Election interview: Pentti Arajärvi expresses his views on the evolution of the Social Democratic Party and on the coming elections

PenttiArajarvi_pienikoko-e1410523420708Pentti Arajärvi, who has kindly accepted this interview with Finland Politics, is professor of Social Law at the University of Helsinki. He began his career in the Ministry of Education, before in particular working as Committee Counsel for the Social Affairs and Health Committee in the Finnish Parliament.

He is a deeply respected citizen, due in particular his modesty, his sense of humour, his knowledge of the Finnish society, and his interest for Finland’s citizens, shown through the fact that he has been active in non-governmental organisations during his entire adult life, in the fields of Human Rights, of Children’s Rights, of Healthcare, of Mental Health, and of Equality. He is also the husband of Tarja Halonen, who was the President of Finland between 2000 and 2012.

Where is your interest for social affairs coming from?

I was a civil servant in the Ministry of Education after my graduation in the University of Helsinki, and I worked there for 12 years. During the last 5 years I was writing the school legislation for Finland in the Ministry. Then it was ready and I thought about my working life, which may be to continue the rest of my life working on that legislation. But then, in the Parliament, there was a possibility to get a position of Councillor of the Committee for Social Affairs and Health, which looked to me as interesting domains. I applied and I got selected, in 1984. So I worked mainly then in the social security and social protection fields. It was extremely interesting, as in the 80s, the system was still in development. In the beginning of the 90s, there was a very deep economic depression in Finland, and we were decreasing our system. And as a civil servant I could see both phases, increasing and decreasing. And it looks like now we are again decreasing.

I have heard that you are also interested in gender equality matters?

Yes, it is one of my interests, I was asked 6 years ago by the Minister for Equality to become the Chairperson of the tripartite Committee for equal pay, with participants from the social partners – trade unions and employers – and the government, and I accepted it. It is challenging and also interesting to see if we can obtain results in this domain.

You have also been involved in children’s wellbeing?

I have been since 2005 chairperson of the Association for children’s welfare. I have been interested in these topics because I have worked on education, especially on primary and secondary schools, and then on social security, and children are big users of social services. So I was really interested to participate in the work of the association!

You are a really busy person!

Yes, I am!

You are a member of the Social Democratic Party since 1970. You have been recently elected in the Helsinki municipal board council, before now being a candidate for the Finnish Parliament. Why now go into politics, after more than 40 years?
I have been in politics for all my life! I began in 1970, when I joined the Social Democratic Party. In the very beginning, I was involved in students’ political activities and policies. Then as a civil servant in the Ministry of Education and in the Parliament, I thought that it was not appropriate to have any very visible position in politics. But all the time I have been in the Social Democratic Party, I have been used as an expert, initially for education matters, and now, for the last 30 years, in the field of social policies.

Now, I am free. I am just a Professor in the University, and my position is not political as it was in a way in the ministry or in the Parliament. And now my wife is no more the president! So I have much more freedom to openly be active and campaigning.

How is the campaign going?

I am just coming from a meeting where we planned my campaign! I have already been in teams supporting campaigns for other candidates, but I must say that now that I am myself in the lead as a candidate, I am a little bit surprised about how much time it takes. But you can do very much if you have a good network, which I have.

What kind of evolution have you seen in the Social Democratic Party since the 70s?

At that time, we were making revolutions, as young students! (He laughs). It has changed quite a lot, now we do not know in which direction we have to go because we are lacking money in the public sector, such as the government and the municipalities. Until now, Social Democrats have in a way built our welfare system, and it is public. It uses private enterprises and private organisations, but the basis is public. And services are not an insurance system. The same goes for basic social benefits, of course insurances for pensions, and for unemployment, sickness and parent benefits Nowadays, when you are doing something, you have no money available, so all the so-called new ideas mainly consist in privatising, which means that us social democrats we have to say no (he laughs). And that means that we are the “no” party. So we have lost our own ideas in a way, or to be more precise, we have ideas, but we have no money to implement them.

So, what should be done?

That is the question, and that is why the Social Democratic Party is no more the first one in the Parliament. We have now less than 20 % of voters behind us when we traditionally have had 25 % and more. I think that we have to work more on it, and tell people what we are planning, to show people that a public system is more equal and fair than the private system.
When health care becomes private, the public sector has anyway to pay for it, the only difference is that the profits taken from the citizens’ pockets are going to companies who escape the Finnish tax system when they are in worst case based in tax paradises!

Is there some kind of structure working on the evolutions of social democracy in Finland?

The Social Democratic Party has a think tank called Kalevi Sorsa foundation. Kalevi Sorsa was a former Prime Minister and a chairperson of the Party. They are a think tank, they prepare papers and discuss ideas and opinions, it is more a study structure. The party has its own management on the political side.

When a party loses as many votes as the Social Democratic Party, there must be some kind of analysis and proposals?

Kalevi Sorsa foundation has made analysis on why we have gone down from 25 % to 17% support, and what should be the politics supported by social democrats in Finland.

All these changes, including an increased presence of private providers, have occurred in the last years when the Social Democratic Party was a member of the coalition governments. Is there not some difficulty for the public to know what the line of the party is?

You are right, we were in the government. But if we had not been, the situation would be worse because the leaders of the National Coalition Party Kokoomus seems to be ready to privatise everything they can. And if they had “bourgeois” partners in the government, the situation would be really worse than now. So we had to be there to be the “no” party, in order to protect our welfare system…

There was a debate 2 weeks ago between leaders of the main parties, discussing budgetary issues. All agreed on the need for budget cuts, except the Greens, M. Stubb wanted to cut at least 2 billion euros and M. Rinne was simply agreeing on the idea, but on the amount.

I can agree with M. Rinne’s idea, it is a quality to be cautious when you don’t know what will be the situation when we will discuss the next budgets.

Is the Left Alliance (Vasemmisto) the new Social Democrats Party?

No, they are former communists. They are now in a way populists, not as much as the Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset), but the young leader of the Left Alliance Paavo Arhinmäki is a little bit populist, not of the worst kind… That is why I think that they are not social-democrats, and it seems to me that the difference is probably about the responsibility towards the society, and the economics: the social democratic party is more responsible in the fields of economy, social affairs, security, and environment. The Left Alliance is limiting itself to environment and social security, but in the matter of economics they walk on the air, which makes their programme slightly not realist.

What about the progression of the Finns Party?

They are definitely populists. But they will learn. As we say in Finland, “Siperia opettaa”, Siberia teaches. One year in the government and they will lose a lot of votes. In the 70s, we had the Finnish Rural Party (in Finnish: Suomen maaseudun puolue) on which in fact the Finns party was built: for example Timo Soini was a member of that party. They got 18 members of Parliament, went in the government and lost almost all their supporters. I think that the Finns party benefit from the support of people who are not satisfied for whatever reason with the present system. When in the political field there is a new party without any responsibility, they can make whatever promises, they can ask why things are so wrong, it is not necessary for them to explain how they are going to improve the situation, they just have to say “this is not good” and they get all the political benefits! This is what populism is.

But then when they will take responsibilities, if they do, we will see. And I think that they are really now going into the next government. If the Centre Party (Keskusta) is the biggest party after elections as it looks like, and if they accept the Finns’ Party into the government, they will participate.

What do you think are the main challenges for Finland in the next 5 years?

Economy, employment… You have probably heard about the Finnish baby boom, what we call “suuret ikäluokat”. Between 1945 and 1950, there were around 110 000 babies born in a year, when now we are around 65 000. These generations are now retiring, and that means that the costs will be very high, because a lot of people will not work and produce anymore and we will have instead to pay for their (and our) pensions. And the people at work are much less than those outside of work, when we take into account children, students, retired people, unemployed people, etc., and the situation is worsening every year. This is the main problem. It is happening in the whole Europe, but Finland is the first one and Italy and Switzerland are about the same. For the others, it will come ten years later.

But Finland has reformed its pension system?

We have reformed our pension system three times already. The last main reform was in 2005, and now the real retiring age has increased of more than 1 year. Now the government and the social partners have decided last autumn to reform our pension system again from the beginning of 2017. And again we think that it will rise the age at which people are retiring, which means that there will be more people working.

Then we have shortened, or tried to shorten, the study time, nowadays students are in the University for 7-8 years, and they should be there only 5 years! If we are able to shorten that, they will be able to come earlier in the labour market, they will use less social benefits, and they will participate in the growth of the country.

Among the economic challenges, what is your position concerning the euro?

I think that it is good for Finland. Of course we have had some problems concerning the euro, but as a whole it is positive for Finland.

When you will be in the Parliament, what would be the law that you would like to vote as soon as possible?

(He laughs). During my campaign, I am explaining that I will not make any promises. I have some ideas, some objectives I would like to attain, but I do not promise to succeed, because I cannot do it alone!

The most important thing is to stop the major increase of inequalities in Finland. I know that it is idealistic to say so, but the differences between social groups and individuals concerning income, health, education, housing, employment are growing very fast these days. If we want to be a modern growth-oriented Nordic welfare society, we need to stop this evolution.
We have still a quite good situation, but it is because we began in a good position compared to other countries, but it becomes worse and worse: we need to act and stop it very quickly.

There has been in the newspapers some articles indicating that the European Committee of Social Rights has determined that the minimum level of social security provisions is not high enough in Finland. What is your opinion?

I was not surprised. The level of our allocations is very low, but they last a long time. For example, you can theoretically receive unemployment benefits from the age of 17 to the age of 65! Of course no one gets them for such a period, but in theory it could be.

The Finnish Ministry for Social Affairs and Health answered that the calculations were biased because the European Committee’s experts were not taking into account the extensive social services available for free, the housing allowances and some other advantages. That helps a little, but still it does not cover the gap. There were also some mistakes in the answers from the Ministry, in particular concerning the last resort subsidies, which should not be taken into account.
But again I was not surprised: I knew that our social security system is not sufficient. But as I said before, the social democrats are facing a difficulty: we see the problems, but we have no money to solve them!

What is your prognostic for the elections?

I believe that the Centre Party will lead, as they seem to be 10 points before us. We, Social Democrats, may however rise a little during the campaign. The National Coalition Party has a very efficient campaign system, so even if they seem to go down and if it is difficult to change this trend 2 months before the elections, you never know. The Finns Party may lose a little, because last time they were on a flow, but now after 4 years in the Parliament people are asking “What have you done?” and they have done nothing except open their mouths! These are the 4 biggest. Then it is very difficult to say how it goes with the Left Alliance or Greens. Swedish People Party has its own group of voters, and it keeps them stable, even if the Social Democrats or even the Left Alliance have a number of Swedish speaking voters, candidates and Members of Parliament as well. Christian-Democrats are lagging behind, with 4 or 5 Members of Parliament.

And what kind of alliance do you foresee for the government?

The Finnish system, as you know, is that we have coalition governments. It is normal that the biggest party tries first to create a government. That means that the Centre Party gets the Prime Minister position, and in this situation it is very possible that they make Social Democrats and National Coalition Party compete to become their allies in the government. That will be a problem for both, as this type of negotiation would make the Centre Party’s position very strong: “you can come with us, but you have to accept this and that”. Then they go to the other party, and ask them if they are ready to accept more.

From the point of view of the elections’ programme and the Finnish tradition, which one is more compatible with the Centre Party?

The Centre Party is in some way a “bourgeois” party, like the National Coalition Party, and in that way they have some common points. But the Centre Party is more in favour of public services, because their roots are in the countryside, where the only possibility is to use public services, as there is no private company who wants to deliver healthcare and other services, as it is not possible to earn sufficient money. And the Centre Party is used to work with Social Democrats, it is the traditional coalition called in Finnish “punamulta” (red earth), which in a way has built Finland’s welfare society. So they are used to work together, it would be a natural alliance.

Is there anything you would like to add?

No thanks, I think I have already told too much!

Categories: Elections, Social

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3 replies


  1. Interview in English about Finnish politics and the upcoming election | Pentti Arajärvi
  2. Demain, résultat des élections: à quoi s’attendre? | Finland politics
  3. Tomorrow the elections: what can we expect? | Finland politics

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