Finland Table of Contents
The Eduskunta, Finland's parliament, in session
Courtesy Embassy of Finland, Washington
The Eduskunta is the country's highest governing body by virtue of its representing the people, who possess sovereign power. Its main power is legislative, a power it shares with the country's president. It also has extensive financial powers, and its approval is required for the government's annual budget and for any loans the government wants to contract. Although the president is dominant in the area of foreign policy, treaties must be ratified by the Eduskunta, and only with its consent can the country go to war or make peace. This chamber also has supervisory powers, and it is charged with seeing that the country is governed in accordance with the laws it has passed. To enforce its will, the Eduskunta has the power to hold the government to account, and to call for the impeachment of the president.
The Eduskunta is closely tied to the president and to the Council of State. Neither the president nor the cabinet is able to carry out many executive functions without the support of the Eduskunta, and the cabinet must resign if it is shown that it has lost the chamber's confidence. Strong links between the Eduskunta and the Council of State result, too, from the circumstance that most cabinet ministers are members of parliament. On the other hand, the Eduskunta is subordinate to the president in that he may dissolve it and call for new elections. Despite its legislative powers, it actually initiates little legislation, limiting itself mainly to examining the government bills submitted to it by the president and the council. In addition, all legislation passed by the Eduskunta must bear the president's signature and that of a responsible minister in order to go into effect. The Eduskunta need not approve the legislative proposals submitted to it, however, and can alter or reject them.
As stipulated by the Parliament Act of 1928, the Eduskunta's 200 members are elected by universal suffrage for four-year terms. All citizens twenty years of age and older, who are able to vote, and who are not professional military personnel or holders of certain high offices, have the right to serve in the Eduskunta. A wide variety of the country's population has served in this body, and its membership has changed often. Sometimes as many as one-third of the representatives have been first-term members, as occurred in the 1987 national elections.
Finnish election laws emphasize individual candidates, which sometimes has meant the election of celebrities to the body. Most members, however, have begun their political careers at the local level. In the late 1980s, about one-third of the representatives were career politicians. The professions were overly represented at the expense of blue-collar workers; about 40 percent of the members, compared with only 3 percent of the population as a whole, had university degrees. By the 1980s, farmers and businessmen were no longer so prevalent as they once had been, while there were more journalists and managers. The number of female representatives had also increased, and by the 1980s they made up one-third of the chamber. In the 1987 election, women won 63 of the 200 seats.
Article 11 of the 1928 Parliament Act states that members are to vote as their consciences dictate. A delegate is not legally bound to vote as he or she promised, in a campaign for example. In the late 1980s, however, party discipline was strict, and delegates usually voted as directed by their party.
The four-year term, or legislative period, of the Eduskunta is divided into annual sessions beginning in early February, with vacation breaks in the summer and at Christmas. The first business of a yearly session is the election of a speaker, two deputy speakers, and committee chairmen. Those elected make up the speaker's council, which is representative of the party composition of the Eduskunta and arranges its work schedule. The speaker, by tradition of a different party from the prime minister, presides over the chamber, but the speaker neither debates nor votes.
Also chosen in the first days of a new session are those, from either within or outside the parliament, who supervise the pension institute and television and radio broadcasting; and five auditors who monitor compliance with the government's budget and oversee the Bank of Finland (BOF). Among the most important posts to be filled by the Eduskunta for its four-year term are those of the parliamentary ombudsman and the six members of the Eduskunta who make up half of the High Court of Impeachment.
Parliament approves legislation in plenary sittings, but it is in the committees that government bills are closely examined. In the late 1980s, there were thirteen committees in all: five permanent committees--constitutional, legal affairs, foreign affairs, finance, and bank--and eight regular ad hoc committees-- economy, law and economy, cultural affairs, agriculture and forestry, social affairs, transportation, defense, and second legal affairs. Committee membership reflects the political composition of the Eduskunta. Members usually serve for the whole legislative period, and they commonly have seats on several committees, often of their own choosing. Members who have served on a given committee for a number of terms often develop considerable expertise in its area of responsibility.
Legislative proposals also pass through the forty-five-member Grand Committee. Only the budget, which is not a legislative proposal in Finland, escapes its review. The committee, adopted as a compromise in 1906 between those who advocated a bicameral legislature and those who preferred the unicameral body finally established, was conceived as a safeguard against the measures of a perhaps too radical parliament. It therefore examines proposals for their legal soundness and propriety. Yet, according to the British scholar David Arter, the Grand Committee has only occasionally altered the proposals sent to it, and, as a consequence, it has lost prestige within the Eduskunta. Its members are generally newly elected representatives.
The Eduskunta has an elaborate procedure for handling government bills sent to it by the president, after discussion and approval in the Council of State. This procedure was adopted with the idea of preventing the enactment of radical measures, and it is an indication of the Eduskunta's essentially conservative nature. Proposals are usually first discussed in a plenary session, then directed by the speaker to an appropriate committee, where they are carefully scrutinized in closed hearings. After committee review and report, proposals are returned to the plenary session for the first reading, where they are discussed but no vote is taken. The next step is the Grand Committee review. Working from the Grand Committee report, the second reading in plenary session is a detailed examination of the proposal. If the Grand Committee report is not accepted in its entirety, the proposal must be returned to the Grand Committee for further discussion. Once the proposal is back again at the plenary session, for the so-called continued second reading, the Eduskunta votes on the changes recommended by the Grand Committee. There is no discussion in the final and third reading; the proposal is simply approved or rejected. Votes may be taken at least three days after the second reading or the continued second reading. Once approved by the Eduskunta, bills require the signature of the president within three months to go into effect. This requirement gives the president the power of suspensive veto. This veto, rarely used, can be overridden if the Eduskunta approves the bill with a simple majority following new national elections.
Only the government's budget proposal is exempted from the above parliamentary procedure, because the budget is not considered a legislative proposal in Finland. Instead, the budget proposal is handled in a single reading, after a close review by the largest and busiest parliamentary committee, the twenty-one member Finance Committee. Government bills connected with the budget and involving taxation, however, must pass through the three plenary session readings and the Grand Committee review. This reinforces the Eduskunta's budgetary control.
The Eduskunta's elaborate legislative procedure can be traversed in a few days if there is broad agreement about the content of a bill. Qualified majority requirements for much legislation, most commonly that touching on financial matters and property rights, enable a small number of representatives to stop ratification in a plenary session and to oblige the government to ascertain a bill's probable parliamentary support before submitting it to the Eduskunta. Qualified majority requirements for legislation involving taxation for a period of more than one year require the approval of two-thirds of the body. Sixty-seven members can hold such legislation over until after a new election and can thus effectively brake government programs. Because there is no time limit on a member's right to speak, filibusters can also slow the progress of a bill through the Eduskunta, although this tactic has seldom been employed. Government care in the crafting of bills is reflected in the unimpeded passage through parliament of most of them.
Legislation altering the Constitution is subjected to more rigorous requirements. Constitutional changes may be approved by a simple majority, but before they go into effect, they must be approved again by a two-thirds majority in a newly elected Eduskunta. If the changes are to go into effect within the lifetime of a single Eduskunta, the legislation implementing them must be declared "urgent" by five-sixths of the body and, in a subsequent vote, approved by a two-thirds majority. This requirement means that a vote of one-sixth against a proposed economic measure regarded as being of a constitutional nature, such as some incomes policy legislation, can prevent its enactment during a single parliamentary term. These same majorities are required for an unusual feature of Finnish parliamentary procedure that permits the passage of laws that are temporary suspensions of, or exceptions to, the Constitution, but that leave it intact. Since 1919 about 800 of these exceptional laws have been passed, most involving only trivial deviations from the Constitution.
Members of the Eduskunta may initiate legislation by submitting their own private members' bills and financial motions relating to the budget. Several thousand of these are submitted each year, but 95 percent are not even considered, and only a handful are accepted. Members also may submit proposals connected to government bills, or may petition for certain actions to be taken. The main point of these procedures is often a delegate's desire to win the approval of his constituents by bringing up an issue in the Eduskunta.
The Eduskunta has other means of exerting pressure on the government, in addition to refusing to approve its legislative proposals. Its members may address questions to ministers either orally or in writing, and in either case a quick response is required. Potentially much more serious is an interpellation, possible if twenty members desire it, in which case the government can fall if it fails to survive a vote of confidence. Few governments fall in this way, however, as they are allowed to remain in power as long as a lack of support is not shown. Interpellations have been used principally as a means of drawing attention to a particular question, and press coverage usually is intense.
An important instrument of Finnish parliamentary control is the right and duty of the Constitutional Committee to examine government bills with regard to their constitutionality. Finland has no constitutional court, and suggestions for its establishment have foundered because the Eduskunta has refused to cede this important review power to a court that would be outside parliamentary control. Although the committee's seventeen members come from parties with seats in the Eduskunta, the committee has strived for impartiality, has sought the opinions of legal specialists, and has let itself be bound by precedents. As evidence that it takes its responsibilities seriously, committee members representing both the far left and the far right have agreed with 80 percent of its judgements over a long period of time.
The Eduskunta also exercises control of the executive through the Responsibility of Ministers Act, which can be used against the government or an individual minister if a parliamentary committee, the parliamentary ombudsman, or five members of the Eduskunta so decide. The Eduskunta's ability to control the government is also apparent in its duty to comment on the annual report of the government's actions submitted in May, and the Foreign Affairs Committee's review of the frequent Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports detailing the government's conduct in the field of foreign relations.
Data as of December 1988
Finland Table of Contents