Democratic elections are one of the fundamental elements of democracy, a basic component of the democratic system, and have exceptional social value as they ensure the right of citizens to participate in the management of the state.
Based on the results of numerous studies conducted in various countries, it has been established that democratic parliamentary elections undoubtedly contribute to the development of democracy as a whole, ensuring legitimate change of power and the possibility of public control over the activities of elected parliamentarians. In turn, this ensures balance and accountability of power to society, and therefore, its political stability.
Democratic parliamentary elections also undoubtedly contribute to the development of civil society and the strengthening of citizens' political culture. They provide an opportunity for citizens to participate in the political life of the country and influence the adoption of important decisions. This develops citizens' activity and interest in the political process, thereby promoting the development of a democratic culture and the establishment of a broad range of democratic values in society.
The constitutional and legal nature of democratic parliamentary elections lies in their recognition and protection as an integral component of the democratic system of the state. Democratic parliamentary elections must be conducted on the basis of universal, equal, and direct suffrage of citizens. Additionally, such elections must be conducted in accordance with the established procedures and norms prescribed by law, with minimal formalities, maximum openness, and transparency. Compliance with the aforementioned requirements ensures the legal certainty of the electoral process and guarantees its fairness and objectivity.
On April 2, 2023, parliamentary elections were held in Finland for the Eduskunta, the unicameral legislative representative body (parliament). The parliamentary election campaign in Finland began on October 2, 2022, and lasted until the day of the official announcement of the election results on April 5, 2023.
The 200 deputies are elected by a proportional representation system in twelve multi-member electoral districts and in the single-member electoral district of the Åland Islands province. Seats are allocated through the d’Hondt method and there is no legal threshold parties must attain in order to gain seats. Ahead of each regular election, the State Council determines the number of seats in each district in proportion to the number of voters, based on the data obtained from the Population Information System, which is administered by the Digital and Population Data Services Agency.
This year, 2,424 candidates nominated by political parties and voter associations competed for seats in parliament in 13 electoral districts.
The international observation mission of the human rights agency WEST SUPPORT INC, accredited by the Ministry of Justice of Finland, carried out observation of the parliamentary elections in Finland in accordance with a short-term mandate during the period from March 31 to April 2, 2023. On the day of the elections, the mission observers selectively visited a limited number of polling stations and were able to comprehensively assess the course of the voting process from the moment of opening the polling stations to the vote counting procedures.
II. LEGAL FRAMEWORK
The preparation and conduct of parliamentary elections are regulated by the Constitution of Finland (731/1999), the Election Act (714/1998), the Act on a Candidate’s Election Funding (273/2009), the Act on Political Parties (10/1969).
III. ELECTION ADMINISTRATION
In accordance with the Law on Elections, the following bodies are responsible for organizing parliamentary elections in Finland within their respective competences: the Ministry of Justice, Constituency Election Committees (CECs), Municipal Central Election Committees (MCECs), Precinct Election Commissions (PECs), election officials, the Digital and Population Data Services Agency, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Ministry of Justice bears overall responsibility for the conduct of elections, coordinates election preparations and issues instructions to other bodies, maintains and develops the election information system. Among other things, the Ministry of Justice is responsible for issuing regulatory acts and instructions to other election administration bodies, maintaining a register of political parties and an Election Data System, determining the budget for elections, and monitoring the printing of election materials. The Ministry of Justice is also responsible for informing voters about important election dates and procedures.
CECs confirms the nomination of candidates in the parliamentary elections and calculates and confirms the election result in the electoral district.
MCECs are permanent bodies serving four-year terms and takes care of the general arrangements of the elections in the municipality. MCECs are responsible for most of the logistical preparations for elections.
PECs are responsible for organizing and conducting voting at specific polling stations. The main duties of the PECs include ensuring the honesty and transparency of the voting process, maintaining order at the polling station, and counting the votes after their closure.
The 13 CECs, 309 MCECs and nearly 2,000 PECs are respectively composed of a chairperson, a deputy chair, and three members representing the political parties with the most seats in the corresponding electoral constituencies and county or municipal councils.
While there are no specific legal requirements for gender representation in the election administration structures, the 1986 Act on Equality between Women and Men requires the representation of at least 40 per cent of either sex in all public institutions.During the visit to polling stations on election day, the observers noted that the composition of the PECs was mostly formed in accordance with the aforementioned ratio.
IV. VOTER REGISTRATION
Every Finnish citizen who has reached the age of 18 not later than on the day of the election is entitled to vote in parliamentary elections. Approximately 4.5 million citizens are eligible to vote for these parliamentary elections.
The Digital and Population Data Services Agency compiles a computer register of everyone entitled to vote (voting register) at the latest 46 days before election day. Voter registration is passive and voter information is extracted from the Population Information System.
The voting register is public and the Digital and Population Data Services Agency give out information from the register by phone or as extracts from day 41 before election day. In addition, everyone in the register is sent a notice of his or her right to vote (card of information) not later than 24 days before election day. The card states among other things the election day, the days for advance voting, a list of the advance polling stations within the electoral district, the name and address of the polling station on election day, and the addresses and telephone numbers of the election authorities.
Voters can check their information and can request corrections, which must be received at least 16 days prior to the election. Decisions can be appealed to provincial administrative courts and the Supreme Administrative Court; its decisions are final. The voter register becomes legally valid 12 days before election day, and amendments after this deadline are only permissible based on a Supreme Administrative Court decision with the Digital and Population Data Services Agency notified of any such decision in order to ensure timely updates in the system.
V. CANDIDATE REGISTRATION
All citizens holding the right to vote can stand for parliamentary elections, with the exception of those who are under guardianship and those who hold military office. The Chancellor of Justice of the Government, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, a Justice of the Supreme Court or the Supreme Administrative Court, and the Prosecutor-General may stand as candidates but are required to resign from their office before being appointed as.
Candidates are nominated by political parties or by constituency associations. In parliamentary elections candidates may be nominated by political parties which have been entered into the party register kept by the Ministry of Justice and constituency associations established by at least 100 persons entitled to vote.
Political parties may form coalitions ahead of elections. There are currently 24 parties registered with the Ministry of Justice.
Each political party and constituency association may nominate at most 14 candidates in every electoral district or, if more than 14 representatives are elected from the district, at most the number of candidates elected. Parties may form electoral alliances, but the number of candidates nominated by an alliance may not exceed the maximum number of candidates for a single party.
Political parties and constituency associations are required to submit their candidate lists to the respective CEC 40 days before the elections. The CECs review the lists and randomly assign candidate numbers 31 days before the elections.
Candidates can only stand in a single constituency. There are no requirements that the candidate be resident in the constituency in which they are standing.
According to official information from the Ministry of Justice, 2424 candidates have been registered for the 2023 parliamentary elections, including:
Electoral district of Helsinki - 293
Electoral district of Uusimaa - 485
Electoral district of Varsinais-Finland - 214
Electoral district of Satakunta - 124
Electoral district of Aland - 15
Electoral district of Häme - 144
Electoral district of Pirkanmaa - 239
Electoral district of South-East Finland - 158
Electoral district of Savo-Karelia - 156
Electoral district of Vaasa - 161
Electoral district of Central Finland - 146
Electoral district of Oulu - 177
Electoral district of Lapland - 112
Pursuant to Section 6 of the Election Act (714/1998) the distribution of MP seats among constituencies, with the exception of the constituency of the province of Aland, is delivered on the basis of the number of Finnish citizens who, according to the population information system, had their domicile in Finland in the relevant constituencies on the last day of October (the last day of the sixth calendar month preceding the election day). The division is made by dividing the number of residents of each constituency by the total number of Finnish citizens in the constituencies and multiplying the number by 199.
One member of parliament is always elected from Åland's electoral district.
The Government's decision (888/2022) has allocated parliamentary mandates for the 2023 parliamentary elections among electoral districts as follows:
in the electoral district of Helsinki - 23
in the electoral district of Uusimaa - 37
in the electoral district of Varsinais-Finland - 17
in the electoral district of Satakunta - 8
in the electoral district of Hame - 14
in the electoral district of Pirkanmaa - 20
in the electoral district of South-East Finland - 15
in the electoral district of Savo-Karelia - 15
in the electoral district of Vaasa - 16
in the electoral district of Central Finland - 10
in the electoral district of Oulu - 18
in the electoral district of Lapland - 6
VI. CAMPAIGN AND CAMPAIGN FINANCE
National legislation does not limit campaigning to an official timeframe and there are no provisions on how candidates and parties’ may campaign. Political parties and candidates conducted pre-election campaigns on social media, print and electronic mass media.
They also actively utilized campaign flyers, brochures, posters, and advertising billboards.
The candidates actively participated in televised debates organized by a reputable broadcaster. In accordance with the declared political programs, the main topics of the pre-election campaign were: inflation, rising energy costs, climate change, as well as the issue of the country's accession to NATO.
Campaign finance is regulated by the Act on Candidate’s Election Funding and the Act on Political Parties. The National Audit office (NAO) is tasked with oversight of political party and campaign financing. All parties represented in the parliament are eligible for public funding in proportion to the number of seats garnered in the most recent elections. In addition to the funding provided by the parties, candidates can fund their own campaigns, take out loans and receive contributions from individuals and legal entities. The Act on Political Parties states that parties may accept foreign campaign contributions from private individuals or from international associations as well as from foundations that promote the same ideology as the candidate.
Contributions from a single donor for parliamentary elections are capped at EUR 6,000 to a candidate and EUR 30,000 to a political party. Anonymous donations are prohibited but, there is no obligation to disclose the source of contributions under EUR 1,500. Campaign finance legislation does not envisage limits on campaign spending, nor does it impose an obligation on contestants to open a dedicated bank account for all campaign incomes and expenditures.
In accordance with the Act on a Candidate´s Election Funding all political parties and candidates elected to parliament are obliged to submit detailed financial reports to the NAO, two months after the elections, covering contributions and spending for the period six months leading up to the elections and two weeks after election day as well as their annual reporting on their regular financial activities. The NAO is vested with sanctioning powers where the necessary documents or information are not submitted, corrected or completed. The NAO publishes all financial reports online and reports to the parliament on the audits of the campaign reports within eight months and on the reports for the regular financial activities of the parties annually.
In order for voters to have access to information on the financing of candidates' pre-election campaigns at the time of making voting decisions, each candidate may, for the purpose of increasing the transparency of election financing, submit a pre-election financing statement. The pre-disclosure information includes a financing plan for the candidate's election and an estimate of the expenses for their campaign, and is submitted online or in a form approved by the NAO.
On the parliamentary elections of 2023, the vast majority of candidates took advantage of this opportunity and pre-disclosed information on the financing of their pre-election campaigns.
The media landscape of Finland is pluralistic and represented by numerous state and private television and radio companies, as well as print media, which provide broad coverage of various political positions and viewpoints. Despite a slight decline in circulation over the past few years, most of the media have their own online platforms that ensure a wide reach of the traditional audience. The public broadcaster YLE (Yleisradio) with four national television channels and a regional network of channels broadcasting in Finnish, Swedish, and Sami languages plays an important role in disseminating diverse political information to all voters. The traditional media landscape also includes a sufficient number of private national television channels.
Clear legislative norms regarding media coverage of election campaigns are absent, and the media are largely self-regulated. The activities of YLE are regulated by the Act on the Public Broadcaster, which requires the public broadcaster to support democracy and the ability of every citizen to participate in the political life of the country by providing a wide range of information, opinions, and discussions, as well as opportunities for interaction, including regarding parliamentary elections. The Act on Political Parties stipulates that state institutions must treat all parties equally. YLE has organized a series of different pre-election programs, including numerous debates with parliamentary and non-parliamentary parties, candidates for parliament, and multilingual discussion shows. Furthermore, YLE website offers a specially developed "Voter Compass" available in six languages, which allows voters to select a suitable candidate and party. The "Voter Compass" is a questionnaire with questions, the answers to which indicate which party and candidate's policies align most with the values of the voter. This helps make a choice without a detailed study of the election programs of political forces.
The Council for Mass Media plays an important role in matters related to the activities of the media, which is a self-regulating independent body that promotes the development of proper journalistic practices and considers complaints about violations of professional ethics. The council's task is to interpret and promote proper professional practices and protect freedom of speech. This body also develops guiding principles for journalists to support responsible and objective reporting.
Every Finnish citizen who reaches the age of 18 years on election day at the latest has the right to vote. The Digital and Population Data Services Agency has sent a notice of right to vote to each eligible voter either by post or electronically via the Suomi.fi service. The notice has been sent electronically to those eligible voters who have activated the Suomi.fi Messages Service and given their consent for official messages to be sent to the service.
The polling station at which the voter has to vote if they choose to vote on election day is stated on the notice of right to vote. A list of the advance polling stations in the voter's own electoral district is also enclosed to the notice.
In the parliamentary elections, voters may vote either on election day, which is Sunday 2 April, or in advance during the advance voting period, which is from 22 to 28 March. Voters may only vote for a person who stands as a candidate in the voter's own electoral district. This electoral district is stated on the notice of right to vote.
Eligible voters may vote in advance at any of the general advance polling stations in Finland or abroad.
The advance voting period for the parliamentary elections begins in Finland on Wednesday 22 March and ends on Tuesday 28 March. Advance voting is conducted abroad between 22 and 25 March, but the voting period is shorter than this at many of the advance polling stations abroad.
Early voting places are:
1) those general advance voting places in the home country, the number and location of which the municipal government decides and which, unless there is a special reason, there must be at least one in each municipality;
2) Finland's representative offices and their places of business regulated by a government decree, as well as general early voting places for regional elections and municipal elections in the province of Åland, regulated by a government decree;
3) hospitals, those providing round-the-clock care and other social welfare operational units determined by the municipal government's decision, penal institutions, as well as the garrisons of the conscript training units of the Defense Forces and the Border Guard's conscript training units (facility ) ;
4) Finnish ships that are abroad when the advance vote is delivered.
In all, voting on election day will take place at close to 2000 polling stations with 900 polling stations operating for advance voting and approximately 200 polling stations in Finnish embassies and consulates abroad.
Persons whose ability to move and function is so restricted that they are unable to go to an advance polling station or an election day polling station without unreasonable difficulty may vote in advance in their own home. Those who wish to vote in advance in their home must notify the central municipal election board of their municipality of this by 16:00 on 21 March. The informal caregiver of a person entitled to vote at home, living in the same household, may under certain conditions also vote at home.
Persons residing or staying abroad for the entire advance voting period and on election day may vote by post from abroad. An eligible voter wishing to vote by post must order the postal voting documents to an address located abroad in advance, cast their vote after receiving the documents, and finally send the ballot to the central municipal election board of their municipality in Finland. Postal votes must arrive at the correct central municipal election board by 19:00 on Friday 30 March.
According to the Ministry of Justice, the voter turnout during early voting was 40.5%, while on the day of the election it was 31.5%.
On election day, voters may only vote at the polling station specified in the notice of right to vote sent to them before the elections. Voters may also search for their election day polling station by entering their home address in the Polling Station Service of the Digital and Population Data Services Agency at https://www.aanestyspaikat.fi.
All polling stations are open on election day from 9:00 to 20:00.
On election day, 10 polling stations in the city of Helsinki (Electoral District of Helsinki) and 1 polling station in the city of Kajaani (Electoral District of Oulu) were selectively visited by the mission observers. In the polling stations visited, the process was generally transparent and efficiently administered. Based on the observation results, all polling stations were located in public places (educational institutions, libraries), had convenient locations and comfortable access. The structure and layout of visited polling stations allowed for independent access by voters with physical disabilities.
Appropriate signs are available in prominent places on the way to the polling stations, which allow voters to confidently navigate to the specific location of the polling station.
The polling stations are equipped with voting booths, the design of which ensures the confidentiality of the vote, as well as ballot boxes.
Despite uneven voter flow, there were no significant queues or gatherings of people arriving to vote at the polling stations, which can be explained by the clear and coordinated work of the precinct election commissions.
There were no cases of delayed opening of polling stations or closing them after 8:00 pm.
However, the mission observers noted that on three out of eleven polling stations, the ballot boxes were not sealed, and on three stations, the sealing tape on the boxes was damaged.
On other polling stations, the ballot boxes were properly sealed with sealing tape of the established pattern.
The requirements for the organization of polling stations are established by the Election Act, as well as the relevant instructions of the Ministry of Justice № 2 (VN|12272/2022).
In accordance with Article 70, Chapter 6 of the Election Act the municipality's central election board must take all measures necessary for the delivery of voting on election day and, for that purpose, among other things, ensure that each election board has at the polling station ballot box and sealing means. The Ministry of Justice takes care of delivering the ballots, the forms needed for the election minutes, sealing equipment and, if necessary, also the ballot boxes to the election boards.
In accordance with § 5.1.2 of Instruction № 2 (VN|12272/2022) issued by the Ministry of Justice at the commencement of the voting procedure, the chairman or vice chairman of the election committee must show the present voters that the ballot box is empty. After this, either: the inner lid of the box is locked and the chairman (or vice chairman) takes possession of one key and another member of the committee takes possession of the other key, or the box is closed by using sealing tape, which is signed by at least the chairman (or vice chairman) and one member of the committee.
Thus, from the mentioned legal norms, it can be concluded that the integrity of the ballot box is ensured by two methods - either by locking it with two keys that are kept by different members of the precinct election commission, or by sealing the ballot box with a tape of the established pattern.
In this regard, the absence of sealing tape on the ballot box does not constitute a violation, provided that such a box is locked with two keys kept by different members of the precinct election commission. At the same time, the presence of visible damage to the sealing tape on the ballot box should obviously raise well-founded doubts about the integrity of such a box for the voter or an independent observer.
The Ministry of Justice was promptly informed about such facts.
In addition, mission observers found that candidate lists posted at polling stations were written in two national languages, Finnish and Swedish, while materials for national minorities, such as the Saami languages, were not provided in their respective languages.
The few vote counts observed by the mission observers were well-organized and followed regulations.
IX. COMPLAINTS AND APPEALS
The Election Act provides expedited recourse for complaints related to the registration of voters, election results and decisions regarding the delimitation of voting districts. Other election-related complaints are dealt with under the Administrative Judicial Procedure Act which does not stipulate strict deadlines for certain parts of the electoral process, such as candidate registration or the composition of electoral commissions, and thus may not provide timely and effective remedy before the end of an electoral process. According to the law, an administrative decision may be appealed to the Administrative Court and further to Supreme Administrative Court whose decisions are final. The right to appeal against the final results of parliamentary and local elections is open to all eligible voters. Appeals must be submitted to the regional administrative courts no later than 14 days after the publication of the results. The decisions of the provincial administrative courts can be further appealed to the Supreme Administrative Court.
However, as practice shows, there are generally very few complaints related to elections that are brought before the courts, and the judicial system itself enjoys complete trust among voters and other participants in the electoral process.
X. CONCLUSIONS AND RECOMMENDATIONS
The electoral process was assessed for compliance with international obligations and standards for democratic elections, and with national legislation. WEST SUPPORT conducts its observation missions, among other things, in accordance with the 2005 Declaration of Principles for International Election Observation and the Code of Conduct for International Election Observers.
The international observation mission of the human rights agency WEST SUPPORT INC did not carry out a systematic or comprehensive election day observation but visited a limited number of polling stations.
In characterizing the parliamentary elections in Finland in 2023, it should be noted that they were highly competitive, polarized, and characterized by a wide political pluralism.
The legal framework for parliamentary elections is conducive to organizing democratic elections. The elections were administered professionally by election management bodies led by the Ministry of Justice, which enjoyed broad public confidence.
Citizens at least 18 years of age have the right to vote and, in line with international standards, the legislation does not restrict the right to vote based on intellectual and psycho-social disabilities or due to imprisonment. The law provides for diverse and inclusive voting methods, including homebound voting, early voting, postal and out-of-country voting as alternatives to in-person voting at regular polling stations.
The media landscape is pluralistic, and the legal framework guarantees the freedoms of expression and access to public information. Political contestants able to freely convey their messages to voters. Both public and private media extensively covered the campaign in their regular news editions and programmes and by organizing debates, enhancing opportunities for voters to develop an informed choice and providing candidates with the possibility to introduce their platforms.
In addition, in the context of the facts presented in the report, it is worth emphasizing and recommending to the Ministry of Justice to introduce more clear and specific regulatory provisions regarding ensuring the integrity of ballot boxes, as well as to pay closer attention to the use of languages of national minorities in the preparation of election materials.
Thus, the parliamentary elections in Finland in 2023 can be characterized as peaceful, open, transparent, and democratic.
The international observation mission of the international human rights agency WEST SUPPORT INC. highly appreciates the government and people of the Republic of Finland for their efforts in successfully holding the parliamentary elections and thereby deepening democratic governance processes in the country, which is undoubtedly a prerequisite and an important political factor in its sustainable socio-economic development.
Commissioner for Human
Rightsof the agency "West support"