Finnish political abstinence

///Helsinki Times

Finland has a solid Nordic tradition of open government, going back to the country’s long history as a part of Sweden until 1809. We Finns should be particularly proud, as a Finnish member of the Swedish riksdag, Anders Chydenius from Kokkola, forced through the constitutional principle of freedom of information in the Swedish empire in 1766. As a proponent of open government in Europe and the world, I never fail to mention the name of this persistent friend of transparency. Due to his efforts every citizen gained the right to go to the registry of a public authority and fi nd out which documents had been sent and received.[:]

The European Union turned its principle of more-or-less secret government upside down during 1990s. Today we have a modern version of Chydenius’ achievement: everyone can study public registers of documents on the websites of the EU institutions. Often one can click directly into the document, or apply for it in case it is not directly accessible. The institution must always base its refusal to disclose the document on the exceptions written into law.

The citizen can go to court if he or she is not happy with the arguments. In fact, I once did this and won a nice victory over the mighty Council of Ministers. The Council even had to pay the bill from my lawyer, and of course behave more transparently from then on.

Transparency has become a Nordic export product to countries which suffer from bad administration and corruption. It is in fact by far the cheapest way to control the use of public powers and money.

Now I realize that it is time to worry about transparency at home. Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen was reported to have sent an e-mail during the summer holidays to the members of his government. They were told not to answer “opinion polls” conducted by the media.

I might have agreed with him, if the issue had just been about the rather simplistic questionnaires regularly sent to every MP or minister, in order to publish the decision in the media before any decision is actually taken. This practice is not compatible with the need to collect information and think before reaching an informed decision. It is often quite unwise that the decision-maker should bind his or her hands at the preparatory stage.

So far so good with Vanhanen’s e-mail to the ministers.

However, if one combines his “prohibition” with a few other statements of his, there is reason to be deeply concerned. Namely, Vanhanen wishes that his government always speaks with one common voice in order to show its strength. It’s a nice idea for any prime minister, isn’t it? This unanimity seems, however, to require that ministers practice abstinence from public debate on political matters which are not yet fixed, or which happen to belong to the competence of a ministerial colleague.

Now we are close to sacrificing the very essence of democracy. For me democracy is all about debate, discourse, learning from one another. Democracy and openness are inseparable.

I cannot see that we would have too much public debate in Finland. Compared with Sweden, the difference is already remarkable. Here in Finland the media has, at times, had to encourage politicians to participate in political debate, as strange as it may sound.

In a country of multi-party coalition governments it is crucial that the various ruling parties present their views in public before the government has taken any action. I think that Tarja Cronberg (Greens), my party leader and Minister of Labour, was right to express her doubts about the wisdom of sending weapons to the government of Afghanistan, which she did some time ago. It is hard to see that this would violate the work of her colleague Jyri Häkämies (National Coalition
Party), the Minister of Defence.

Quite the opposite. When ministers shed light on decisions to be taken in the future, the public is invited to participate. Participation in decision-making is a fundamental right of every citizen enshrined in the Finnish constitution. Participation is by definition only possible when there is access to information on matters which are not yet fixed.

Some eurocrats wanted to stop the “interference” of citizens in decision-making a few years ago when the EU transparency regulation was being shaped. The Commission spoke of the need for “space to think” and argued for restrictions in access to information in the preparatory stage. Let us hope that we will not fi nd these antidemocratic restrictions here at home soon.

Vanhanen`s e-mail from his well-deserved summer holidays is symptomatic in another sense as well. The inquiry which he particularly wanted to stop was on whether or not the fi les originating from the archives of the secret police of the former German Democratic Republic concerning Finnish citizens should finally be made accessible to a group of experts for evaluation, and afterwards to the public. The matter has been discussed in the country now and then for many years now.

The secret data is preserved in the safe of the Finnish security police Supo, and is only waiting for the political decision to reveal which of the listed politicians were active informers or simply well-meaning silly fools or rather victims of Stasi. It would be a great relief to stop the speculation and shed light on which politicians were too intimately linked with the Stasi.

So far all Finnish governments – whether with or now without the social democrats who are said to have been the most actively engaged with the Stasi – have failed in this test of openness. The present Minister of Interior, Anne Holmlund, even recently failed to admit that the files are in the possession of the Finnish security police Supo (which she is, by the way, supposed to control).

One cannot avoid the impression that the spirit of “Finlandisation” from the cold war is still alive and well in the country. The Finnish elites often perform the role of the “Man without a Past” from Aki Kaurismäki’s famous film. There is a special reluctance to come to terms with the political inheritance of the 1970s. Things obviously went far too far in the search for a “peaceful coexistence” with our big neighbour, the Soviet Union.

Fortunately the speaker of the Finnish Parliament, Sauli Niinistö, has stated that the question is not about opinion polls, but about whether the nation has the right to know its past. He tells the government to take the matter seriously. I have a reason to believe that he is serious and I will support him in his further action. It would be a great relief to stop the speculation and shed light on which politicians were too intimately linked with the Stasi. So far all Finnish governments have failed in this test of openness.