politics and politicking
By Unto Hämäläinen
The Prime Minister recently appeared on an interview programme with YLE TV-1, appearing quite relaxed and self-assured. The programme was long enough and produced in such a serene manner that it was possible not just to listen to his valuable words, but also to examine his character.
The change has been considerable. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, who appeared to be quite unsure of himself in the early part of his term, has gained so much self-confidence that he is beginning to look quite self-important. At times he refers to himself in the third person: "The Prime Minister thinks...".
The serenity is not without reason. When the centre-left government was set up two years ago, it was deeply concerned about the state of the country’s economy.
Vanhanen and his partners decided to risk putting the few billion euros available in the state budget into tax cuts; before the Parliamentary elections they had promised to spend the whole capacity for economic revitalisation on services and supports.
The investment into tax cuts brought results. The prosperous middle class put the extra money into consumption, spurring the domestic market. The country’s economy got fuel that it had needed for a long time. It appears that Vanhanen’s term will go down in history as a time of strong economic growth.
The risks taken by Vanhanen’s government also succeeded on the political level. The government became very popular. And why not? After all, the prosperous middle class has understandably been pleased with the actions taken by the government; its interests have not been violated.
The only irritating decision has been the tightening of the rules on tax breaks for pension insurance, and even that was watered down by Parliament. The full impact of the change will not be felt until 2010.
Keeping the prosperous middle class happy is the political life insurance of every government. Only two thirds of Finns vote in elections. Most of the voters come from the ranks of the well-off. It is not wise for any large party to aggravate prosperous voters, because even a small protest of the well-to-do would lead to an election defeat.
The four-year term of the centre-left government is at its half-way mark. It has made all of its important political decisions, unless it is suddenly forced by the outside world to do something unexpected.
The time of politics is over for this government; for the rest of the term it can concentrate on politicking - that is, playing the power game.
The government faces two big issues: the offices of the President of the Republic, and the next Prime Minister.
Matti Vanhanen is seeking both jobs. He is seeking the Presidency with the help of the National Coalition Party, and the post of Prime Minister of the government that will take office after the next Parliamentary elections with the help of the Social Democrats.
Switching partners requires political cunning from himself, and benevolence on the part of the competitors. Both seem to be forthcoming.
Vanhanen is offering the National Coalition Party the opportunity to support him against Tarja Halonen, the candidate of the left. The leaders of the National Coalition Party have been agreeable to this. This gives the Prime Minister a magnificent start for the Presidential elections.
If Vanhanen does not manage to win the Presidency, simply reaching the second round would give him a strong position in the upcoming Parliamentary election. It is only one year from the Presidential race to the Parliamentary elections. Between elections Vanhanen will get a boost from the European Union, when Finland holds the EU Presidency in the second half of 2006.
The Parliamentary elections will be an election for the Prime Minister, in which a popular and successful incumbent would be difficult to push aside.
If Vanhanen succeeds in keeping the Centre Party as the largest party in Finland, and manages to hold on to the post of Prime Minister, he will probably choose the SDP as his coalition partner. Keeping the Social Democrats in check is not difficult, as the SDP cannot handle being in opposition.
Are there any weak parts in this plan?
Of course there are. For instance, one issue that remains open is, who the Centre would have as Prime Minister and party leader if Vanhanen actually won the Presidcy in 2006.
Not to worry: this is not insurmountable. The party’s deputy chair, Foreign Trade Minister Paula Lehtomäki, is ready now for new tasks. A man as President and a woman as Prime Minister - what a wonderful slogan for the Presidential elections.
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 19.3.2005
UNTO HÄMÄLÄINEN / Helsingin Sanomat