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The Defense Forces held a position of esteem and honor in Finnish society. This was accounted for in part by their reputation for valor, earned in preserving Finland's independence during the Winter War, and by the common military service experience of male citizens. The long reserve obligation of a large part of the population also reinforced continuing interest in the effectiveness and the welfare of the military establishment. The obligatory period of service was perceived as an important unifying factor for Finnish society. Conscription was treated as an opportunity to provide civic education by deepening understanding of the history and the security policies of the country and to improve standards of behavior and good citizenship. One of the arguments advanced for national servicefor women was that the experience would help them, as citizens, to comprehend national security issues better and to view the military in a positive light.
Opinion surveys revealed a high degree of public confidence in the Defense Forces and a willingness to provide the necessary resources for an effective defense. Polls generally found that over 75 percent of Finns agreed that the country should be willing to go to war to defend itself. (Among conscripts, 95 percent supported a firm defense against aggression.) In 1988 one-half of those queried were in favor of the existing level of defense appropriations, while one-third believed they should be increased, and only slightly more than one-eighth thought they should be reduced. The need for a sufficient level of military readiness was accepted by all major parties represented in the Eduskunta; only communist factions had urged curtailing defense expenditures, arguing that any future war was bound to be nuclear, making preparations for a conventional conflict of little avail.
The Defense Forces were often prominently involved in public events, helping to organize and to stage large sports competitions, ceremonies, conferences, and exhibitions. In most communities, there were guilds connected with military units, often those linked to the area by long tradition, that brought together older and younger veterans. The Defense Council was active in furthering the public's knowledge of defense issues, and by the late 1980s about 20,000 Finns, prominent locally or nationally, had attended courses under its direction. About 20 percent of those receiving instruction attended a course lasting nearly a month; the remainder attended a one-week course.
The Finnish military establishment had intervened in politics during the Civil War of 1917-18 and during the subsequent clashes between the right and the left wings in the 1920s. In the period preceding World War II, leaders of the armed forces had sought to convince the government and the public to initiate military preparedness for the impending conflict. Since the end of the war, however, the constraints of the 1947 peace treaty and the FCMA treaty, together with the authority asserted by civilian governments, have discouraged direct involvement by the military in politics. The career military were forbidden to join political parties or to run for political office while on active duty. They were, however, permitted to vote and to hold office at local levels, such as membership on municipal boards, which did not require party affiliation.
During the 1980s, the public profile of the senior members of the armed forces was generally low; the leadership confined itself to restrained comments when it felt this was needed to draw attention to the inadequacy of defense appropriations. The impact of the military on issues affecting national security was, nonetheless, significant. Its opinion was highly respected, in part as a legacy of the Winter War and in part as a result of the direct experience of the entire male segment of society with matters of national defense. Observers believed it probable that a large majority of the representatives in the Eduskunta (parliament) held officer commissions in the reserves. Views of the senior commanders were accorded serious attention by top policymakers and legislators. Reserve officer associations in every part of the country formed a strong constituency sympathetic to the interests of the military.
There appeared to be little sentiment among the public that the military enjoyed excessive influence in the Finnish political system. In a survey taken in 1984 concerning the power of various institutions, over 75 percent of those polled felt that the armed forces exercised the right amount of power; only 15 percent thought that they held too much power. In this respect, the public's estimate of the military was more positive than its estimate of any of the other institutions of government and society, except the presidency itself.
Data as of December 1988
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