Dan Koivulaakso is a Finnish civil activist but his name might be familiar for many Helsinki-residents as he has also been working as a Helsinki municipal politician since 2012. 2015 parliamentary election is the second one where he is a candidate for Vasemmistoliitto, the Left Alliance. He answered our questions on his background, his political priorities, shared his outlook for the elections and explained how, if elected, he would start working to end discrimination.
Politics for you, how did it all start?
I have been closely involved in party politics since 2009 when I was elected chairman of the Left Youth. I had been before that and I still am involved in social movements and within those movements, during discussions with friends and comrades it became quite clear that in order to make a change, we need both: parliamentary presence and extra parliamentary work. At the time, this bridge seemed to be missing, so it was the right time for me to get started. I was chairman of the Left Youth for two years and then I ran in the parliamentary election in 2011. Since then, I have been working for the second biggest public trade union in Finland (note of editor: JHL, The Trade Union for the Public and Welfare Sectors), and now I am involved in collective bargaining.
I am convinced that parliamentary work in itself is not enough for the left: we need to have alliances with strong pressure groups outside the Parliament, and not only with trade unions. Having been working in the City Council for more than two years now, I see that we need pressure groups in the streets to make an impact. Good examples of this at local level can be seen in the reactions to planned cutbacks: for instance, when there are plans to merge two schools, parents organise themselves. This doesn’t happen in case of elderly care, disabled care or general budget cuts – it usually happens only for very local, very tangible causes whereas the need is wider.
So that is why I became involved in social movements in the first place. I have been active in helping workers in precarious situation fight for their rights and also in helping asylum seekers battle racist immigration policies.
By running for a parliamentary seat, I hope gaining more influence to be able to work on the same range of issues more efficiently. Still, I would like to emphasize that being in the Parliament only is not enough. This is lesson to consider for the left all over Europe.
The Left Alliance is the party which was the only suitable choice for me. Note that I first started in the Left Youth, which is a very progressive organisation, independent from the party and is very close to social movements, which was and is an important aspect for me.
Have there been any issues where your opinion differed from the overall line of your party?
In all parties, the biggest question is the degree of compromise and there are discussions to be held in each party. From my side, I have not been able to compromise on a few issues. One is the cutbacks in Helsinki where a few of us from our political group did not support the budget deal which was backed by almost all parties. Another difficult compromise to agree on was the question of joining the government after the last election in 2011; there it was a 40-60 vote in the party council and it caused some division in our parliamentary group. About ten years ago, a deep discussion took place on nuclear energy but now our position is united and clear on this.
In your opinion, what are the main challenges for Finland right now? If elected, what would be your solution for them?
First, I will mention the economic crisis. I would prefer to speak about the systemic crisis of capitalism, but running for Parliament, I will use the more mainstream terminology and refer to how this topic is being discussed here.
The euro crisis and austerity measures were hardly present in the 2011 campaign, mostly only in relation to Greece and the debt packages. This has now changed and austerity in Finland is a central topic of this year’s campaign. Cutbacks in public expenditure have been present heavily for three years now, but at the same time, all we hear from parties is “boosting the economy”. This is simply a lie because it has been austerity measures that prevailed.
A good example of this is the case of elderly care, where public funding was actually reduced, under the pretense of increasing funding for services. This government has cut 1.7 bililon euros from education over four years, which is a mistake: education is an investment, a very good investment and not just on ideological terms. Its benefits are measurable over a ten-year period, it’s simple economy and mathematics.
One of the Left Alliance’s main messages going into this election is that we will rebuild the welfare state. Austerity needs to be stopped and an investment programme needs to be realised to reduce unemployment. The amount of investments in Finland has been low, even before the crisis, it is therefore up to the state to guarantee a good climate for investments.
A first important factor of this investment programme will have to be renewable energy and tax benefits. We need to re-allocate money. In this investment programme, secondly housing will have to play a part too, more particularly significantly developing housing in the Helsinki metropolitan region. For ten years, the biggest bottleneck of growth here has been the lack of affordable housing: no matter the thousand job openings, people can not and will not apply if they can’t afford living here.
My third point here relates in a way to structural reforms to some extent. Structural adjustment is often mentioned in relation to the changing structure of society and production. In order to be able to bring reforms in the pension system, we will have to tackle work health and safety, working time will have to be reduced for health and job-sharing (with a stable level of salary) purposes. Not the working hours but the employment rate will have to go up, by approximately two percent. In the long run, the dichotomy between working periods in life and unemployment needs to be resolved with a “right to education”.
An important point that I would like emphasize is that the public debate is very much on austerity versus structural reforms. This is wrong, these are two separate things. A crisis is going on, we need to stop austerity and we need investments to reach our productivity capacity. Of course, there is a need for structural adjustment but that is a completely different issue.
A lot of this discussion is framed by referencing “the debts”. It is true that Finland is one of the least indebted countries in Europe but our public debt has grown very rapidly recently. The main problem here is that this debt has been growing while austerity measures were being implemented, which means that our capacity for debt-repayment is decreasing and we enter a vicious circle where in the end all the foundations of the welfare state will be cut.
Change needs to happen to stop this but this change should not be relaxing labour laws or cancelling wage increase. This would only increase inequality which is already quite significant: between people who earn and people receiving benefits and between owners and workers. In our tax system, the corners of welfare state have been cut by the tax laws on capital income.
Another topic that keeps being debated in this year’s election campaign is Finland’s NATO membership. What is your take on this?
My biggest problem is that so far there has been no military or security policy analysis of whether such a membership would lower Finland’s security risks. Similarly, there has been no political statement saying that Russia is a threat. As long as this is the case, my fear is that joining NATO would only increase the risk of Finland being drawn into all kinds of operations which we don’t need. I am, therefore, not in favour of joining NATO. At the same time, we are already cooperation very closely with the Organisation, only without the security guarantee of article 5. So the situation is very complex and difficult.
A related matter is the question of EU economic sanctions against Russia, following their invasion of Ukraine. It is clear that Russia broke international law and that should be opposed. However, I am uncertain about the effectiveness of the trade boycott and I haven’t seen any analysis so far. This is not to say that we should stop it – however I would like to see an EU-level exit plan: what do we want to achieve with it? What is the goal? It is lacking vision and at the same time further alienates Russia. It has been difficult economically, more so here than elsewhere, especially for the Finnish food industry. What makes the situation even more complicated is that it is also Finland who has the longest border with Russia…
The fundamental issue here is the lack of a balanced and factual public debate.
The conversation more often than not turns into a pro-EU or pro-Russia argument, whereas we should be having a security-policy discussion. It is not about identifying with Western values or not – it is preposterous. This is about security matters! And if values are involved, then it is the value of peace we should emphasize. Luckily, the majority of politicians has been rather responsible in their statements on this topic, with the notable exception of the prime minister. Acceptance of the NATO membership is still not a majority position among Finnish people but it has grown lately.
Looking at the latest polls, it seems very likely that the Left Alliance will increase the number of its members in Parliament. The same goes for the Center Party and the Greens, whereas the Social Democrats and the True Finns seem to have lost part of their voters. What major shifts do you observe among the voters and the parties?
First, I would like to point out that, should these polls become a reality, this will be the first win of the Left Alliance since 1995. It is very significant, especially for my generation and it will boost us, our confidence. I am confident that we will have the potential of turning into a 15-20% party. This is important for the left wing as well because the Social Democrats are losing and the Greens haven’t really expressed left-wing positions recently.
A big surprise for me in this election is the “rise from the ashes” of the Center Party. They have been able to renew themselves and there is now a new wave of young Centrists who look for inspiration among the founders of the party and their new leader brought credibility back to the party after the corruption scandals. They haven’t won Helsinki over but they are strong on their feet elsewhere and if they manage to win this time, it means that they are back in the game and are staying for a couple of more electoral terms.
On the other end of the scale are the Social Democrats who failed at renewing themselves and they are not popular among young people. For example, the Left Alliance was stronger than them in the last European Parliament elections in Helsinki. Sadly, the Social Democrats have been paralysed after the failure of the 1995-2003 term and the Third Way, at the origins of today’s inequalities. I have seen no ideological renewal, no initiative from their part. Still, I very much hope that they will be the second biggest party to come out of this election and I do hope that they will find their way to re-inventing themselves.
Earlier on, you were saying that parties need strong links with extra-parliamentary and extra-party groups. In your opinion, which party is the best in this regard?
Besides the Left Alliance, to some extent, the Greens. However, in Finland, it is very difficult to speak about NGOs, as everything is state-funded. Traditionally the most important groups are trade unions but that is very much institutionalised and their activity should pick up.
You were co-author in 2012 of a book on The Finnish Far-Right. In that, you criticised the fact that far-right views are starting to become mainstream. How do you see this trend evolving?
The first reaction to True Finns was evoking hate-speech, and, in turn, True Finns accused other parties of using hate-speech against them. This emphasis on hate-speech has skewed the debate, there has been no power analysis, and our chances of actually combatting institutionalised racism have decreased, which is a problem.
True Finns rose during the last election in 2011, when immigration was only one topic among many in the election campaign. Instead of discussing the Greek debt packages, the crisis or the corruption scandals, other parties at the time decided to go along with the True Finns rhetoric of “Maassa maan tavalla” (“when in Rome…”), a traditional racist figure of speech. Even then prime minister Katainen paid more attention to this party’s statements than to everyday problems of ordinary people.
As a consequence, the actual policy implications on immigration and immigrants’ rights were not debated and challenged and more and more racist expressions of opinion became less and less strange. It is still true today that this has made discussing immigration very difficult.
As for the True Finns, they have made it: now they are a populist party and they are not so loud anymore on immigration. They still try to create fear but their credibility is decreasing because they oppose any measure that would help immigrants become more integrated into society. Who knows, they are afraid that if they speak out, they will have to actually adopt the laws they refer to…Also, their main proponents of this issue are not running again.
Our last questions relates to equality. In a recent blog post, you wrote that society’s main building blocks have built-in discrimination. If elected, how would you start to work against discrimination, for equality, in particular gender equality?
Firstly, the bill on equal parenthood needs to be passed. This is something all student movements, almost all youth political organisations, all parties’ womens organisations (except for the True Finns Party) and some parties support. It would be a 6+6+6 model of parenthood leave, where neither parent’s part is transferable. This would encourage fathers to take up a bigger role in caring for children and it would work against discrimination in the labour market. But this is just one step. Clearly, even if the bill was passed, women would be likely to use more of it – this means that the costs of such parental leave arrangement will have to be born by all employers (or by the state but then it would have a consequence in taxation). This alone is of course is not enough, many other aspects will have to be considered, for instance, debates about cuts in the childcare system need to stop urgently.