Finland's republican constitution combines a parliamentary system with a strong presidency. Legislative powers are vested in the Eduskunta (parliament), a unicameral body established in1906. Members of parliament are elected for four-year terms by proportional representation from 15 multi-member electoral districts under universal suffrage at age 18. Finland was the first country in Europe to grant suffrage to women in national elections (1906). After the 2003 elections nine parties are represented, but the five largest (and traditional) parties share 181 seats. The 1994 presidential election was the first direct presidential vote since the country gained independence in 1917. Previously voters selected slates of electors who then chose the president. Currently the president is elected directly in a two-stage vote. If no candidate gets a majority in the first round, a second round is held between the two candidates with the largest first round totals. The president is elected for a six-year term.
Finland's political system traditionally has been more like the French than most other European parliamentary democracies because of the division of executive power between the president and the prime minister. The president is the constitutionally designated head of state that appoints the cabinet, serves as commander-in-chief of the armed forces and, until recently, had primary responsibility for foreign policy. Traditionally, Finnish presidents have been responsible for foreign policy and remained neutral on domestic issues. During the Cold War, Finnish presidents had a special role in reassuring the USSR of Finnish good intentions. The president serves as commander-in-chief, appoints the prime minister and cabinet as well as other high-ranking civil servants. The president previously had the power to dissolve the legislature and order new elections, initiate legislation, and issue decrees. The president could veto legislation by not signing a bill, but if the Eduskunta after a general election passed it again without amendment, it became law.
On 1 March 2000, a new Finnish constitution entered into force. The new constitution increases the power of the parliament in relation to the government (cabinet) and increases the power of the government in relation to the president. The power of the Finnish presidency has been circumscribed in rather dramatic fashion while the power of the prime minister has increased. In the past, the Finnish president had the right to intervene in the formation of the government and to dissolve a recalcitrant government. Under the new constitution, the president only formally appoints the prime minister and is bound by the decisions derived from negotiations among the parliamentary groups. Party leaders with the most seats in parliament select the prime minister, in a complex bargaining process. The president appoints other ministers on the recommendation of the prime minister. The president may accept the resignation of a government or minister only in the event of a vote of no confidence by the parliament. In addition, under the new constitution, the government is more responsible to the parliament. For instance, the government must submit its program to parliament immediately after being appointed so that the parliament may take a vote of confidence in the government. Foreign and security policy have become shared responsibilities between the president and the government, with the prime minister and foreign minister taking an active role in formulating a consensus approach to Finnish foreign policy. The government, not the president, now has responsibility over issues related to EU affairs, given the impact of much European law on domestic legislation. The parliament has created a "Grand Committee" to scrutinize EU matters and to ensure parliament's influence on EU decision-making
Since 1945 no single party has ever held an absolute parliamentary majority, so all cabinet or governmental decisions involve coalitions. The cabinet is composed of the heads of government ministries and has as its primary responsibility the preparation of governmental budgets and legislation and the administration of public policies. The prime minister and cabinet serve only so long as they enjoy the support of a working majority in parliament, and there have been frequent changes of government.
Women are fairly well represented in both the executive and legislative branches of government in Finland. Women hold 38% of the seats in the 200-member Eduskunta and there were 8 women among the 18 cabinet members in 2003. Women have held top leadership positions, including Defense Minister (Elisabeth Rehn) and Foreign Minister (Tarja Halonen) and Speaker of Parliament. In February 2000, Finns elected Tarja Halonen their first female president. Anneli Jäätteenmäki was named prime minister following elections in March 2003.