News / 02.02.2011

Will scandals beat politics in Finnish April elections?

Linus Atarah

Finland will be going to the polls in April to elect a new parliament and the question on many people’s minds is whether the media would sideline pertinent policy issues and rather focus more on the sources of candidates’ finance.

Ever since election finance scandals from the last general elections emerged three years ago like a phoenix to engulf politicians, there has not been let up in media coverage if only because of the enormous wide-ranging institutions involved.

Nearly all of the major political parties here have been tarnished by the issue except the Green Party and the populist right-wing True Finns Party.

Harri Järvinen, Public Relations Manager of the Central Organisation of Finnish Trade Unions (SAK), has voiced concern that election finance issues might overshadow media debates when candidates finally launch their campaigns.

According to him, there are already indications as the elections draw near, that journalists might allow campaign finance issues to dominate the coming debates at the expense of real political discussions.

“The elections are about how the affairs of Finland will be handled within the next four years…My fear is campaign finance would take equal importance or even overshadow pertinent issues in the media discussion”, said Järvinen, in a public forum here organized by the Union of Journalists in Finland.

“Journalist might highlight too much on candidates’ sources of finance, how much they intend to spend on their campaign and how much has been procured. A lot of journalists’ work might go into such issues instead of finding out from the various political parties their positions on various policy issues, he said.”

Several politicians are now under investigations for bribery and corruption in the way they received campaign donations four years ago. It has continued to dog former Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen whose case is still being closely scrutinized by prosecutors with the possibility of impeaching him by parliament.

One of the organizations at the centre of the scandals – but by no means the biggest donor – is Nuorisosäätiö, a youth housing foundation with close ties to the Centre Party, which had handed out campaign donations to politicians from mainly the Centre Party in contravention of its own rules.

Several board members of Nuorisosäätiö some of who are current and former members of parliament are now facing corruption charges in the courts.

Nuorisosäätiö receives the bulk of its funding from the state-owned Finland’s Slot Machines Association (RAY).  Former Prime Minister Vanhanen has been accused of conflict of interest because as a board member, he failed to recluse himself from a RAY meeting that decided on funding allocation to Nuorisosäätiö. He was later on reported to have received 23 360 Euros from Nuorisosäätiö for his presidential election campaign in 2006.

Also MP and former Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva (Coalition Party) has apparently failed to report donations of at least EUR 6,000 in connection with his 2007 Parliamentary election campaign. He also faces charges of aggravated bribery in connection with his 60th birthday celebrations.

The relentless media coverage may have press-ganged the government last year into passing a new legislation to regulate election finance. The law stipulated that any candidate who received donations to over 1,700 Euros should declare it. However many did not make declarations of the amount and sources of their campaign donations because there were no sanctions for failing to do so. The new legislation has now sought to correct that pitfall. It is aimed at bringing more transparency into political funding.

Campaign advertisement in the media should now mention the name of the sponsor unless the cost is borne by the candidate, according to the new law.

The law also limits donations from individual donations to political parties at 30 000 Euros and to an individual candidate, 6 000 euros.

However, critics of the new law contend that it may be unconstitutional. Jussi Lähde, communication director of DA Online, a media consulting firm, says placing limits on how much individuals can donate to their favoured candidates may be at cross purpose with the spirit of the constitution because it limits their right to make political impact.

In spite of the fear that media might drag election finance into the centre stage, some journalists are of the opinion that it was time to put the issue to rest in the coming elections.

One journalist of the Finnish Broadcasting Company (YLE) who spoke on condition of anonymity because he did not ask for permissions from his employers, said: “It is to the credit of the media that the finance scandals was made known to the public so I think we should no longer give it too much prominence in the coming elections”.

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