SFL Liberty Report: Libertarian Guide to Finnish Presidential Election

by Gonçalo Torres

The following interview is the first of the series SFL Liberty Report by Gonçalo Torres.

Gonçalo Torres: Hi, thanks for tuning in to the SFL Liberty Report. 2024 is the year of democracy. Half of the world is going to the polls and I will be talking with people from all over the world to understand what the political situation in their corner of the world is, and how that can impact all of us. Today I am speaking with Ian Golan, editor of Speak Freely and SFL’s local coordinator in Finland. What were the central topics in Finland’s election?

Ian Golan: So the most essential topic was NATO membership, which was pretty recent at that time. Finland was joining NATO and so discussion about how to respond to Russia, which remains a grave threat, was central to the election. All candidates were quite unified in concern about Russia. They were all very hawkish about Russia, which is justified because of its vicinity to Finland. There was some discussion about whether there should be citizenship taken away from citizens who have dual Russian-Finnish citizenship. This was proposed by the nationalist party, but this was also supported by Alexander Stubb, who ended up winning the election. So yes, there were plans put forth about increasing the defence budget and greater integration with the European Union and NATO.

GT: What were the views on these Russia issues by the main parties, including the party that actually won the elections, and what were the views of the more controversial parties involved?

IG: So Alexander Stubb is a person who is very close with the EU. He was for Finland joining NATO before it was cool, before the invasion of Ukraine. So he was quite the pro-European candidate for years. He was previously a vice president of the European Investment Bank, thus he is quite open to Europe and European integration. But his main opponent, who is from the Green Party, was more sceptical about defence. He is against conscription, that is he is timidly against conscription. He also was previously quite sceptical about defence spending. There is this island in the middle of the Baltic Sea that belongs to Finland and is potentially strategically located for army operations. And so both the nationalist candidate and Stubb proposed that it should be militarized; the Green Party candidate was against that. Overall he was a bit more sceptical, but still was fiercely opposed to Russia. There was quite a consensus among all the candidates.

GT: So Russia was clearly a central topic for the elections. And how would you say that these elections impacted Finland’s relations to the West? And with Russia, what can we see in terms of geopolitics with the rest of the world?

IG: So I think this election ensures Finland’s collaboration and membership in NATO. However, there was little doubt about it because all candidates were for NATO at this point. But if the Green Party candidate, Pekka Havisto won, he would be more sceptical about the defence budget and about being as involved in NATO as Finland now is set to be. He did have a change of heart on this topic in the last few years. He became much more hawkish as time went on.

In a way the election changed little because all candidates were pretty unified on that front. One interesting aspect is that Alexander Stubb, who ended up winning, was also supportive of Finland participating in nuclear sharing with the United States. So this is quite an important element for relations with Russia. I think Russia might not like such a development because of Finnish proximity to the city of Saint Petersburg, which used to be the capital of Russia and is the second largest city in Russia currently. So I expect that Putin will not be happy with this election result.

GT: I do believe that Finland does have some history with Russia?

IG: Yes. Russians have been quite hated by Finns since the Winter War, which was a Soviet Union aggression on Finland, that was quite bravely defended by the Finnish soldiers who, against all odds, won against the attacker. This happened despite the large disproportion between the forces of the Finnish army and the forces of the Soviet Union, which had all the military advantage in terms of the numbers, yet the Finns were much more skilled in winter combat and managed to hold off Soviet Union forces. They had to concede some of the territory in the peace negotiations to the USSR, but this was relatively little loss compared to, for instance, Poland, which lost half of its territory to the Soviet Union just half a year before.

GT: So how did this election impact the libertarian movement in Finland?

IG: So to be quite honest, the libertarian movement in Finland does not really exist. There isn’t a major party related to strong libertarian values. There is one principled party, however it is not even registered as a political party.

There is this quite insignificant party called Movement Now which has parliamentary members and they had a candidate in this presidential election called Hjallis Harkimo but he only got half a percent of the vote. He advocated for free markets, some individualism and some small cuts of the huge welfare state we have in Finland. Around 56% of GDP is taken up by government spending here, it is pretty disastrous. But he was a very centrist candidate. He wasn’t a very radical libertarian. Yet even he couldn’t get much popular support. 

The election was a game between three candidates: Alexander Stubb, the Green Party candidate and the nationalist party (the Finns Party) candidate. Alexander Stubb is in the conservative National Coalition Party. As the name suggests, this party is a broad coalition of many different ideologies, but he is in the liberal wing of the party so he is better on a few issues such as gay marriage. He was a pretty big proponent of gay marriage when it was introduced, and he is also pretty ‘open borders’ so he wants immigration to continue. 

On the other hand, he is quite terrible on drug legalisation which is quite a shame and what’s even more worrying is his justification for not wanting cannabis to be legal. Because obviously, we are talking about marijuana here, not cocaine or methamphetamine. He said: “I think drugs should not be legalized. Maybe my level of liberality breaks at this point. If I said otherwise my political career would be cut short. So I am not in favour of legalizing cannabis.”  So this is not some principled commitment from him, fueled by a belief that drugs are evil. This is just a cynical move from him and this is my overall assessment of him as a person. I think he’s just a very skilled politician. A highly cynical one.

This is not his first time in power. He was already the leader of the main party in 2014. He was at that time voted in as Prime Minister and he was also later a Minister of Finance after he lost the election as the Prime Minister. His leadership was ridden with gaffes and mistakes and he escaped all of this to a cushy job in European institutions. There he didn’t manage to get any further positions after his vice-presidency in the European Investment Bank and he proceeded to an academic career in some minor university.

2024 can be seen as his grand return to power. But I do not think he is quite committed on this issue of drugs. So on the one hand he could move in a good direction in case of a change in popular support, but he will also probably support a lot of bad legislation, if it is convenient for his political play at any moment. So I am not quite hopeful about his tenure, but still, his main opponent in the second round was also quite terrible. He supports UBI, which at the current size of public spending in Finland is just insane. To propose adding universal basic income on top of all the government expenses we have in Finland is just dangerous. He is also against income inequality. And while he is good on conscription, he isn’t even strongly anti-conscription; he only proposes a reduction in the length of national service, which would be an improvement, but not quite enough for a libertarian voter.

This election result is quite a painful failure for Haavisto because this is the third time he has made it to the second round of the presidential election and as in all previous cases, he also lost. This must be quite frustrating for him.

GT: So there is not one candidate that is fully libertarian, but is there probably a movement for liberalism?

IG: No, not at all. There is one little liberal think tank in Helsinki. As of now, there isn’t much to be hopeful about in this part of Europe.

GT: Thank you Ian for agreeing to participate in our first-ever episode, and don’t forget to follow us for more interviews like this.

IG: My pleasure.

Follow the account on Spotify for future episodes here.

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