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Coalition Government: Lessons from Finland

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Views expressed in this report do not necessarily represent the views of the

Inclusive Society Institute or those of their respective Board or Council members.

February 2024

Author: Olivia Main

Editor: Daryl Swanepoel

This report has been enabled

through the generous support of

the Embassy of Finland in Pretoria, South Africa


Chapter 1: Setting the scene

  • Introductory remarks by Ambassador Anne Lammila, Finnish Ambassador to South Africa

  • Presentation by Daryl Swanepoel, CEO of the ISI, on the Institute’s latest poll on electoral support in South Africa

Chapter 2: Input by Panellists

  • Jenni Karimäki

  • Professor Liisa Laakso

  • Virva Viljanen

Chapter 3: Discussion

Chapter 4: Summary of Lessons to be learnt and gained from the Finnish Model

Cover photo: – Stock illustration ID: 1852275835

Chapter 1

Setting the scene


Coalitions is a hot topic in South Africa. With general elections looming in 2024, the ruling party’s power and support is ebbing, largely due to corruption and loadshedding. On the other hand, the opposition is gaining increasing support. It appears that the country is heading in the direction of a coalition government. In fact, a number of opposition political parties have already come together to sign the Multi-Party Charter 2024 – a landmark pre-election coalition agreement to share power if they cumulatively beat the ANC in the polls.


But some analysts have suggested that South Africa is not yet prepared for a coalition government. Its legislation is not ready, and it simply does not have that culture in place, with the parties’ tendencies towards stubbornly pushing party agendas and using bullying tactics in government negotiations. And with so many people still casting votes based on tradition, history and loyalty, rather than on the basis of informed, rational decisions. Also, polling in South Africa is often unreliable, which means much will come down to voter turnout. The bottom line is, trying to build democratic coalitions without the right attitude and political education is foolhardy and will not lead to stability.


In light of this, the Inclusive Society Institute (ISI), in conjunction with the Finnish Embassy in South Africa, hosted a high-level webinar on 8 October 2023 on lessons South Africa can draw from the Finnish experience on coalitions. Three expert panellists were invited to share their knowledge on the topic: Jenni Karimäki, University of Turku in Finland; Professor Liisa Laakso, Nordic Africa Institute; and Virva Viljanen, Demo Finland.


A key insight from the Finnish experience is that coalition governments are both a result and precondition of inclusive political systems and inclusive political institutions – which feeds the stability and legitimacy of the democratic system. In order to form a coalition government, and especially a majority coalition, a number of parties are required to cooperate. Even though it is a case of, the bigger the party, the more ministers and the more say they have in the government programme, it is still a negotiation, a coalition, and therefore, nobody gets all the power. And the discussions taking place within spending limits means parties cannot come with outrageous promises, they have to work within that framework.


The Finnish system of coalitions is very much reliant on the “rule-of-law” approach and mechanisms that sustain coalitions and make them viable, aspects that build trust between the political actors and among the civil society. This allows parties that have had very little trust in each other to make the necessary compromises in order to build healthy coalitions and move forward.


Finland also has long-held traditions regarding different types of civil society organisations, other than parties. In Finnish government negotiations, experts from various fields – from civil society to the ministries or administration and NGOs – are brought in to mediate, to help build common ground and level the playing field.

Coalition is often thought of in terms of enabling a governing majority. However, coalitions might also be useful in diverse and fragmented societies, such as in South Africa, where it is not necessarily about forming a governing majority, but rather, it might be a way to increase social and political cohesiveness in the country – with the proviso of always guarding against the danger of co-option.


Introductory remarks by Ambassador Anne Lammila, Finnish Ambassador to South Africa


Finland achieved independence in 1917. In the beginning, the country’s parliamentary system was not ready for it, which resulted in often very short-lived governments, most of which were minority governments. The Social Democrats appeared in government for the first time in 1926, which also happened to be when Finland’s first female minister, Deputy Minister of Social Affairs Miina Sillanpää, was voted in.


In 1937, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) formed the first of the “Red-Earth coalitions” with the Agrarian League, bringing together the parties representing the two largest social groups. Then, in 1939, the Winter War between the Soviet Union and Finland broke out, which moved Finland towards building a firmer national government. Then came the Continuation War. This whole period marked the start of the coalitions. And since 1937, the country has had several of them.


First, there were two dominant parties, the Centre Party and the right-wing parties. However, since the Second World War, there have been many different kinds of coalitions in government – from the right, to the left and the far left parties. Nowadays, the Finnish people are so used to this tradition of coalitions that they sometimes forget it has not always been the case.


In terms of the current coalition, Finland had its elections on 2 April 2023. The Coalition Party – the conservative party – received most of the votes, winning 48 seats in the 200-seat Parliament. The party that came in second was the True Finns, a populist far-right party, with 46 seats. When the Chairperson of the Coalition Party started to build the government, the Social Democrats were omitted from the plans, even though they were also winners in the elections, with 43 seats.


It was one of the longest processes of building a government that Finland has experienced in its history. The process started in April, and the government was only finalised in Finland’s midsummer in mid-to-late June. The reason for this seemingly drawn-out process is that the government needed to negotiate its programme with four very different parties, and doing this effectively takes time.


The current government is going strong, and it has proved that the coalition mechanism works well. Those who win in the elections, get the chance to govern.


Presentation by Daryl Swanepoel, CEO of the ISI, on the Institute’s latest poll on electoral support in South Africa


This information is taken from a poll conducted by Ipsos – a global leader in market research that is known to deliver accurate polling in terms of how it matches up to the real world – on behalf of the Inclusive Society Institute. It is a very large poll of 3,600 participants, taken across all nine provinces in South Africa, and in their home languages.


In the poll taken in June of 2023, it was revealed that since 2015, the ruling party’s support has systematically been reduced from a high of 63% in 2015 to 33% in 2023. Whereas the opposition has been steadily growing to the point where the combined opposition has now overtaken the ruling party, coming in at 48%.


There are still the undecideds and don’t-knows of 19% to consider, therefore this does not reflect the full picture, however, it does show that the ruling party is systematically declining and the opposition party is systematically climbing. That said, the opposition is very fragmented, they do not conduct themselves as one cohesive instrument.


In the last year, the poll shows a big change in the ANC’s national position. The figure in the November 2022 poll was 39% support for the ANC, declining quite dramatically in the following six months to 33% in June 2023. The question is: Why the rapid decrease in support? In a previous poll, 65% of the respondents indicated that if loadshedding were to continue, it would impact their vote, and 45% said that they would not vote. It seems that if the government gets loadshedding under control, they could regain some support, but if it continues, they may lose even more support.


However, other factors also affect the numbers. There are three important words to consider: eligible, registered and turnout. Eligible voters are those citizens over 18 – in South Africa, anybody over the age of 18 has the right to vote. Then there is a separate registration that needs to take place for the voters’ roll. In other words, in order to vote, a person has to be eligible, they have to register, and then they have to turn out at the poll.


In South Africa, there are approximately 42.3 million people who are eligible to vote, but only 26.1 million are registered to vote. This means there is a huge gap between the number who are able to vote and those who are actually registered to vote. Applying the figure of 33% support for the ANC only to the registered voters, shows a very different picture. Support for the ANC then increases to around 43%, the DA to about 20%, and the EFF to about 18%. And this means the other smaller parties have to come into play, for example the IFP, which is an important player in KwaZulu-Natal.


There are different outcomes under various scenarios. A high voter turnout would mean that around 66% of the registered voters go to the polls. The last time those sorts of figures were seen was in the first and second elections, and that number has dwindled to approximately 55% in the later elections. On the opposite end of the scale is the low voter turnout scenario based on a dramatic drop in turnout, from 55% to 36%, which is also highly unlikely.


Realistically, what could be expected in the national election is a medium voter turnout. In such a scenario, the ANC will fall just below the 50% mark, which means that they will require a smaller party to help them form a governing majority. The opposition parties will battle to put a coalition government together, because that will only give them roughly 39% of the votes.


Although a lot can change before the elections in May 2024, from the above snapshot, and under the present circumstances, the ANC would most probably continue to be the leading party in government, albeit with the support of at least one smaller party. But there would certainly be coalition governments in many of the provinces.


In Gauteng, the ANC would only get about 36% of the support, the DA, 15%, Action SA, 12%, Freedom Front Plus and ACDP, 1% respectively. This would make it difficult for the opposition to form a coalition government on their own in Gauteng without the support of the EFF. The ANC will have the difficult choice of deciding between a number of smaller parties to form a coalition with them in Gauteng, or they will have to either take the EFF on as a coalition partner or at least have the support of the EFF to form a coalition in Gauteng. That is a worrying scenario.


In the Western Cape, it is believed that the DA will not win an outright majority. They will have to go into coalition with a number of other parties. They have already formed an agreement – the Multi-Party Charter – with the opposition parties Action SA, Freedom Front Plus and the ACDP and a number of other smaller parties. This seems to confirm suspicions that there will be a DA-led coalition in the Western Cape.


The scenario in KwaZulu-Natal is a particularly challenging one, because the ANC only have 22% of the support, whereas the DA have 13%, the IFP, 17%, and the EFF, 13%. It is too early to say what configuration will come into play, but it appears that, once again, the EFF will be the kingmaker in KwaZulu-Natal, either by siding with the ANC or by at least giving support to the combined opposition. That is not to say the combined opposition at the moment – being the DA, the IFP and Action SA – cannot still garner a majority in KwaZulu-Natal, it is a developing picture.


In conclusion, if an election were held tomorrow in South Africa, the outcome would most probably be a coalition government at the national level, one that is easy to form. And certainly, there would be coalition governments in a number of provinces, some coming together more easily than others. The EFF could play quite a kingmaker role in many of those provinces.


However, for coalitions to succeed, and to simply function, South Africa needs policy cohesiveness in setting up these coalitions, and there must be an acceptable culture of cooperation, etc. This is certainly new terrain for the country, and it will need to rely heavily on the advice of those who have gone before, such as Finland.


Chapter 2

Input by Panellists


Jenni Karimäki

Finnish traditions regarding building and maintaining coalition government


Jenni Karimäki is a contemporary historian, currently working at the University of Helsinki, and is also a fellow at the University of Turku. Karimäki’s research expertise is in parties, ideologies, political culture, political systems and party systems.


This is a short historically and empirically inspired presentation on what the key elements and trajectories of the Finnish multi-party system are in order to understand the foundations on which the long tradition of Finnish coalition governments is built.


There are currently nine different parties in the Finnish Parliament, with altogether 200 seats. The biggest party, the National Coalition Party, has 48 of those seats. In order to form a coalition government, and especially a majority coalition, to which Finland is accustomed, a number of parties are required to cooperate. The current coalition government consists of four parties: the National Coalition Party, Finns Party, Swedish People’s Party and Christian Democratic Party. These four parties have altogether 109 seats in the Parliament.


In terms of elections, Finland has a proportional representation. It uses the D'Hondt method to calculate and count the votes. There are no electoral thresholds in Finland – if a party gets enough votes to gain a seat in an election district, then it gets the seat. In other words, there is no percentage of votes that a party has to win in order to get seats.


The Finnish party system has evolved from the late 19th century until the 21st century. Several parties that were established over 100 years ago are currently represented in the Finnish Parliament, and they still occupy over half of the seats in the Parliament. These long-held traditions not only reflect stability, but they also reinforce stability. The Finnish multiparty system has been able to endure over time and also over considerable turmoil, including crises like the Civil War, the radical right activism of the interwar period, and the Second World War.


However, the power dynamics between the parties have changed over time. Only once, in 1916, has one party, the Social Democratic Party, had a majority in the Parliament. Since then, it has been either the Social Democratic Party, the Centre Party or the National Coalition Party that has formed the biggest parliamentary group. In over 100 years, none of those parties have come even close to securing a majority of the seats in the Parliament.


This stability is in part due to the party system being born to accommodate several different societal conflicts, some of them present already before the unicameral Parliament that is in place today. And that has been the case since 1907 – Finland has had a unicameral Parliament for well over 100 years.


Conflicts between labour and capital, between urban and rural areas and between different languages – there are three native languages in Finland: Finnish, Swedish and Sami – are still relevant and they are still represented across the political spectrum, despite the fact that they have been present from the beginning.


This relatively unchanged party system is also a testament of the parties’ and voters’ willingness and ability to commit to the pluralist multiparty structure and its preconditions. In this regard, the Civil War has served as an example of the worst-case scenario of an extreme conflict that polarises a nation. It left deep divisions in society but also an understanding of never wanting to experience that again.


Even though during the interwar period, from the 1920s-1930s, Finland did not have one majority government or majority coalition, it still had coalitions. It was in 1937 that the first majority coalition was built in Finland.


The stability and legitimacy of the democratic system has also been, in part, guaranteed by including all parties in government coalitions. Radical ideas and those parties or actors willing to destabilise the status quo have been tamed through offering responsibility, and at the same time, willingness to take responsibility has been expected of them. And this has thus far worked quite well.


But it also means that the parties have been able to evolve over time, and with time. This is the third observation. From the 19th century onwards, Finland has evolved from an agrarian country into a post-industrial consumer economy, known for advanced technology and high levels of expertise. The parties have not only been able to sustain their original mobilising of societal conflicts and constituencies but have also been able to attract new audiences among upcoming generations and new professions.


The changes affecting the current politics and political situation the most have occurred during the 1990s and 2010s, when first the Green Party, in the 1990s, and then the Finns Party, in the 2010s, established their strong positions within the Finnish party system. This has caused the party system to fracture, but when it comes to coalition governments, both parties have adapted to the Finnish system and taken part in the executive.


The work of Professor James A Robinson, who has, together with Professor Daron Acemoglu, written books such as Why Nations Fail and The Narrow Corridor, focusses on, among other things, examining inclusive and extractive elements in societies, and how these elements contribute to economic and social welfare and practices of democracy. It can be deduced from their work that coalition governments are both a result and precondition of inclusive political systems and inclusive political institutions, at least from the Finnish perspective.


The strong legalistic tradition in Finland descends from the 19th century, when Finland, as an autonomous grand duchy of Russia, was born first as a nation, and subsequently, as a state. This created the foundation for the strong Finnish state. And this is how, alongside the strong state, the pluralist multiparty system created a basis for inclusive political institutions, among many other things.


The strong state and inclusive political system in some sense incarnated from the 1960s onwards in aspirations to develop Finland into a Nordic welfare state and enhance and strengthen the liberal democratic features. These aspirations and ideals were then embraced throughout the party system, resulting in a consensus and compromise-seeking political culture.


Even if the economic and social welfare of the Finnish state and nation has been a driving force behind the consensus on compromise-prone political culture, it is important to remember the geopolitical setting that has always had a significant impact on Finland and had an impact on why there have been strong aspirations for national unity. Being a neighbour to Russia and, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union, has been a key element contributing to the understanding that a small nation must be internally united in order to survive externally.


Regarding the institutional framework that has contributed to the long tradition of coalition politics in Finland, it is important to look at local democracy and local democratic practices. During the 19th century, Finnish citizens were united in the face of the common external adversary, which was then the Russian Empire. But after the Civil War, they came together in the newly independent Finland under the lowest common denominator: the rule of law.


After the war, previous bitter enemies had to cooperate, first and foremost, at the municipal level. In order to do that, the one thing they could all agree on was abiding by the law. Up to and during the 1990s, as an example, the law stipulated that decisions regarding especially important financial decisions had to be made with two-thirds majority in the municipal councils. In most councils, this meant that cooperation and coalitions were unavoidable.


This was one institutional key element contributing to coalition tradition being strengthened in Finland. Most politicians began, and still begin their careers, from the local level. Thus, the experiences gained there have an impact on how they relate to cooperation and coalitions in their later careers.


Nowadays, the so-called council agreements, based on coalitions, consensus and compromise, are negotiated after the municipal elections, and these agreements outline those actors participating in the agreement as well as the policies promoted during the term.


The last point is to outline very briefly, the constitutional framework and to elaborate a little on the coalition government negotiation process.


Before the promulgation of the current Constitution in 2000, government formation was a process led by the President of the Republic, who had significant power to influence the composition of the government as well as the content of the government programme. Even if the parliamentary groups took part in the negotiations, the President still had a lot of say in the process and the outcome.


This semi-presidential system and its presidential prerogatives began to dismantle at the same time as the Cold War came to an end. Presidents from the early 1980s onwards chose to encourage a more parliamentarian system. Even though they still could have resorted to their prerogatives, they instead wished to encourage broader distribution of power.


From the 1980s onwards, the negotiation process itself began more and more to resemble the current procedure, with the parties and parliamentary groups in charge of the process and outcomes. These developments towards a parliamentary system were then, in the year 2000, codified in the new Constitution.


Today, the process adheres to the election outcome, with the party chairperson of the biggest party leading the negotiations. The composition and the power dynamics of the government also resemble the election outcome in two ways: The bigger a party’s parliamentary group, the more the party has the ability to influence the contents of the government programme, and the bigger the share of the cabinet ministers they have. Simply put, the bigger the party, the more ministers and the more say they have on the government programme. Bearing in mind that it is still a negotiation to form a coalition, and therefore no party gets all the power. That is the key finding.


The negotiations have no time limit, and there is substantial variation as to how long the negotiations take. After the last elections, the negotiations took 46 days, whereas the previous negotiations of the Antti Rinne and, subsequently, Sanna Marin government took only 24 days. 


Should the negotiations result in a stalemate, the party chairperson of the second biggest party is given a chance to attempt to form a government, and so forth. Only if there is no prospect of the parliamentary groups being able to form any kind of a coalition, be it minority or majority, are new elections arranged. However, this has never happened in the history of Finnish independence.


During the semi-presidential era, stalemate-like situations did occur, but they were resolved either by forming a caretaker government or with the then President Urho Kekkonen, using his leverage to persuade parties to cooperate, usually by appealing to Finland’s precarious geopolitical situation and the risks of not having a democratically responsible government.


In conclusion, the Finnish pluralist multiparty system as well as political system have a long legacy, with parties and voters committed to preserving the stability and legitimacy of the democratic system. And much of this has come as a result of the long history of Finnish independence putting substantial emphasis on these inclusive political and economical institutions.


Geopolitical position and pressures have, in good and bad ways, contributed to aspirations of unity. But all in all, internal and external factors, institutional arrangements and historical traditions have generated a political culture where ideological differences are, for the most part, deliberated through the political process. As a result, as well as a precondition, this tradition of coalition governments can be considered a key element.


Professor Liisa Laakso

Multi-party government: sharing power or building coalition?


Prof Liisa Laakso is a Finnish researcher working at the Nordic Africa Institute, a 60-year-old institute based in Uppsala, Sweden, partly supported by the government of Finland. As a political scientist, Prof Laakso has also done empirical research on democracy and elections in Africa and on conflict resolution.


This presentation reflects on the topic of coalition governments from a comparative point of view and also from the point of view of the experiences on the African continent. The focus is on multiparty government. Is it about sharing power or building a coalition, and what is the difference between these two patterns?


First, is the question of power sharing as a solution for political divisions in divided societies. A map from Andreas Mehler’s book about power-sharing agreements in Africa, between 1990 and 2009, shows that this experience of bringing together different political sections from the society to share political power is common in Africa. And power sharing, usually, is the kind of arrangement through which peace can be reached.


Not all of these conflicts have been actual civil wars, but they have involved violence, for instance, in the case of Zimbabwe, where a coalition government emerged in 2008. A general observation of this arrangement is that there are short-term merits. The violent conflict can be solved. But what about the long-term prospects? Very often, that kind of power sharing does not, or has not, led to stable political cooperation.


Arend Lijphart, who has also written about South African political divisions, believes that the democratic future in South Africa should be based on consociational democracy, which, according to his theory, creates the possibility for fragmented societies to reach stable political systems. Lijphart’s theories are based on the experiences of the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – states which are all ethnically divided, and with linguistic and, in the case of the Netherlands, also religious divisions. Lijphart’s theory is that this kind of subcultural segmentation is neutralised by consensus mechanisms.


The experience of African states with fragmented societies in terms of ethnic, linguistic and religious divisions, has been an experience of one-party states soon after independence, the years of African countries becoming independent being in the early 1960s, and also of dominant party legacy, strong presidents and presidential systems. And all of this has made the distinction between the ruling party – or the dominant party – and the state a difficult one.


Within that setting, what power sharing in practice has often turned out to be, is co-option, if not direct repression, of the opposition. Nowadays, it is referred to as dominant party systems, because most African states – discounting those currently under military rule, or eSwatini, which is a monarchy, or Eritrea, which is a non-party system – are implementing multiparty systems.


The factions within that dominant party are quite remarkable. There are also the much discussed issues or patterns of patrimonialism or clientelism which, in one way or another, could also be linked to corruption. Currently, the biggest threat to democracy and democratic competence in Africa, and elsewhere in the world, is corruption.


In terms of the South African experience, immediately after the political transition, the Government of National Unity (GNU) was an example of power sharing. At that time, the strong parties were also very strongly ethnically divided, therefore being a case of what Lijphart would have called consociational arrangement. But the GNU did not last very long, and the National Party disappeared from the political map in 2005.


The critique of power sharing and consociational democracy or consociational models has been that it is very elitist and that it also, in a way, freezes the differences, ethnic differences in this case, in the political structures, which then also means that political competition is taking place inside of the party. Consequently, it can cause deep factionalism inside the parties instead of becoming a competition between different kinds of political programmes, which would attract different kinds of interest groups in the society. In that kind of setting, for a political party to participate in power sharing could damage its support among voters.


The threat of being co-opted is a real one. The critique, in a way, also shows the importance of strong opposition in a stable democracy. The Finnish experience of coalition governments and government-building is that there has always been an opposition playing a role. In addition, this opposition has been one which has had the possibility of becoming a partner in the coalition after the next elections. In other words, the opposition has always had the prospect of being able to form a government or being part of the government in the next round. This is why the role of presenting criticism to the current government and being active in policy formulation is so important for the opposition.


The opposition also has an important role in civic education, or political education, among its supporters and the wider public, and in the provision of information to its supporters. Therefore, one important element is that the opposition must be strongly institutionalised and must remain active between the elections.


Regarding political pluralism, some of the parties in the Finnish system have a long history, and their support base has been very stable in reflecting the divisions between urban and rural Finland and also the linguistic divisions. The country has one more or less ethnically-based party – the Swedish People’s Party – which represents the interests of the 6% of the population who speak Swedish.


Although Finland does have the kind of party system that is based on long-term loyalties, the idea of voluntary association and the ability of the citizens to form political parties and other interest groups freely is still an important component of political mobilisation. Sartori’s claim is very clear, that the mere existence of different groups in a society is not indicative of pluralism. What does create political pluralism is when there are cross-cutting cleavages, where people can be members of different groups and, in that way, learn how to find compromises and perhaps also learn what other people are thinking and what their interests are. This idea of adjusting different interests to changing coalitions is important in the political culture.


It is useful to highlight that, after Finland’s independence, the Civil War that the country fought in was a particularly bloody one – in fact, it is still regarded as one of the bloodiest in European history, relatively speaking. It was a war where, literally, brothers were fighting against each other. It was a very traumatic experience for a newly independent country.


Another highlight is that the presidential, or semi-presidential, system was exceptionally strong for a lengthy period of time. One element in Urho Kekkonen’s – who was president from 1956-1982 – position was, at least rhetorically, that he presented his leadership as one that was necessary for Finland to keep good relations with the Soviet Union. Some years during his rule were not ones in which Finland could celebrate democracy. Kekkonen even continued in the position of president without elections in the 1970s, as the majority of political parties in the Parliament at the time decided that there was no need to arrange presidential elections in Finland.


Other aspects that have been very important in Finland’s political stability include the consensus culture between employers, employees and government – they have negotiated and collaborated when agreeing on increase of salaries, on tax levels and social policies. The country also has a strong tradition of agreeing on the basic elements of the welfare system.


In addition, the state committees were very strong institutions, particularly previously. Nowadays, there are many arguing that Finland should go back to those kinds of strong committees, which do not exist in many sectors anymore. These were committees for the preparation of laws, where the government was involving different kinds of stakeholders and experts to discuss, openly and informally, different kinds of policy issues before the preparation and actual writing of the laws took place. This committee system – which Finland inherited from the Swedish system, and which has long historical origins – was in fact pushing civil society to get organised, which meant the skills and knowledge of citizens, through different kinds of interest groups and civil society groups, was also enhanced. That has supported political participation in the country and also the legitimacy of the political system.


To conclude, Finland’s parties are more or less medium-sized, and they are not dominant parties. It is not clear before the elections which party will be the biggest one. Particularly during the last few years, the elections in that sense have been quite exciting. And although there are party loyalties among the supporters, there are also swing voters, so the parties are actually competing with their programmes.


Finland has had a large variety of government coalitions. Despite operating within different coalitions and having to cooperate with very different parties, the parties have been able to exist. Sometimes, the coalition experience has led to parties losing their support. For example, the previous government experience of the Centre Party in Finland, which is the old Agrarian Party, was one which was regarded very negatively among its supporters.


Currently, on the political fora, the country has a relatively new populist party, the Finns Party. It is new in the sense that, although it is strong and big, this party is not as experienced and institutionalised as far as its programme and its working structures are concerned. But perhaps now, when the party is in the government, Finland will also see institutionalisation on its part.


Lastly, a few words on the minority right’s Swedish People’s Party. In the Finnish system, this is the party that has most often been in the government coalitions – both in the leftist and rightist coalitions. This is the party that during the latest government negotiation was called the kingmaker. Some of the politically heated discussions within the current government coalition have taken place between the Swedish People’s Party and the nationalist Finns Party. 


Virva Viljanen

Legal framework and best practices of coalition government in Finland


Virva Viljanen is the Dialogue Advisor for Demo Finland, a cooperative organisation of all nine Finnish parliamentary parties. She leads the programme working with Finnish politicians to facilitate dialogue between the political parties, and also organises training for the politicians.


Demo Finland enhances democracy by strengthening the political participation of women, youth and persons with disabilities, in particular, and supports dialogue between political parties. Demo Finland works not only in Finland but also in eight countries internationally – Ethiopia, Kenya, Mozambique, Myanmar, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and Zambia in cooperation with local partner organisations – to implement Finland’s democracy support.


This presentation looks at examples of formal and non-formal practices of coalition governments and multiparty collaboration in Finland, as these two link to each other. Finland relies heavily both on legalist tradition, in other words, laws, and also the somewhat trust-based culture of working together between political parties.


The legal framework of forming a coalition government in Finland is based on the Constitution of Finland, which states that before the Prime Minister is elected, the groups represented in the Parliament must negotiate on the political programme and composition of the government. This means that all of the parties that are elected to the Parliament take part in the preliminary negotiations or formation talks. And then, usually, the winner of the elections and the biggest party will invite a group of political parties to the actual negotiations.


The parties then draft a government programme, and equally important is the central government spending limits, which is the ceiling budget expenditure for the four-year election term. There is the temptation to create several different policies, but these central government spending limits tie them to the actual decision-making. This means that what political parties promise has to be linked to the budget.


At the end of the negotiations, each political party represented in the government chooses its ministers – the biggest parties get more cabinet ministers than the smaller parties in the coalition government. The government needs the confidence, or the majority of votes cast in Parliament, and this is why Finland usually has a majority government, so more than half of the seats in the Parliament.


In Finland’s latest parliamentary elections, the government negotiations between the four political parties took over a month. There was a long list of party representatives and invited experts in different thematic groups negotiating during the discussions. This resulted in a government programme which was over 200-pages long, including central government spending limits.


The coalition governments are also based on the multiparty collaboration in the Parliament. There is also institutionalised dialogue between the government and opposition that is based on law. Both the Constitution of Finland and, under that, the Rules of Procedure of the Parliament ensure this kind of institutionalised dialogue between political parties in the Parliament.


The laws state that reports must be submitted to the Parliament. In other words, the government is obliged to hand over reports on its activities and policies to the Parliament. The Parliament also has the right to receive information, and this is especially intended for the opposition groups having access to information about what government is doing.


There is parliamentary question time every Thursday. There are also interpellations to the government or an individual minister and then several non-formal procedures. It is not stated in the law that shadow budgets need to be discussed in the Parliament, but this is something that is repeated every year. Opposition groups will present their shadow budgets, and then they are addressed in the Parliament discussions.


There are two of these law-based institutionalised dialogue methods in the Parliament that are worth highlighting. First is the parliamentary question hour: every Thursday, the government ministers will reply, unrehearsed, to the questions of members of Parliament, and especially opposition representatives.


The second one is also mentioned in the law, that the government must reply to an interpellation – this is a formal question presented by a group of MPs – in a plenary session within 15 days of being given the question. After receiving the reply to the interpellation, Parliament then debates on the matter and proceeds to vote on whether the government or this particular minister in question enjoys the confidence of the Parliament.


This is also an important way for the opposition to raise questions and issues on policy matters and then test the confidence of the government. Most of the time, the members of the Parliament that represent government political parties will then vote on the confidence, and the Parliament, the government, can continue its operations.


One key element that is also based on the Constitution and the Rules of the Procedure Law in the Parliament is parliament committees. The Parliament of Finland has 17 permanent committees, with a proportional representation of parliamentary parties. This means that all the committees have members from both government and opposition groups. These are thematic committees which work on legislation and committee reports. There are, for instance, finance, education and culture, social and health affairs committees. One worth mentioning here is the Committee for the Future, which is a 17-member committee that works on future-related questions. The aim is to rise above the day-to-day politics and talk about future issues that need to be resolved within the democratic process.


One aspect that the Finnish members of Parliament appreciate greatly is that meetings are confidential. The agenda is published, but all the discussions are private. This allows the members of Parliament to have discussions without heated debates that are shared by the media. The committees routinely hear from experts – the committee discusses which experts they want to hear on the policy matters. These experts can be representatives of the administration, for instance, ministries, or NGOs, researchers and so on.


One key element of coalition governments in Finland is that political parties also collaborate on the local level. Often, these are the same political parties that then operate on the national level, and frequently, the same representatives work on the local level as well as in the Parliament. In fact, most members of the Parliament begin their careers on the local level, meaning they already have experience of working together at that level.

Finland has more than 300 municipalities and 21 regions. This local government is based on the Constitution and then on the Local Government Act, which states how municipalities must organise their administration. Basically, municipal councils choose the members of their municipality boards, which is the executive body, proportionally reflecting the election result and the number of seats each party holds in the council. The result is that there is no government and opposition on the local councils, because most of the biggest political parties do have representation in the executive party. Therefore, there is no need for opposition leaders.


In terms of non-formal best practices of political parties working together and forming coalitions: first, there is the matter of using parliamentary working groups on issues that require long-term decision-making. In Finland, if there is a difficult policy issue that requires long-term decision-making – for instance, election laws – then, often, all the parties represented in the Parliament are invited to a joint working group aimed at unanimous decision-making. The goal is to ensure that when the power changes between elections, there are no hesitant policy changes. For example, the new group in power would not change election laws, and they would have more legitimacy when they are passed into Parliament.


Another Finnish example of non-formal collaboration is campaigning during elections, side by side. It is customary in Finland for political parties to share, for instance, marketplace meetings and campaign side by side at marketplaces and other events. They also have election panel discussions and public debates together.


The third example, as with Demo Finland, is where there are other cooperative organisations for political parties. One influential example is the Coalition of Finnish Women’s Associations (NYTKIS), which is an umbrella organisation consisting of the women’s organisations of the parties represented in the Parliament, working together, especially on gender equality. In these organisations, such as Demo Finland and NYTKIS, there is often a common denominator bringing them together – for example, gender equality or, in Demo Finland’s case, democracy.


Briefly, in Finland, Demo Finland closely collaborates with the Parliament, with committees, with political parties and their suborganisations, such as political youth and women’s organisations. It organises seminars and training events, inviting all the political parties and representatives. And its work is based on the understanding that all political parties commit to the laws and culture of inclusive democracy.


Chapter 3



Who sets the government spending limits during the negotiations in Parliament? The Treasury? The previous government?


The Finance Ministry prepares a budget, and then the government discusses the political aspects. There has been a very different approach to the spending limits in this government versus the previous one. This government is downsizing the budget, whereas the former government wanted to include more initiatives within the spending limits. Although the ministries prepare the spending limits, they are not set in stone.


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Is it correct to say they can downsize, but they can also shift monies between various programmes?


Yes, exactly. And this is something that is under a lot of heated political debate. Where does Finland invest, and where does it downsize? This is the question.


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What advice does Finland have for South Africa, where coalitions at local government level have been very unstable? The country is expecting coalitions in certainly some of its provinces and maybe even at the national level. What advice would Finland give to a country that is finding these arrangements very new and very unstable?


Looking at how it was possible that after the Civil War in Finland, when it is safe to say that the different political parties and different aspects of society were very much against each other and were very suspicious of each other, then, in fact, it was the minimum denominator that everyone agreed to. They believed that the law would protect them against each other. The “rule-of-law” approach has been central in Finland in how these parties that have had very little trust in each other have been able to build that trust and build coalitions and compromise moving forward. This has been one of the key elements. But, if the legislature and the laws do not promote these kinds of procedures or trust being built, it becomes highly problematic, when the law cannot be instrumentalised in this way.


What is very important is that the parties formulate political programmes, that they discuss with the members and activists and clearly write down what their main objectives are, and that the programmes are also, in economic terms, somehow feasible. If the parties have programmes, they can participate in the negotiations, and the coalition can also make compromises and develop a programme that makes the parties and politicians accountable. If the parties are institutionally weak, they could become very elitist and all about their leaders. And that is the most dangerous setting for co-optation – the parties losing support among voters if they are then not able to fulfil a very populist programme of the political campaigning, for instance. That kind of professionalisation of the political parties is very important, at the local level too.


Political parties need to have their own programmes and need to be democratic within the political party. For instance, local government coalitions need to write a joint programme that everyone is committed to. In Finland, the programme is usually very detailed, because then nothing is left unsaid or unsettled, which builds trust. An important part of the negotiation is what is left out of the programme. The programme is very detailed on policies that are going to be implemented, but the political parties can also agree on issues that they want to advance during the next four years, if they are very much in disagreement on certain policy issues.


Sometimes it helps to start the collaboration between political parties on some subtheme. For example, in Finland, women’s organisations from the political parties working together. This makes it somewhat easier, because these women’s organisations and women politicians often share the same problems, despite which political party they come from. There have been some similar issues raised by the youth representatives from different political parties, that they all, for instance, can collaborate on youth participation in politics. So, perhaps beginning from somewhere that is shared common ground would be helpful.


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The first question is: In South Africa, where there are 400-plus parties, how possible is it in as far as coalition is concerned, as compared to Finland, which has nine parties?


The second is: Except where there are elections, or at the polling booth, where civic society comes to vote, as they continue with their programmes and engagement, how far do these parties go to continue to ensure that civic society is involved?


Thirdly, on the economic front, given the type of coalition pattern in Finland, how is the country doing in terms of its GDP and economically? In South Africa, there are issues of unemployment, low levels of poverty, and so on to contend with.


And lastly, a very interesting point was made that there is a collaborative aspect during election campaigns, meaning that these parties come together to do campaigning for the elections. How possible, different as the parties are, is it for them to go together into the civic society, even to the communities, and do “a common electioneering campaign”? 


How to combine the civil society aspect into the coalition government and the trust building, is very important. The Finnish system and the Finnish tradition of coalitions and coalition building is very much reliant on trust. All these methods and mechanisms on how to sustain coalitions or make them better or make them viable, all are aspects that are building trust between the political actors and among the civil society. Finland has long-held traditions regarding different types of civil society organisations, other than parties. That is something to build on. The parties themselves have been built on this from-the-ground-up mobilisation in many cases, which also builds trust in society.


Continuing on the subject of civil society, the labour unions are very important, as are the employer organisations and interest groups from the various economic sectors, agriculture, forestry, etc. They have a strong say in the preparatory work for laws. And although the level of the organisation of labour has decreased, it is still very high, at least when compared to other European countries. But the tradition, the culture, is that unions and economic interest groups are very strong. The Social Democratic Party or the Left Alliance, are closer to the labour unions. The more right-wing parties are closer to the employers’ unions. And the Centre Party, which very much represents the rural areas, is close to the interest groups from the agricultural sector.


In terms of the Finnish GDP, Finland is a rich country. It is currently about US$50,000 per capita. When it comes to the spending limits for the government negotiations, what allows room to manoeuvre and what is a political issue is the ability of the government to take on loans. And this is something that is very much debated in Finland: What is the level of its debt? In that regard, Finland is not doing as well as its neighbouring Nordic countries.


Finally, about collaboration in elections. There are indeed electoral alliances, particularly for the smaller parties in the regional setting. It is sometimes critical that they build alliances with other parties. This can be a way for them to get representation to the municipalities, for instance.


This is a good question, how complex is the South African situation compared to Finland? Finland has a population of 5.5 million people and has only nine political parties represented in the Parliament. The total number of political parties is currently approximately 20. To address the question of civic society, it is true that in Finland, the political parties are losing membership – they really have issues engaging people in party activities. There is an increasing need in Finland to know, how does one engage people, citizens, civil society between elections and outside of the representative democracy or, for instance, the Parliament and local governments?


This is done in several ways. The government has a very strong mandate or role for civil society organisations. Firstly, the Finnish state funds several civic society organisations. For example, Demo Finland gets its funding from the government of Finland or the Foreign Ministry. Then, the government also has, for instance, working groups, where there are experts from the civil society as well as politicians and government officials.


There is also the question of how to engage the ordinary citizens. For instance, on a local level, there have been several attempts at participatory budgeting, in other words, giving citizens the right to say where the budget is spent. An example would be giving them an amount of €3 million and then asking them to vote on what they want the local government to spend it on. In addition, for instance, youth councils on a local level could be brought in, to hear the voice of the local young people, and so on.


In terms of electoral alliances, political parties work together to campaign for the votes. But they also try to gain the same votes, campaigning side by side in order to engage more people. They invite people to these election debates or marketplace events to meet them and then compete for the votes by offering them their own policies. This is a very interesting example of how Finnish political parties are able to collaborate in this kind of competing situation.


Finland also has its own policy issues currently, as was raised, the debt issue. Another is the question of the war in Ukraine, and security policies in Finland, which have been a huge public debate in Finland. It changes, depending which policy issues are the most influential in which elections.

A quick comment about the elections and how the parties collaborate. The parties do campaign side by side, but the rivalry is often more intense within the party than between parties, in a sense, because the Finnish electoral system is such that the vote is cast for a person. The person represents a party list, but it is not a list vote, it is a personal vote that is being cast. Therefore, the politicians on the party lists are often competing against each other more fiercely than the party lists are competing against another party list. This is something that is debated or discussed in Finland, whether this is the most effective or the best way. For example, in Sweden, they have the list vote, and that results in a less competitive campaign atmosphere among the party members, and the campaign is more driven between the parties than inside the parties.


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This phenomenon of coalitions is very new in South Africa and in South African politics. To understand the unique and complex scenario in South Africa leading up to the elections in 2024, what is bound to be seen and experienced, the following must be considered. South Africa comes to this position from the fragmented past of apartheid, versus Finland, which adopted this approach primarily as a result of World Wars. The country has a population of over 60 million, versus Finland, which has a population of roughly 5 million. Finland has three official languages, whereas South Africa has 12 official languages. Hence, South Africa is trying to solicit as much expert knowledge as possible in order to make sure that there is a transition that is smooth, and also a quick understanding of each and every political party involved in those coalition discussions and agreements, ultimately.


The idea of a government programme vis-à-vis the party programme or the party manifesto, is a good one. What ordinarily happens in South Africa, is that as the election approaches, each political party will come up with its own manifesto – a programme of action that expresses what the party’s priorities and implementation strategy will be once they are in power. The parties then sell that to the masses, the electorate, to secure their votes. The voters choose the one party that resonates with them, the one that represents their interests more than the others.


In South Africa, there are currently three predominant political parties right at the top, with 406 parties in total, and 14 political parties in its national government, in Parliament. And there are bound to be more than that, come 2024, after elections, because of the many new parties that have been formed recently, which of course brings a huge debate, or rather, a huge headache. The smaller the number of parties, the better – having too many parties causes confusion, especially among the voters.


Of the 14 political parties in the national Parliament, there are three big parties: the ANC, DA and EFF. Each one of them stands for something totally different; they are extremes, to a certain extent. And voters have to find themselves in these three. Come the 2024 elections, the likelihood is that none of them are going to have 50% plus 1%, which guarantees their creating a government, meaning that none of them will have a majority and they are bound to reach out to smaller parties, some of which represent a totally different view point, especially on policy formulation, because that is what drives the programme of action of every political party.

Of course, South Africa is also dealing with three main challenges from its historical background: poverty, unemployment and inequality. In the current experience of the coalitions at a local government level, these three dominant parties have a tendency towards a bullying attitude. If that attitude persists, leading up to the 2024 elections, and permeates the process of forming a government – they are to a certain extent in the driver’s seat – and calling upon the smaller minority political parties, how will they understand that even though they have a higher percentage of votes than others, when it comes to sitting around a negotiation table, they are in fact equals with everyone? That kind of attitude will assist parties in being sober minded in their approach in negotiations and in how they agree upon a government programme of action vis-à-vis their own manifesto. With a bullying attitude, none of the parties will allow themselves to be imposed upon by another party’s manifesto. Therefore, there needs to be a new programme of action crafted as a coalition government.


The question is: How does South Africa deal with the bullying attitude of these parties, where they want to impose their policies, principles and standpoint on certain issues? How does South Africa get them to reach a particular compromise on very key, fundamental issues that must drive the coalition and, ultimately, succeed?


Is there not a delay in decision-making in Finland with regard to policy or even issues that deal with service delivery? Are coalitions not delaying decision-making because of too many protected negotiations of one kind or another? Secondly, what are the values that can hold the opposing parties together to the extent that they can work together? Looking at other old democracies, many have two dominant parties, and they name these parties on their value system – for example, in America, one is Democratic, the other is Republican, defining what participation is all about. In smaller democracies like South Africa, is the issue of coalition not one that is going to delay decision-making, leading to various challenges? What can be done about this? This could be a serious fallback issue, so it must be defined.


The third issue is that the level of literacy in the country, which is one that is fuelled by populism, does not allow for people to make informed decisions on matters that affect them going forward. Democracy, in essence, without political education, does not guarantee stability at all, because people must make choices on the basis of informed, rational decisions. And in most cases, that does not happen. What assistance can be forwarded in terms of assisting this conversation?


And finally, what are the levels of inequality, both social and economic, in Finland? South Africans are looking for a party that can deliver and close the gap between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, and access the economy and participation in the economy. All of these things are an amalgam of the challenges that the country faces.


In terms of the problem in negotiations where it is probable or expected that some of the negotiating parties might have somewhat of an aggressive tactic, and how the other parties could counteract that, in Finnish government negotiations they bring in many experts from various fields, from civil society to the ministries or administration and NGOs. This could be one way to mediate the negotiations or help the parties to build on common ground. That was analysed in Finland recently during the very long government negotiations, with one party that technically had not participated in government ever before. One explanation of why the negotiations took so long and why they invited several hundred experts to take part in the negotiations, is that because this one party had very limited experience in the negotiations, the use of experts and advice was a way to get all the parties onto a more level playing field, so that everyone had the same level of knowledge and the same picture of what was being discussed. That could be one way of pointing the negotiations in a more amicable direction.


With regards the delay in decision-making, in Finland, the main goal of the government programme is that what is negotiated must be executed during the four-year term. However, if there is a particular subject that is difficult and causes some disruption or disagreement between the government parties, then these are the issues that are often delayed. Despite having these very particular, meticulous programmes, there are issues that get pushed to the sidelines and that are delayed beyond the government term.


The values that all Finnish political parties share includes rule of law – meaning trust and relying on the Constitution of Finland – and the principle of democracy. But there are other policy issues that the political parties disagree on.


With regards the delaying of decision-making, this is certainly true, that in terms of more inclusive politics, it always takes more time. However, one trust-based practice that is in use in Finland is that each political party holds a cabinet minister seat, and the cabinet ministers or the government ministers have the right to prepare their own laws and policy proposals based on the government programme. They have the right to prepare, with their ministries and administration, these laws. Then, when these laws or policy proposals are brought to the Parliament, the government, the members of Parliament who represent government political parties, will vote for them. It is customary that then the government will not vote against its own laws. This is something that helps with the delaying of decision-making, that each cabinet minister has the right to prepare laws, and other political parties will not delay those if they are based on the government programme.


However, usually, when the elections come closer, the political parties tend to skip this rule, which means that at the end of the election term, often more laws are not being passed in the Parliament, especially the kind of controversial laws that have been delayed until the end of the term.


Then, the very difficult question of how to bring members of Parliament together, especially after heated discussions in elections. It is also the case in Finland, especially in social media, that the representatives might use, for instance, language that is hurtful. And the basis for collaboration is then quite difficult. In the Parliament, for instance, the Chairperson of the Parliament usually has authority over the rules for constructive dialogue, or a code of conduct in the Parliament. The kind of speech allowed in the Parliament is regulated by these non-formal rules. Also, new members of Parliament are trained by legal advisors on how to work in the Parliament. This training is organised by the clerks of the Parliament, so non-partisan workers in the Parliament.


Lastly, what Demo Finland works on is to bring the political parties to the same table, not to try and work on policies but just to understand each other better, which is also a good result in these kinds of situations. But this is a very complex situation, and the Finnish model does not apply in all circumstances.


What about making compromises or being in a coalition if the values of the parties are very different? In the Finnish political culture, because of this coalition-building, in addition to ideological commitments and strong political beliefs and values, there is also a certain kind of pragmatism. In the current government coalition, looking at the values of the parties and based on the views of the members of Parliament, for instance, the Swedish People’s Party and the populist nationalist Finns Party are very far from each other. It is a miracle, from the perspective of political values, that they can be in the same government. However, they have calculated it in a very pragmatic way, that for the smaller Swedish People’s Party, it would perhaps be more challenging to be outside of the government if, in the government, there is a strong party pushing for nationalist Finns Party’s values, which, for instance, include abandoning the status of the Swedish minority language in Finland’s schools. Consequently, perhaps the Swedish People’s Party calculates that it is better for them to be in the government coalition in spite of all the difficulties. And for the government coalition, it is an important member, because with that party, they get the majority in the Parliament. This kind of pragmatism is what then creates the compromises that make cooperation possible.


The issue of delays in decision-making is also a very important one. For instance, Finland has extremely expensive and important reform of the social and health services system. This is the third, if not the fourth, government that is dealing with the reform, because it has been so difficult. And now, this government, representing different parties than the previous government, has to implement what was decided before it. It is challenging, as this reform programme is vital for the whole society.


On the issue of political education, it is also so important in Finland, because of, for instance, the rapidly changing media environment. The country used to have a system where there was leading national media and big newspapers and a relatively homogeneous education system and population. But now, Finland is becoming more multicultural. There are more immigrants. There is much more media, social media, for instance. It is not known exactly what the most used sources of information for the young people are. During the last elections, TikTok was a key platform for political mobilisation. Some parties or candidates were very active on that medium, whereas other parties or candidates were not. The landscape is changing so quickly that this issue of political education or civic education is something that has to be thought about and worked very hard at. And indeed, in South Africa, where the challenges of literacy, for instance, are also huge, the issues of giving information and building trust are even more critical.


Chapter 4

Summary of Lessons to be learnt and gained from the Finnish Model


by Erwin Schwella


Prof Erwin Schwella is currently working comparatively with a host of politicians in South Africa on co-creating a Leadership for Coalition Government course, through Free State University.


On contextual sensitivity and comparability for relevance, reliability, and validity in comparative analysis and action


Drawing comparative insights, applications and lessons when comparing political governance and public administration systems requires awareness of and relevantly allowing for contextual sensitivity.


Contextual sensitivity is the awareness and appreciation of the different historical, cultural, social, economic, and political factors that shape and influence the political, governance and public administration systems of different countries. It is important to consider such contextual sensitivity sensibly when comparing political and governance systems such as coalitions across nation states, because it helps to avoid oversimplification, generalisation, and ethnocentrism. 


For relevance, validity and reliability when drawing out and learning the lessons there is an imperative to recognise the diversity, complexity, and uniqueness of each case.


Some  aspects that need to be considered as contextual sensitivity when comparing political and governance systems are:


  • The historical background and trajectory of the countries, such as their colonial and post-colonial experiences, their state formation and nation building processes, their regime changes and transitions, their conflicts and wars, and their regional and international relations.

  • The cultural and social characteristics of the countries, such as their:

    • ethnic, linguistic, religious, ideological, and demographic diversity,

    • values and norms, their identities, and cleavages,

    • levels and depth of social cohesion,

    • levels in breadth and width of cross-cutting trust in societal institutions and each other,

    • civil society and social movements, and

    • their media and public opinion.

  • The economic and developmental conditions of the countries, such as their:

    • Income levels, inequality, poverty, and unemployment,

    • growth and stability, their structure and diversification,

    • trade and integration,

    • innovation and competitiveness, and

    • welfare and redistribution.

  • The political and institutional features of the countries, such as their:

    • constitutional and legal framework,

    • electoral and party system,

    • executive and legislative branches,

    • legislative, judicial, executive, and public administration institutions ,

    • decentralised and devolution spheres of governance such as federal and local units, and oversight, responsibility, and accountability checks and balances,

    • the incidence of bad governance and leadership, and prevalence, and

    • prevalence and incidence of corruption and maladministration.


These matters matter as they will and should have different impacts on the formation, functioning, and performance of coalitions across nation states, depending on the context of each country.


As in the comparative  example in focus here, mature democracies such as Finland may have more stable and effective coalitions than less mature, or maturing  democracies such as South Africa, because they have more:


  • consolidated and coherent party systems,

  • consensual and proportional electoral systems,

  • transparent and accountable institutions, and

  • more developed and inclusive societies.


This, however, does not mean that coalitions are always better or worse in one context than in another, as there may be trade-offs, variations, and exceptions in each case.


Therefore, contextual sensitivity requires a careful and nuanced analysis of the similarities and differences, the strengths and weaknesses, and the opportunities and challenges of coalitions across nation states cases.


On lessons to be shared and learnt


A first key insight from the Finnish experience is that coalition governments are both a result of as well as a  precondition for inclusive political systems and inclusive political institutions – which feeds the stability and legitimacy of the democratic system. In order to form a coalition government and especially a majority coalition, a number of parties are required to cooperate.


Secondly, even though it is a case of, the bigger the party, the more ministers and the more say they have in the government programme, it is still a negotiation, a coalition, so nobody gets to have it all. And the discussions taking place within spending limits means parties cannot come with outrageous promises, they have to work within that framework.


Thirdly, from the Finnish example it was also concluded that the Finnish system of coalitions is very much reliant on the “rule-of-law” approach and mechanisms that sustain coalitions and make them viable, aspects that build trust between the political actors and among the civil society. This allows parties that have had very little trust in each other to make the necessary compromises in order to build healthy coalitions and move forward.


Fourthly, Finland also has long-held traditions regarding different types of civil society organisations, other than parties. In Finnish government negotiations, experts from various fields – from civil society to the ministries or administration and NGOs – are brought in to mediate, to help build common ground and level the playing field.


Coalitions are often thought of in terms of enabling a governing majority.


However, coalitions might also be useful in diverse and fragmented societies, such as in South Africa, where it is not necessarily about forming a governing majority, but rather, it might be a way to increase social and political cohesiveness in the country – of course, always guarding against the danger of co-option.


The Context, realities and lessons related to coalition success in Finland


Finland for more than 100 years has had relatively successful coalition governments, as during these 100 years no party has ever been even close to securing a majority of the seats in the Parliament. This stability is in part due to the party system being able to accommodate several different societal conflicts. Radical ideas and those parties or actors willing to destabilise the status quo have been tamed through offering responsibility, and at the same time, willingness to take responsibility has been expected of them. Thus far this has worked quite well.


In Finnish history the Finnish people also had to build a strong state to:


  • Counter the consistent threat to their national state of the ever-looming expansionist Russian empire and its modern-day successors, and

  • Build and sustain a successful welfare state to nurture the Finnish citizens.


This combination of a serious external force challenge and the need to improve the lives of Finnish citizens increased Finnish cohesion and the Finnish sense of national sovereignty and unity. These combined dynamics also made it necessary to internally form successful coalitions in the face of threats as well as for good governance in the interests of the welfare of the Finnish population and their democratic state and governance system.


The Finnish state was formed after a very divisive civil war, and in order to provide a strong institutional base for future stability and success the Finnish institutions are committed to the institutions of constitutional democracy based on the non- negotiable rule of law in central and local government spheres.


There are also statutory requirements to enhance coalition cooperation in all spheres  of governance such as a majority requirement of 66 % of the vote to pass these budgets. The culture of compliance with the institution of the rule of law and the dynamics of legal requirements for compliance towards consensus combined strengthens incentives for responsible coalition governance by all parties concerned.


In conclusion,  the Finnish pluralist multiparty system as well as political system have a long legacy, with parties and voters committed to preserving the stability and legitimacy of the democratic system. And a lot of this has to do with the fact that the long history of Finnish independence has put substantial emphasis on these inclusive political and economic institutions.


Lessons for South African coalitions in the context of comparability for relevance


A further set of lessons from a comparative context is to consider the contextual sensitivity and comparability for relevance, reliability `and validity in comparison sensibly and sensitively. The African context  is significantly different from the Finnish context. South Africa selected to not accept the consociationalism states of Arend Lijphart in crafting its Constitution to enhance the probability for fragmented societies to reach stable political systems.


This then makes the experience of African states also the South African reality.  In the African context with fragmented societies in terms of ethnic, linguistic, and religious divisions, African experience therefore often is one of one-party states after independence, and also of a dominant one or one strong party legacy, strong presidents and presidential systems. This has made the distinction between the ruling party, or the dominant party, and the state a difficult one.


Within this contextual setting,  power sharing in practice has often turned out to be at best co-option, if not direct repression, of the opposition. Nowadays, it is referred to as dominant party systems because most African states are now somewhat nominally, professing to be implementing multiparty systems.


The factions and their behaviours within most of these dominant parties and state party systems are quite remarkably similar.  This similarity includes patterns of patrimonialism or clientelism which, in one way or another, can also be linked to corruption. Currently, the biggest threat to democracy and democratic competence in Africa, and also elsewhere in the world, is corruption. The lesson is then that coalitions are not useful for the corruption appetites of dominant parties in Africa, as they may put brakes on the corruption possibilities for those parties.


In the Finland case parties are more or less medium-sized, and they are not dominant parties. It is seldom clear before the elections which party will be the biggest one. And although there are party loyalties among the supporters, there are also swing voters, so the parties are actually competing for power  with their policy  programmes rather than identity loyalty political choices. The lesson is that voter behaviour in South Africa, and South Africa not being a mature plural democracy (yet) make South African coalition success based on the competition for ideas less probable than in Finland. Coalitions will more likely be formed based on the necessity to achieve a working majority in Parliament.


Finally, the success of coalitions in Finland is grounded in formal and non-formal practices of coalition governments and multiparty collaboration in Finland, as these two link to each other. Finland relies heavily both on legalist tradition, in other words, laws, and also a trust-based culture of working together between political parties. Examples of the way in which this combination supports successful Finnish coalitions are:


Formally, the Constitution of Finland requires parliamentary stakeholder groups including the political parties to negotiate the government programme and composition before electing the Prime Minister. All parties in the Parliament join the initial talks, but the election winner and biggest party invites some parties to the final talks. The parties also choose their ministers, with more seats for bigger parties.


The government must have the  majority support of Parliament, which is why Finland usually has a majority government. Of equal importance is central government spending limits, which is the ceiling budget expenditure for the four-year election term. Obviously, there is an impulse to create several different policies, but these central government spending limits then tie them to the actual decision-making. What political parties promise has to be linked to the budget.  In all of the above dynamics is the result of  negotiation, and as  it is a coalition, as well as negotiated coalition  compromises result into the reality nobody gets everything.


The more informal dynamics that support coalition success in Finland are:


  • Many of the politicians start their political and governance careers in local government, where they mutually experience and learn about the value of cooperation and consensus based on an increasing resultant trust relationships even under conditions of contestation. This is valuable learning for future success.

  • When complex and contested legislation is prepared and implemented for success in Parliament parliamentary committees work together over party borders to find sufficient consensus. This creates opportunities to learn from the proves when there are successes, and the third alternative thinking and action creates trust and consensus spilling over into future work for success.

  • During election campaigns there is non-formal collaboration between contesting political parties where national consensus and cohesion in the interest of Finland is necessary. This sets a foundation for consensus in later complex issues where the interests of the Finnish people prevail over narrow self-interest-based party political and personal political interests.

  • Finally, the success of Finnish coalitions is enhanced by continuous deep learning, through in-practice and in-conversation learning experiences, which is also enhanced by continuous research and learning through real world experience as well as research and education for the whole society, including all political and governance stakeholders and the electorate as citizens.


The last and very significant lesson directly above is of great importance to societal, educational institutions including the formal education system, as well as in this context of professional learning institutes such as the Inclusive Society Institute and CiviNovus as two  of many other role-players in this space in South Africa.


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This report has been published by the Inclusive Society Institute

The Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) is an autonomous and independent institution that functions independently from any other entity. It is founded for the purpose of supporting and further deepening multi-party democracy. The ISI’s work is motivated by its desire to achieve non-racialism, non-sexism, social justice and cohesion, economic development and equality in South Africa, through a value system that embodies the social and national democratic principles associated with a developmental state. It recognises that a well-functioning democracy requires well-functioning political formations that are suitably equipped and capacitated. It further acknowledges that South Africa is inextricably linked to the ever transforming and interdependent global world, which necessitates international and multilateral cooperation. As such, the ISI also seeks to achieve its ideals at a global level through cooperation with like-minded parties and organs of civil society who share its basic values. In South Africa, ISI’s ideological positioning is aligned with that of the current ruling party and others in broader society with similar ideals.

Phone: +27 (0) 21 201 1589


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