Finland's government structure has remained largely unchanged since it was established in 1919 with the passage of the Constitution Act. Building on a combination of old institutions from both the Swedish and the Russian periods, this law, together with three others also of constitutional status, has given Finland a system that has been remarkably successful in allowing a once deeply divided nation to govern itself.
Finland, although independent of foreign rule only since 1917, has traditions of self-government extending back into the Middle Ages. Because their country belonged to the dual kingdom of Sweden-Finland for more than 600 years, Finns had long enjoyed the common Nordic right to manage local affairs by themselves. Beginning in 1362, Finns took part in the election of the Swedish king, and they thus became involved in the government of the realm as a whole. This role was increased after 1435, when they began sending representatives to the kingdom's governing body, the Diet of the Four Estates (Riksdag).
The Swedish Diet Act of 1617 and the Form of Government Act of 1634 formalized the Finnish tradition of estates, whereby leading members of the country, representatives not only of regions but of social classes as well, met to decide matters of common concern. Although the acts restricted local government somewhat, they brought Finns more than ever into the management of the kingdom's affairs. At regular intervals a Finn presided over the nobility, the most important of the four estates of the Diet; consisting also of the estates of the clergy, burghers, and peasantry, the Diet continued to be Finland's representative governing body until early in the twentieth century.
Royal power was strengthened by the constitution of 1772, forced on the Diet by King Gustav III. This constitution, in effect in Finland until 1919, long after it had been abrogated in Sweden, gave the king final say about the decisions of the Diet. The king's power was further augmented by the Act of Union and Security of 1789, which gave him exclusive initiative in legislative matters.
Ceded by Sweden to Russia in 1809, Finland was not incorporated fully into the empire by Tsar Alexander I, but retained its own legal system. A small body, the Senate, was established to administer the country. Its two sections, finance and justice, later became the basis of independent Finland's cabinet and supreme courts. The Senate's head, the governor general, the highest official in Finland, was a Russian appointed by the tsar. An indication of the country's relative autonomy, however, was that all other officials of the Grand Duchy of Finland were native Finns.
The tsar, who had the right to determine when the Diet met, dissolved the assembly in 1809, and it did not meet again until 1863 when recalled by Alexander II, the Tsar Liberator. Thereafter the Diet met regularly, and in the late 1860s it ushered in the "Golden Age" of Finnish legislation, a period of several decades during which the country's laws were modernized and were brought into harmony with the legal codes of Western Europe. It was during this period, too, that political parties appeared, emerging first from the campaign to give the Finnish language its rightful place in the country, then from the growing resistance to Russian rule, and finally from the question of how to contend with the coming of industrialization and labor strife.
The aggressive Russification campaign that began in the 1890s sought to end the relative autonomy Finland had enjoyed under tsarist rule. A military defeat in East Asia weakened the Russian empire and gave Finns a chance for greater freedom. The Diet unanimously dissolved itself in 1906, and a parliament, the Eduskunta, a unicameral body elected by universal suffrage, was created. Finland became in one step a modern representative democracy and the first European nation to grant women the right to vote.
The tsarist regime allowed the assembly few of its rights, however, and only after the collapse of the Russian Empire and the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 were the Finns able to secure their independence. A civil war and bitter political debates about whether the country should be a monarchy or a republic preceded the passage of the Constitution Act of 1919, which established the present system of government in Finland.
|Country Studies main page | Finland Country Studies main page|