First, it has been almost two years since the last general elections of any form. The April elections will measure not just the local balance of power but the support the present centre-right government is enjoying among the electorate.
The international trend has been that despite their sophisticated methods the pollsters have faced difficulties in pinning down the changes in opinion. People have proven increasingly elusive and unpredictable with regards to their political leanings.
The opposition parties claim that the local elections are a referendum on the disappointing government, but surprises are entirely possible. In the polls roughly 40% of the voters are either unable or unwilling to say which party they support.
Will the frustrated Finns join their fellow populists around Europe and in the United States and vote for a radical change?
The problem is – and this is the second aspect – that dissatisfied voters are lacking the alternative to channel their protest. The populist Finns Party has been participating in the present coalition government and they have clearly failed to deliver up to the expectations of their voters.
The Finns Party lost half of its support in just a couple of months in power, and the party has remained in low figures – under 10% – ever since. This partly explains the large number of confused and undecided citizens in the opinion polls.
One of the open questions this spring is whether the disillusioned voters will be content to support any of the more traditional parties that currently are in opposition. Or perhaps the alternative is to abstain and thus undermine with passivity the legitimacy of the representative political system.
What may be interesting internationally is whether the Finnish experiment strengthens the view that sharing governmental power with populists actually takes wind out of their sails.
Thirdly, the local elections will provide concrete figures to assess the state of the left in Finland. Neither the social democrats nor the left alliance have really won an election for well over a decade. If they cannot do it now it would further underline their failure to grasp the pulse of the nation.
The SDP has taken the pole position in the polls, but the race is very close between the governing centre and the conservatives. The social democrats now score rather steadily at 20–21% which shows a clear increase when compared to the last parliamentary elections, but hardly any from the previous local elections in 2012.
In many eyes, especially among the urban youth and centre-left liberals, the greens appear to be the progressive force of the future, rather than the traditional labour parties. For example, in Helsinki the greens have a realistic chance to become the biggest party and gain the new post of the city mayor.
The social democrats will no doubt remain the leading opposition party after the April elections. But if the greens can transfer their solid 13–14% support from the polls to the election booths that would make the red-green alternative more appealing in Finland.
One never knows when such a coalition is needed to share power. The present government is far from rock solid. The Finns Party will have its congress in June and the leader of their islamophobic and anti-immigration wing, Jussi Halla-aho MEP, is likely to run for the chairman’s post.
If successful, that would likely lead to a governmental crisis. Hardly anybody expects Halla-aho to compromise his policy line in such a way that the moderate and liberal representatives of the centre and the conservatives would sit in a joint coalition with him.