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The Center Party (Keskustapuolue--Kesk), which took this name in 1965 with the aim of widening its appeal and adapting to changing social conditions, was founded in 1906 as the Agrarian Party. It has been, as its present name indicates, the key party in Finnish politics since independence; until the formation of a conservative-socialist government in 1987, it had participated in virtually every majority government. Founded to represent the interests of small farmers in eastern and in northern Finland, Kesk also gradually came to claim central Finland as an area of support during the 1920s. As a consequence, it was the largest nonsocialist party until the national elections of 1979, when the National Coalition Party pulled ahead. As the party of small farmers, the Kesk was, from its birth, suspicious of the concentrated economic power of the south--labor, large farmers, and business. To counter these interests, the party advocated a firmly democratic and populist program that emphasized the primacy of the family farm, small-scale firms managed by their owners, decentralization of social organizations, and the traditional virtues and values of small towns and the countryside. The party's commitment to democracy was tested and proven in the 1930s when it rejected the aims of the radical right and perhaps saved Finland from fascism. In the second half of the decade, it began to govern with the assistance of the SDP, forming with that party the first of the so-called Red-Earth governments that became the country's dominant coalition pattern for the next half-century. Kesk's claim to represent the "real" Finland, however, caused it, at times, to seek to curtail the rights of the Swedish-speaking minority, and some Kesk leaders, Urho Kekkonen for example, were active in the Finnicization program.
Although opposed to fascist doctrines, Kesk had favored fighting on the side of Nazi Germany--as a cobelligerent--during the Continuation War of 1941-44, in the hope of regaining lost national territory. During the course of the war, however, some of the party's leaders came to the conclusion that good relations with the Soviet Union were essential if Finland were to survive as an independent nation. Kekkonen, in particular, was a driving force in effecting this change of party policy in the postwar period (see Domestic Developments and Foreign Politics, 1948-66 , ch. 1). This policy change was achieved, though, only after a bitter struggle during which segments of the party's leadership hoped for Kekkonen's political destruction; however, generational change and his domestic and foreign successes allowed Kekkonen gradually to gain nearly absolute control of the party, which he retained even after election in 1956 to the presidency, a post ideally above party politics.
Soviet desires for a dependable contact in Finland, and the unsuitability of other parties, soon made Kesk Moscow's preferred negotiating partner, despite the party's anticommunist program. The Soviets' natural ally, the SKP, was seen as being too much a political outsider to be an effective channel of communication. Kesk's position in the center of the political spectrum made it the natural "hinge party" for coalition governments. After the Note Crisis, Kekkonen's mastery of foreign policy also served, and at times was cynically used, to preserve this role.
Postwar social changes, such as internal migration to the south and a growing service sector, have reduced support for Kesk and have brought about a steady decline in its share of seats in the Eduskunta (see table 4, Appendix A). Attempts to bring the party's program into line with a changing society did not win Kesk new support. In prosperous southern Finland, for example, Kesk failed to make significant inroads, electing only once a member of the Eduskunta from Helsinki. Young voters in the south, or the coastal region as it is sometimes called, favored the National Coalition Party or the environmentalist Greens (Vihreat). Also damaging to Kesk was the loss of a segment of its membership to the SMP, after its formation in 1959. Kesk was not able to retain the presidency after Kekkonen's retirement in 1981; its candidate for the 1982 presidential election, Johannes Virolainen, was easily defeated, as was the 1988 Kesk candidate for this post, Paavo Vayrynen.
Kesk's failure, despite only slight losses, to participate in the government formed after the 1987 national elections was perhaps a watershed in Finnish domestic politics. Until that time, Kesk had been an almost permanent governing party. Demographic and occupational trends continued to challenge Kesk in the late 1980s, but the party's large and convinced membership, far greater than that of any other party, probably meant that any decline in its role in Finnish politics would be a slow one.
Data as of December 1988
Finland Table of Contents