Trouble at the country club


Kolumni 9.7. Helsinki Timesissa

Finland’s anti-corruption laws are outdated,[:] and it is virtually impossible to show the effect of a given contribution or favour on a particular desired decision that is taken or promoted by elected representatives, writes Heidi Hautala.
IF FINLAND is to be “branded”, then in my view the best brand would be good governance and open government. This is worth far more in the
modern world than Santa Claus and the sauna.

BUT PERHAPS it’s too late now that our top political leaders have done their utmost to destroy the excellent reputation of this country. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs faces a fiercely daunting uphill struggle with its imageimproving projects if it is to compensate for the damages inflicted by the ongoing election funding scandal.

TRANSPARENCY International has now dropped Finland from first position to fifth  in its annual corruption perception index. Of course, this rating is still fantastic on the global scale, as some neighbouring countries manage
to score only 147th place in the race against corruption. However, it is hard to deny that the sudden drop of Finland is a well-deserved punishment for the scandal that has gradually unfolded over the past 14 months.

IT ALL STARTED with an almost unnoticeable accident, when one senior politician explained that he had not declared his election funding as the law requiring this carried no actual sanctions. Imagine what would happen if others were to follow the example of this lawmaker in various walks of life!

THE COUNTRY of Openness should not have been surprised by the fact that the major political parties have been seeking and hiding financial support from organisations and companies that promote specific economic interests. After all, Transparency International pointed out years ago that the openness of election funding in Finland has been at the level of Kazakhstan.
FINNISH laws have been purposely designed with loopholes that help conceal the origin of hundreds of thousands of euros. This has the effect of creating questionable connections between the sponsors and those elected to public offi ce by the population at large. Anti-corruption laws here are outdated, as it is virtually impossible to show the effect of a given contribution or favour on a particular desired decision made or promoted by elected representatives.

A MAJOR innovation by politicians and parties has been to set up associations for channelling and camouflaging contributions. Ironically, these associations usually bear names like “For the Common Good” and “In Support of Our Home Turf”. Several critics have pointed out that this amounts to nothing less than money laundering.

IT ALL SEEMS to come down to the local level where a large number of MPs hold key positions, chairing municipal councils and boards – as if they didn’t have enough to do in parliament. These bodies decide on land use and zoning, and thus create and move fortunes in building rights. Rovaniemi, the official home of Santa Claus, is the town where the link between the sponsors and the municipal decision-makers seems to have been most unsuitably intimate.

FINLAND is proud of its proportional electoral system, in which the citizens always vote for a person, not for the party. As an elected representative I appreciate the contact that this creates with individual constituents. However, the less welcome of this arrangement is that personal campaigns are expensive. They have become wildly expensive, making the whole system resemble an arms race.

CANDIDATES and parties are not at all equally placed in their access to financing from interest organisations and enterprises. In addition, some parties sustain moral principles that function as direct repellents to such money. Full transparency of campaign funding would be conducive to a more level playing field. Daylight is the best disinfectant.

ODDLY, until quite recently no change had been possible despite all candidates suffering from the system – unless they happen to be millionaires. Now due to the mess, laws governing campaign funding have been tightened up remarkably. A big help came from outside the country as recommendations by the anti-corruption group (GRECO) of the Council
of Europe. This is a good reminder that it is not just states like Bulgaria that need support in good governance.

AN OUTSTANDING challenge still lies ahead, as the accountsof the political parties and organisations linked to them remain closed. But investigative journalism has already produced good results: the Centre Party in particular has been exposed as a master of political money laundering. The conservative Coalition Party and the Social Democrats are likely to be the next targets, as they still consistently refuse to explain the origin of large contributions to their budgets for the 2007 parliamentary elections.

IF FINLAND were more like Sweden, Germany or the United Kingdom, a major political crisis would have been the unavoidable finale of this chain of events. My MEP colleague Satu Hassi suggested that new parliamentary elections should be held, a view I fully support. Sadly, a large part of the parliament was bought. It is not just speculation that the corporate sponsors had achieved their secret goal: a business-friendly centre-right coalition that likes to see big shopping malls outside the cities, against all decent planning principles.

WHY DOES this happen here? In case you didn’t already know, Finland is more of a club than a country; perhaps a country club is the best description. All those in positions of influence know each other. The elites work, dine and play together. Mutual interests are easily developed on the golf course or during the annual elk hunting rituals. Need I add that the games around election funding seem to have been intended almost exclusively for males?
TO AVOID inappropriate closeness, commitment to transparency is essential. And not just in principle, but in practice. Finland’s anti-corruption laws are outdated, and it is virtually impossible to show the effect of a given contribution or favour on a particular desired decision that is taken or promoted by elected representatives, writes Heidi Hautala.

Heidi Hautala represents the Green Alliance. She was Chair of the Committee on Legal Affairs in the Finnish Parliament until recently, and will now return
to the European Parliament.