This analysis was written by Nino Tsereteli, Research Officer at DRI, with consultation by Veera Heinonen, Director of Democracy and Participation at Sitra.
Finns will head to the polls on Sunday 2 April 2023 to elect 200 members of a unicameral parliament. Polls are forecasting a very tight race with three top contenders. Petteri Orpo's centre-right National Coalition Party, holds a narrow lead with 20%; not far behind, Riikka Purra’s right-wing, Finns Party and Sanna Marin's centre-left party are running neck and neck with around 19 %. Women account for 42.9 % of candidates.
Finland remains in top tiers of the rule of law rankings. Perceived levels of judicial independence are high, and those of corruption are low. Media freedom is guaranteed – According to 2022 RSF index, Finland ranks 4th in the EU, outperformed only by Denmark, Sweden and Estonia. Rule of law issues have not been prominently addressed by the parties in the election campaign and we do not expect election results to significantly impact Finland’s rule of law performance. There are concerns, nevertheless. Some of these concerns (such as delays in the implementation of rulings of the European Court of Human Rights) are long-standing. Others are relatively new – the laws adopted in response to security threats emerging out of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine warrant attention, as governments could easily abuse powers provided by these laws.
Rule of Law Challenges
Risk of Governmental Arbitrariness in Legislation Related to Security
In 2022, commentators raised concerns about the amendment of the Emergency Powers Act, a piece of legislation enabling the government to address hybrid threats from Russia. Professor Martin Scheinin explained that this act had been adopted as a so-called exceptive act, a law that is incompatible with the Constitution and must therefore be adopted in the same qualified procedure as an amendment of the Constitution itself. The incompatibility lies in the very broad delegation of legislative powers to the Executive. By getting this act to cover a new type of threat, the government sidestepped a constitutional requirement to have parliament authorise exceptions to fundamental rights.Vague, general wording when introducing this new category of emergency was worrying too.
Another subject of concern was the amendment to the Border Guard Act, which included the possibility of temporarily closing Finland’s borders and refusing of asylum applications. These would come into effect in case of an exceptionally high number of entries to the country or evidence or suspicion that a foreign actor is organising border crossings. The fear is that in the hands of an extreme right-wing government, these provisions would be used to close the borders under ideological pretexts. The amendments were pushed through, notwithstanding the recent European Court rulings against Poland and Lithuania on issues of direct relevance to this piece of legislation.
A Not so Spotless Record: Problematic Implementation of European Court of Human Rights Rulings
Finland’s record of implementing the European Court of Human Rights judgments has been problematic. While Finland is rarely found in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights, there is a considerable delay in implementing those rare judgments. Finland has one of the highest percentages of leading judgments from the last decade pending implementation: 60 % - only surpassed by Cyprus, Hungary, and Spain.
A Judiciary with Room for Improvement: Long Backlogs and Low Accessibility
In its 2022 Rule of Law Report, the European Commission has identified issues with the accessibility of justice, including high costs of judicial proceedings, and a lack of free legal aid for people with low income. The report also highlighted concerns regarding an overall lack of financial resources, judges and staff, even if Finland allocated additional funding to courts to clear the backlog from Covid-19. Stakeholders to consultations also viewed the length of proceedings in complex cases as unsatisfactory.
The European Commission also called for the development of new initiatives by the National Courts Administration, a body created to strengthen the structural autonomy of courts and reinforce the quality of the administration of justice, to support courts in their work.
Finland’s Ongoing Efforts to Curb Corruption
In its 2022 Rule of Law report, the European Commission highlighted a number of areas in which legislation could be improved. The Commission called for strengthening the criminal legal framework on corruption, in particular, by adopting the legislation on trading in influence. Finland is also expected to continue efforts to implement the new National Anti-Corruption Strategy and Action Plan 2021-2023.
Little Space for Rule of Law Issues During the Campaign
The Sunday elections take place against the backdrop of Finland’s application to join NATO. This big shift in Finland’s foreign affairs strategy, the cost of living crisis and spending priorities have dominated the campaign, leaving little space for rule of law debates. It is unclear if the new Parliament will address imperfections in current legislation identified by various monitoring bodies and when. However, the country’s rule of law performance will likely not deteriorate significantly. Existing systems of checks and balances should prevent a major rule of law backsliding after elections, irrespective of results.
The risk of abuse of power and arbitrariness might be higher with some configurations of government than with others. If the government is led by the far-right Finns party, one may expect anti-immigration measures and possibly, other initiatives potentially undermining Finland’s human rights commitments. Cuts in the development aid are also likely in that scenario.
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