Finland's tradition of local self-government, which predates the arrival of Christianity in the country, was placed on a more modern footing in the nineteenth century when local functions were taken from the church, and communities became responsible for education and health matters. Universal suffrage was introduced in local government in 1917, and the Constitution Act of 1919 states in Article 51 that "the administration of the municipalities shall be based on the principle of self-government by the citizens, as provided in specific laws." How local selfgovernment is practiced in the country's urban and rural municipalities (numbering 94 and 367, respectively, in 1988) is specified by the Local Government Act of 1976.
The governing body in a municipality is the municipal council, the members of which, ranging in number from seventeen to eighty-five, are elected by universal suffrage for four-year terms. Elections are held in October, and the proportional representation list system is used. Any Finnish citizen legally resident in the municipality and at least eighteen years old by the year in which the election is held can vote. Since 1976, citizens of Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Iceland who have been legal residents of Finland for at least two years may also vote. Voter turnout has generally been somewhat lower than in national elections. In the 1988 local elections, for example, only 70 percent of those eligible--about five to ten percent less than in national elections--voted.
Finnish citizens have an obligation to serve in elective local government posts, which has meant that most elected officials are laymen. The 1976 law provides for financial compensation and pension rights for those citizens elected to local positions.
Candidates traditionally have campaigned for office through national party organizations, and local election results are regarded as an indication of the national parties' popularity. Local electoral results mirror those of national elections with regard to party dominance in particular regions. Members of the Eduskunta often have begun their careers on the local level, and they have been allowed to hold both local and national elective offices at the same time. Continued participation in politics at the grass roots level has given Helsinki politicians close contact with their constituents.
The responsibilities of municipal government include managing the budget and financial affairs, approving plans submitted to it, delegating authority to committees, and making decisions on important issues. They also direct school, health, and social welfare systems; see to the construction and maintenance of local roads; provide for the management of waste and water; and supply energy. Many decisions relating to financial or budgetary questions require two-thirds majorities in council votes. This means that there is much discussion behind the scenes before votes are taken and that there exists the same consensus politics at this level as is practiced on the national level. Because municipal governments have no legislative or judicial powers, decisions are carried out by means of ordinances.
Much of the routine work of governing is managed by the municipal board, which consists of at least seven people, one of whom is the chairman. Board members, who serve for two-year terms, come from the council, and they are chosen to reflect its party composition. The board prepares matters to be discussed by the council, and, if measures are approved, implements them. Aiding the board are a number of committees, some obligatory.
A staff of trained municipal employees assists the council, the board, and the committees. To meet their overall responsibilities, municipal governments employed a large number of persons, about 17 percent of the country's total work force in the 1980s. For duties too broad in scope for a single municipality, the managing of a large hospital for example, communities join together to form confederations of minicipalities or joint authorities. By the 1980s, there were about 400 of these bodies. Local authorities are also obliged by the Local Government Act of 1976 to formulate, publish, and frequently revise a five-year plan covering administration, financial affairs, economic growth, and land use. Expert assistance from national government bodies, such as the Ministry of Interior, helps local bodies to fulfill this obligation.
The responsibilities of local government have grown in recent decades, and in the 1980s about two-thirds of public sector spending was in the hands of local authorities. Local involvement in planning also meant that 10 percent of the investment in the nation's economy came from municipal coffers. In order to meet their responsibilities, local governments have the right to tax, including the right to establish local tax rates, a power needed for their independence, but one that supplies them with only 40 percent of the monies they expend. The remainder is furnished by the national government (a little over 20 percent) or is derived from various fees and charges.
Finnish local self-government is subject to a variety of controls. The national government decides the municipalities' duties and areas of responsibility, and once they are established, only a law passed by the Eduskunta may alter them. The municipalities are obliged to submit many of their decisions to a regional body or to a national government agency for approval. This control, however, is often rather loose, and only when a local government has broken a law does the provincial or the national government intervene. Except for minor changes, proposals to higher levels of government are not amended by them, but rather are returned to local authorities, who themselves modify measures or decisions to meet prescribed standards.
Meetings of municipal councils are generally open to the public, and though board and committee meetings are closed, records of their proceedings are subsequently published. Local governments or communes are also obliged to publicize their activities. Individuals who believe they have been wronged by a municipal policy may appeal to the courts or to officials at the provincial or national level.
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