Consensus has been the dominant mode of Finnish politics since the formation of a broadly based coalition government in 1966 and the establishment of the comprehensive incomes policy system in the late 1960s. The government, made up of parties fundamentally opposed to each other, was formed at the insistence of President Kekkonen. He had long wished to heal the deep and bitter rifts that had marred Finnish public life since the country had gained independence in 1917.
The dozen or so political parties that made up the country's party system in 1966 reflected the divisions that ran through Finnish society. The socialist end of the spectrum was broken into two mutually hostile, roughly equal segments, communist and social democratic, often accompanied by leftist splinter groups. The political middle was filled, first, by the agrarian Center Party, the country's most important party, with a rural base in a society that was rapidly becoming urbanized; second, by the Swedish People's Party (Svenska Folkpartiet--SFP), representing a minority worried about its future and divided along class lines; and third, by a classic liberal party that was in decline. The right consisted of a highly conservative party tied to big business and to high officials, the KOK; and the radical Finnish Rural Party (Suomen Maaseudun Puolue--SMP), the populist impulses of which linked it to the "forgotten" little man often also resident in urban areas. Kekkonen's presidential power and personal prestige enabled him to form in 1966 the popular front government that pulled together sizable social groups to realize important welfare legislation in the late 1960s.
The mending of rifts in the labor movement and a fortuitous agreement in 1968 by leading actors in the market sector led to the first of a number of comprehensive incomes agreements. These agreements, reached by organizations representing most economically active Finns, usually ran for several years and often required enabling legislation.
Critics of the agreements, which have brought much prosperity to Finland and therefore enjoy widespread support, charge that their monolithic quality has meant not consensus but a "time of no alternatives." According to this view, the agreements have reduced state institutions to mere ratifying agents rather than governing bodies. It is claimed that labor and business negotiate while government approves after the fact.
Most of the country's political parties, so fractious and distinct until the 1960s, then drifted toward the political center; remaining disagreements among the principal parties focused less on what policies were to be than on how they were to be implemented. Because most economic legislation required the set majorities stipulated by laws of constitutional status, parties were obliged to work closely together. Even parties not in government have had their say about the content of economic legislation, for without their approval many government bills would have failed.
Another characteristic of Finnish politics and public life was the common practice of reaching agreements on key questions through informal backstairs elite consultation. Often disputes were settled through private discussions by the concerned parties before they were handled in the formal bargaining sites established for their public resolution. This was true for wage package settlements, as well as for legislative proposals scheduled for debate in the Eduskunta, and for other issues that required negotiation and compromise. An institutionalized version of behind-the-scenes negotiations was the Evening School of the Council of State, where leading figures of various groups could freely discuss issues on the government's agenda. The Finnish tradition of informal sauna discussions was an extreme example of informal inter-elite consultations. Some observers claimed that important national decisions were made there in an atmosphere where frank bargaining could be most easily practiced. Advocates of these informal means of uniting elite representatives of diverse interests held that they were quick and to the point. Opponents countered that they encouraged secrecy, bypassed government institutions, and ultimately subverted democracy.
Since the second half of the 1960s, there has been an increasing formalization of the role played by political parties in the country's public life. In 1967 the government began paying subsidies to political parties, and the passage of the Act of Political Parties in 1969 gave the practice a legal basis. According to the law, parties were to receive subsidies according to the number of delegates they had in the Eduskunta. Several other eligibility requirements for state funds that also had to be met were nationwide--rather than local--activity for political purposes, determination of internal party affairs by democratic means, voting membership of at least 5,000, and a published general political program.
The Act of Political Parties provided the first mention of parties in Finnish legislation, despite their central position in the country's political life. State subsidies were a recognition of the role parties played, and the subsidies have further increased that role. Consequently, the number of party officials has increased, as has the number of parties, an effect opposite to that intended by the large parties that pressed for subsidies. The large parties funneled a good part of their funds to their local and their ancillary organizations, while the small parties, with their existence at stake, used their resources on the national level.
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