Four major partisan groupings have dominated political life in Finland, although none commands a majority position among the electorate. The Finnish Social Democratic Party (Suomen Sosialidemokraattinen Puolue—SDP) was organized in 1899 but did not become a significant political force until 1907, following the modernization of the country's parliamentary structure. Swedish-speaking Socialists have their own league within the SDP. The party's program is moderate, and its emphasis on the partial nationalization of the economy has in recent decades given way to support for improvement of the condition of wage earners through legislation. The SDP has generally worked closely with the trade union movement and has been a vigorous opponent of communism.
The Center Party (Keskusrapuolue—KESK; until October 1965, the Agrarian League—Maalaisliitto) was organized in1906. While initially a smallholders' party, it has won some support from middle and large landowners but virtually none from nonagricultural elements. In an effort to gain a larger following in urban areas, the party changed its name and revised its program in 1965. In February 1959, an Agrarian League splinter party, the Finnish Small Farmers' Party, was formed; in August 1966, it took the name Finnish Rural Party (Suomen Maaseudun Puolue—SMP). The Liberal People's Party (Liberaalinen Kansanpuolue—LKP) was formed in December 1965 as a result of the merger of the Finnish People's Party and the Liberal League; in 1982, the LKP merged with the KESK. Esko Aho, leader of the KESK, served as prime minister from 1991 to 1995.
The National Coalition Party (Kansallinen Kokoomus—KOK), also known as the Conservative Party, was established in 1918 as the successor to the conservative Old Finnish Party. Its program, described as "conservative middle-class," has traditionally emphasized the importance of private property, the established church, and the defense of the state.
The Finnish Christian League (Suomen Kristillinen Liitto—SKL), founded in 1958, was formed to counter the increasing trend toward secularization and is usually found on the political right with the KOK.
The Swedish People's Party (Svenska Folkpartiet—SFP), organized in 1906 as the successor to the Swedish Party, has stressed its bourgeois orientation and the need for protecting the common interests of Finland's Swedish-speaking population.
The Finnish People's Democratic League (Suomen Kansan Demokraattinen Liitto—SKDL) represents the extreme left. Emerging in 1944, and illegal before then, the SKDL was a union of the Finnish Communist Party (organized in 1918) and the Socialist Unity Party. The SKDL had urged close relations with the former USSR and the Communist bloc, but in recent years it has moderated its demands for the establishment of a "people's democracy" in Finland. In 1986, a minority group within the SKDL was expelled; for the 1987 elections, it established a front called the Democratic Alternative (DEVA). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the SKDL in May 1990 merged with other left parties to form the Left Alliance (Vasemmistoliitto—VL).
The Greens, an environmentalist alliance, won four seats in the Eduskunta in 1987, although they were not formally organized as a political party.
From the end of World War II until 1987, Finland was ruled by a changing center-left coalition of parties that included the SDP, KESK, SKDL, LKP, SFP, and SMP. The government formed on 30 April 1987 included seven members of the KOK, including the prime minister, Harri Holkeri; eight from the SDP; two from the SFP; and one from the SMP. Conservative gains in the 1987 election put non-Socialists in their strongest position in parliament in 50 years. Following the general election of March 1991, the Center Party led by Esko Aho emerged as the largest single party in parliament. A new four-party, center-right coalition was formed composed of the Center Party, the National Coalition Party, the Swedish People's Party, and the Finnish Christian League.
The victory by the SDP in the 1995 parliamentary elections ended the reign of the right-center coalition that held control during four years of economic stagnation. The SDP's leader, Paavo Lipponen, became Finland's new prime minister in April1995. Lipponen fashioned a "rainbow coalition" following the March 1995 elections that included the following: the Social Democratic Party (with Lipponen as Prime Minister), the National Coalition Party, the Left Alliance, the Swedish People's Party, and the Green League. In opposition were the Center Party, the Finnish Christian League, the Young Finns, the Ecology Party, the True Finns, and the Åland Island's Party representative.
The parliamentary election in 1999 reflected a mixture of discontent and continuity. A cooling economy (caused by Russia's economic collapse in 1998), the opposition's plans for radical tax cuts, and controversy about EU policies dominated the campaign. Opposition leader (and former prime minister) Aho promised radical tax and economic policy changes. He could govern only if he succeeded in prying the Conservatives out of Lipponen's coalition. SDP party scandals over privatization of the telecommunications sector and other issues threatened the otherwise impressive performance of the rainbow coalition that many thought would not survive the full parliamentary term.
The outcome of the 1999 elections was a setback for the Social Democrats, whose share of the votes declined from 28.3% in 1995 to 22.9% in 1999. The SDP parliamentary delegation declined from 63 to 51. The Conservatives advanced from 17.9% of the vote in 1995 (and 39 seats) to 21% in 1999 (and 46 seats). The three smaller coalition parties continued to share 42 seats among them. The opposition Centrists advanced modestly from19.9 to 22.4% of the vote (gaining four seats for a total of 48). The SDP remained the largest parliamentary group, and Lipponen retained the right to renew his coalition, making it the longest-serving government in Finnish history.
The elections of 2003 were colored by disagreements between Lipponen's Social Democrats and the Center Party led by Anneli Jäätteenmäki. Jäätteenmäki accused Lipponen of closely aligning Finland with the US position on forcibly disarming Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Jäätteenmäki's criticisms were popular with voters, and the Center Party emerged with 24.7% of the vote to take 55 seats in the Eduskunta. The representation of the other parties in parliament in 2003 was as follows: SDP, 22.9% (53 seats); KOK, 18.5% (40 seats); the Left Alliance, 9.9% (19 seats); the Greens, 8%, (14 seats); the Christian Democrats, 5.3% (7 seats); the People's Party, 4.6% (8 seats); the agrarian True Finns Party, 1.6% (3 seats); and the representative from the Åland Island's Party held one seat. Jäätteenmäki formed a coalition government with the Social Democratic Party and the Swedish People's Party.