The Finnish Municipal Elections 2021: A Religion Scholar’s View

The biggest election news of the spring in Finland was that the municipal elections would be rescheduled from April to June due to the pandemic. Finland has avoided the worst Covid-19 scenarios and the acceptance rate enjoyed by the current government (Social Democrat, Centre Party, Greens, Left Alliance, Swedish People’s Party) is relatively high. Even so, the decision to move the elections met with some controversy.

In municipal elections, held every four years, Finns vote to elect the members to the council of the municipality of their residence. There are 310 municipalities, and the voter turnout in 2017 was 58,9 %. Municipal councils decide on many important local issues, including tax rate policy and implementation of the basic statutory services such as health care and education.

I have been reading the party platforms relating to the elections, and – unsurprisingly – religion is a minor topic. Of the governmental parties, the Centre Party and the Greens mention parishes as a vital partner in implementing local services, but no more than that. In the opposition, the economically right-wing National Coalition party remains quiet about religion.

When it comes to the political discourse in Finland, it is my impression (and the LegitRel project examines, among other things, if this is indeed the case) that religious language only plays a minor role in specific contexts. Topics such as the economy, taxation, basic services, and labour policies are not among these contexts.

Instead, my tentative observation is that religion is the stuff of ‘soft’ or ‘cultural’ politics. These include ethics and identity-related questions, such as sexuality, gender, citizenship, and nationhood.

Indeed, the parties that talk most about religion – the Christian Democrats and The Finns Party – generally appear to follow this characterization. This is the case, for example, when one reads their platforms for the upcoming municipal elections.

The “cultural” side of the discourse is most pronounced in the language of The Finns Party. They note in their platform that they do not support funding for “gender-neutral road signs” or for “constant campaigning against discrimination and racism.” They note that they will not “compromise the Finnish culture,” and Christian events such as Christmas celebrations will remain in the schools. These policies resemble the aims of other nationalist-populist parties in Europe and elsewhere, such as those in Hungary and Poland.

The Christian Democrats are more moderate in their discourse, but are, as a party, more strongly connected with the charismatic Christian voter base. However, they also construct an essential link between Finnishness and Christianity. Their municipal election platform addresses Lutheran parishes and other Christian communities in municipal life and the role of religion in schools.

For a religion scholar, one interesting, newly founded small party is Kristallipuolue (unofficial English translation: The Crystal Party), which states that their core ideology is “universal love” and the “holistic balance of humans, nature, and society.” In other words, they are the party of contemporary spirituality. Looking at their candidate list, the party has attracted a wide range of figures from alternative medicine advocates to QAnon conspiracy theory proponents. 

Elections are always exciting, even for a religion scholar whose expertise is on a topic playing second fiddle compared to the main election themes.  In the last municipal elections of 2017, the discussion around a grand mosque project was an essential topic in Helsinki. This time, everything seems to revolve around the pandemic, although the political discussion space has recently shown signs of returning to normal.