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Coffee and cake, sweets and matchboxes on the wintry Finnish election campaign trail

Coffee and cake, sweets and matchboxes on the wintry Finnish election campaign trail
Finnish Finance Minister Annika Saarikko. (Photo: Thierry Monasse / Getty Images)

Sausages and sweets, or coffee and cake with the finance minister. It’s parliamentary election campaign time in Finland before ballots are cast on 2 April.

And so Finance Minister Annika Saarikko this week came to Joensuu, the North Karelia regional centre in Finland, to chat with and host four fellow Keskusta (Centre) Party candidates for the available MPships – two teachers, one of whom is also part of a group that farms, another farmer and a cardiologist.

Yes, ordinary people, who think they can give something to communities and go out to meet residents at a coffee shop, but also a shopping centre, on the street and the tori (market place).

Simply put, it’s a multi-member constituency system where people vote for candidates – who even within a party compete – and the vote by implication is also for parties, for the available seats determined according to a district’s population size. Undoubtedly the Finnish electoral commission has some convoluted calculations to make for the 200 parliamentary seats representing each of the country’s 15 districts.

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It’s what South Africa’s elections might have resembled if the decision had been for the wholesale electoral reform which the ministerial advisory committee recommended, rather than the narrow technical inclusion of independent candidates. The door is not wholly closed, as the electoral amendment legislation provides for another review after the 2024 elections.

Read more in Daily Maverick: MPs approve electoral legislation for 2024 independents despite misgivings, and IEC needs a new commissioner

At the Joensuu coffee “do”, the around 50-strong audience was mostly on the side of elderly, with a good showing of the young, but not party faithfuls. So no party T-shirts, but an opportunity for people to hang out with the finance minister over coffee and cake – to ask questions, and to meet the local contenders.

No ministerial bodyguards, bag carriers or MC. Or even ministerial hangers-on. Just the minister, standing to talk of taking government closer to the people, and focusing on health provision and education.

Stepping aside to let the party candidates do their own talking, Saarikko returned with a politician’s keen sense of timing to take questions before apologising for dashing off early to catch the only afternoon flight back to Helsinki for a meeting.

A necessary disclosure: My Finnish is pretty much limited to “Anteeksi, en puhu somea (I don’t speak Finnish)”, which I still manage to mess up, and maybe “yksi kahvi, kiitos (A coffee, thanks)”. So I did not understand a single word of that electioneering meeting until it had been translated for me.

finnish election

Finnish Finance Minister Annika Saarikko doing her thing at the Joensuu coffee and cake do she headed for fellow Centre Party candidates to chat to potential voters in the 2 April poll. (Photo: Marianne Merten)

A request from the audience for the finance minister from the Centre Party to ditch the tax on radios for elderly persons was met with a response on how that would not be possible. And tax cuts would simply not be possible, the finance minister told her audience, no matter how much Kokoomus (National Coalition Party) had promised.

Now, for a politician not to make election promises is a curious turn. Refreshing even. Certainly for someone reporting on elections back in South Africa replete with promises that broadly speaking remain the same regardless of political party or election year – jobs, safety, housing, jobs, economic growth, a capable state…

High stakes

In Finland 2023, the stakes are not insignificant; word is the coalition of five, headed by Social Democrat Party Prime Minister Sanna Marin, is done. The conservatives have made much of the prime minister dancing at a private party – no one made similar criticism when the PM was male and middle aged – and not everyone is happy about the health reforms which have many muttering about the near impossibility of getting a doctor’s appointment. 

finnish election

Centre Party candidate Markku Siponen, teacher and involved in farming, got to the ministerial kaffeeklatsch with a bucket of rye flakes for that northern Finnish staple, rye porridge. (Photo: Marianne Merten)

In Joensuu 2023, the Centre Party candidates’ offerings include sweets, matchboxes with a candidate’s face, name and contact details or even a package of rye oats. It’s unlikely to swing votes; everyone offers such. 

At shopping centres on a month-end Saturday, various political party candidates’ support teams in highly visible branded vests thrust baskets of sweets at passers by, or cups of coffee, in -4oC temperatures if you’re lucky, -20oC if you’re not. It’s an opportunity to chat, and do some political spin.

finnish election

Centre Party candidates Jertta Harinen, teacher and postgraduate student, and fellow party contestant Asko Miettinen, handed out matchboxes at the meet and greet. Faces, names, some CV points and contact details all included. (Photo: Marianne Merten)

Before the winter snows, on a market Saturday, different political parties lined up gazebos at the Joensuu tori – handing out coffee, sweets and sausages. Only the Finns Party (Perussuomalaiset), populist right-wingers, offered meats; “it didn’t mean they’d get the vote”, one sausage lover let slip.

It’s the election campaign risk. Just like coffee and cake.

In South Africa in 2023, the traditional caps, T-shirts and maybe the odd unique electioneering offering are set to emerge in what’s been styled a make-or-break kind of poll with much speculation that the governing ANC would drop below the 50% mark.

Already the rough outlines of a 2024 election campaign are emerging, with the State of the Nation Address debate the platform – ANC slating the DA as racist and elitist with the DA slamming the ANC as inefficient and corrupt and the EFF slamming the ANC as incompetent, at least at national level.

Global picture

South Africa is a noisy, robust and, in the factional fissures, a fluid political and electioneering terrain. With so much attention focused inside, South Africa runs the risk of missing the bigger – and definitely the global – picture.

Like elsewhere in Finland, and across Europe, the Ukraine flags fly high on the Joensuu marketplace.

Over the past week, South Africa featured in news outlets from the BBC, the Financial Times and Weltspiegel to Karjalainen for the hosting of the naval exercises with Russia and China, and abstaining from the United Nations General Assembly resolution to end Russia’s war in Ukraine. None of it flattering. 

South Africa will pay a price, at a time it really can’t afford to. So maybe now is the time for a focus on much more qualitative governance – and a 2024 election campaign trail with much fewer promises. DM


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