Finland Table of Contents
Helsinki's neo-classical quarter includes the Government
Palace, seen in the foreground. This building was constructed as the
Senate House and was the seat of government during most of the
tsarist period. After independence, it became the seat of the
Council of State.
Courtesy Embassy of Finland, Washington
Council of State Chamber, Government Palace
Courtesy Embassy of Finland, Washington
The Council of State shares executive power with the president, and it is responsible for the management of the governmental machinery. The Council of State prepares the government bills presented to the Eduskunta and authors most legislation. In the late 1980s, it consisted of the prime minister, the chancellor of justice, and up to seventeen ministers who directed twelve ministries: foreign affairs, justice, interior, defense, finance, education, agriculture and forestry, communications, trade and industry, social affairs and health, labor, and environment. Some of the ministries have second or deputy ministers, and occasionally a minister holds two portfolios. There have been no ministers without portfolio since the early 1950s. Ministers must be "native-born Finnish citizens known for their honesty and ability." The minister of justice and one other minister must be lawyers, but otherwise there are no formal qualifications for a cabinet post. Ministers generally enter the cabinet from the Eduskunta, but it has not been uncommon for them to be drawn from the outside, especially to serve in caretaker governments composed largely of leading private citizens and civil servants. Even prime ministers have on occasion come from outside parliament, as did Mauno Koivisto in 1979. Ministers from the Eduskunta may continue to be members of that body, but they may not serve on any committee.
The prime minister heads the Council of State, sets its agenda, nominates some members of the council's committees, settles tie votes, and, most important, dissolves it when he sees fit or if it can no longer govern. The prime minister also represents the president when he is out of the country. If the president can no longer carry out his duties, the prime minister replaces him until a new presidential election can be held. Other than these rights and duties, a prime minister in the 1980s had few formal powers and had only a very small staff to assist him in his work. His main responsibility was holding together cabinets composed of a number of political parties that frequently had opposing views on central issues. He could manage this through personal prestige or by force of character, through backstairs wrangling, or, ultimately, by threatening to dissolve the cabinet if it did not adhere to the government's program.
A key member of the Council of State, although he is not a minister, is the chancellor of justice. Appointed for life by the president, he is obliged to attend all meetings of the council and to review its proceedings for legality. He has no vote, but his decisions about the legality of council proposals and decisions are regarded as binding. The chancellor of justice also reviews the president's actions, and he reports infractions to the Council of State, or, if necessary, to the Eduskunta. He is also empowered to initiate proceedings according to the Responsibility of Ministers Act. One of the formal qualifications for his position is that he be well versed in the law; and within the country's legal system he is the highest prosecutor (see Legal System , this ch.).
The Council of State must enjoy the confidence of the Eduskunta in order to govern. The party composition of a new cabinet has to be acceptable to the Eduskunta, and it must correspond, to some degree, to the relative political strength of the parties within the chamber. Formation of a cabinet has often been difficult because, in addition to the large number of parties that participate in them, Finnish elections usually give no clear indication of how political realities should be reflected by a governing coalition. Even the selection of individual ministers can be troublesome, for the parties themselves have much to say about who serves as minister, and even a prime minister may have to accept members of his own party not of his choosing. If a suitable constellation of parties cannot be formed to yield an effective majority government, a minority government, or even a caretaker government, may be put together if the Eduskunta agrees.
The Council of State is held legally responsible for the acts of its ministers, in accordance with the Responsibility of Ministers Act of 1922. In addition to making ministers accountable for their official actions, this law--which has constitutional status--is also a vital, if indirect, means of controlling the president's actions. Because many of his decisions can be carried out only through the Council of State, ministers who approve an illegal presidential action are liable under the terms of this law. Ministers wishing to avoid the law's sanctions must refuse to be party to a presidential decision that they view as illegal. If ministerial consent is lacking, the president cannot act. In such a case, the president must either abide by the decision of the council, or he may dismiss it and attempt to form a new one amenable to his wishes. If this is not possible, he may dissolve the Eduskunta and call for new elections with the hope of having the voters endorse his decisions by returning an Eduskunta from which a compliant government can be formed. If the council refuses to approve a lawful presidential decision, it is obliged to resign. Ministers can always resign individually, but the resignation of the prime minister means the end of a government.
A principal task of the Council of State is the preparation of legislative proposals, or government bills, that the president presents to the Eduskunta for ratification. Most of this work is done in an appropriate ministry, where, in addition to ministry personnel and civil servants, permanent and ad hoc commissions of experts and spokesmen for special interests can be consulted.
In the 1980s, the Council of State had three committees to handle important questions: the ministerial committees for finance, economic policy, and foreign affairs. The Finance Committee, meeting on Wednesdays, consisted of the prime minister, finance minister, and several other ministers. It prepared the government's budget and responded to the financial motions presented by individual members of the Eduskunta. The Economic Policy Committee met twice a week to discuss issues touching the country's economic life as a whole, broader questions about the government's budget, and other financial concerns suggested by the prime minister. The Foreign Affairs Committee, least important of the three, met when needed to discuss issues concerning foreign policy.
Plenary meetings of the Council of State, for which a quorum of five was required, had three forms. The so-called Evening School meeting, on Wednesday evenings, was a closed, informal session where ministers, top civil servants, politicians, and leading figures from outside government freely discussed decisions to be taken. It was thus a forum where the country's leaders met and exchanged opinions on important issues. Instituted in the late 1930s as a means of speeding the council's work, the Evening School had no formal decision-making power. Votes were taken at the Thursday meeting. The Council of State worked as a collegial body, and unanimous votes were not required. In case of a tie vote, the vote of the prime minister was decisive. Approved measures were presented to the president for signing at the Friday Presidential Meeting.
In accordance with its executive powers, the Council of State implemented its decisions and directed the ministries and the lower levels of the state administrative apparatus. This was done through presidential decrees and its own ordinances, neither of which could conflict with legislation passed by the Eduskunta. Ministers, aided by political secretaries drawn from their own parties, headed the country's twelve ministries. The ministries, which both formulated and administered policy, oversaw about eighty central boards that were wholly occupied with implementing policy. The central board system, inherited from the time of Swedish rule, had grown considerably, expanding by about onethird between 1966 and 1975 because of the increase in state social services. The boards, such as the National Board of General Education and the State Publishing Office, did much of the state's work. By tradition somewhat autonomous, they decided how legislation and ministerial decisions were to be carried out.
Data as of December 1988
Finland Table of Contents