Finland: constitutional reforms would further reduce president’s powers
The unicameral Finnish parliament, Eduskunta, is currently debating a bill for constitutional reform that would further reduce the powers of the president. The bill was already approved by a simple majority in the Eduskunta before the parliamentary elections held in April 2011, but a 2/3rds majority is now required for the bill to be passed. While it is likely that this majority threshold will be met, the reforms have also met serious opposition. The issue is particularly difficult for the Social Democrats. The incumbent president, Tarja Halonen, is from their ranks and she has been vehemently opposed to the reforms. However, the SDP is now the second largest party in the ‘six pack’ government and are thus in favour of the reforms. The largest opposition party, the populist Finns (previously known as the True Finns), are against the constitutional amendments, while the position of the other opposition party, the Centre, is unclear. Also, public opinion surveys show that the citizens prefer keeping the powers of the president intact – or would even like to see the president given more powers in Finnish politics.
The objective of the constitutional amendments is to further strengthen parliamentarism at the expense of presidential powers. Finland was until the 1990s a president-led polity, but the current constitution, in force since 2000, completed a period of far-reaching constitutional change that curtailed presidential powers and parliamentarised the Finnish political system. However, the political elite has overall been somewhat unhappy with the constitution, arguing in particular that it contains many articles which can result in unnecessary frictions between the government, the Eduskunta, and the president. Hence, the political system should be simplified by consolidating the powers of the parliament and the cabinet.
The planned reform would not bring about substantial changes to the president’s role. Foreign policy would continue to be directed by the president in cooperation with the government, but EU matters would be even more firmly the domain of the cabinet as the prime minister would represent Finland in the European Council and in other EU meetings where the political leaders of the member states are represented (such as informal meetings between the leaders of member states and summits between the EU and third countries). However, to the extent that this is possible within the EU framework, the government could in exceptional circumstances decide that also the president represents Finland in EU meetings. The presence of both the prime minister and the president would, so the argument goes, indicate that the issue is of particular salience to Finland and would also strengthen Finland’s bargaining position. This change is naturally linked to the Lisbon Treaty, as after it entered into force each country is represented in the European Council by either its prime minister or the head of state.
There would also be a new conflict-resolution mechanism. According to the planned reforms the position of the Eduskunta would be decisive in cases of disagreements between the president and the government. But this mechanism would only apply to a small share of foreign policy matters, basically those necessitating formal decision-making such as the domestic ratification of certain international agreements.
Turning to domestic matters, the president would retain her suspensive veto in legislation (the president has three months to confirm a law approved by Eduskunta but the latter can override president’s potential veto). But whereas under the current constitution the president formally determines that a bill shall be introduced in the Eduskunta, in the future the government would be responsible for initiating the parliamentary processing of legislation. This change is logical as the involvement of the president is purely symbolic given that she cannot prevent cabinet’s legislative proposals from being introduced in the parliament. Finally, the president’s appointment powers would also be further reduced – a change motivated no doubt by the fact that president Halonen has several times vetoed government’s proposals, appointing instead persons of her own choice to leading civil service positions. Most significantly, the president would no longer appoint permanent secretaries who are the leading civil servants in the ministries.
In addition to these changes concerning the president, the reform would strengthen direct democracy by introducing the citizens’ initiative (at least 50,000 signatures would be needed to submit an initiative for a new law to the Eduskunta). Also Finland’s EU membership would now be explicitly recognized in the constitution.
The Eduskunta will decide on the amendments in the next few months as they are intended to enter into force when the new president (elections are held in January) starts her or his tenure in office – either on February 1 (if second round is not needed in the elections) or on March 1, 2012.
Tapio Raunio, University of Tampere (email@example.com)