What do the Norway killings mean for Finland?

With utter disbelief have I and many others followed the news of the killings in Norway. Not all facts are known yet, but it becomes increasingly clear that this was a politically motivated attack of a new quality from a right-wing extremist.

When initial reports of the Oslo bombings hit the news wires some “terror experts” were quick to point out that this looks like another act of al Qaeda. The USA quickly offered help in the investigation. Nobody thought that this massive destruction right in front of the office of Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg was only a diversion – yet it seems to have been exactly that. While the police and medical personnel rushed to secure the centre of Oslo the attacker turned to his actual target – the Social Democratic Youth’s summer camp on an island nearby. At least 80 people died there.

The alleged killer was not a fanatic islamist. In fact, he was a fanatic Islam hater and known for his right-wing extremism. Incredible as it seems it apparently was his goal to hurt the biggest political party in the country, his opponents, by killing their entire next generation of leaders. This is certainly a new dimension of extremism, and a very sad one.

What implications does this have for Finland? I hope no immediate ones. But as is often the case with new types of atrocities – some maniac might try to imitate this. In all of the Nordic countries political extremism has been on the rise in the last couple of years – not the least in Finland. This country had more than its fair share of school and shopping mall shootings already. It’s not unthinkable that politically motivated violence is on the rise now that it has become socially accepted to verbally bash people with different opinions.

In fact, there have been two politically motivated terror attacks in Finland already this spring/summer. Anarchists have planted a bomb in the Helsinki district of Pasila – it did not go off. The same group of people have also burned down a safety facility along the railway line in Vantaa’s Rekola area. Nobody was hurt, but train traffic was disrupted for several days. Had this been a plot by foreigners the reaction would have certainly been much harsher like stricter controls and laws. Instead, the police issued a warning to the anarchists: setting electrical equipment on fire might be dangerous – for the attacker.

It’s time to act properly when it comes to people who spread violence. It’s time to speak up against extremists. The influx of new members to political parties in Finland is a good sign. Let’s hope they keep their courage and won’t be deterred by deadly attacks on their gatherings.

Today my heart goes out to everybody in Norway who lost a friend, child, colleague or relative in this incomprehensible tragedy.

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How to balance the budget with a six-pack

Finland finally has a new government. That’s the good news. But that’s about it. The agreed government agenda fails to address the most urgent problems of reducing the budget deficit and encouraging economic growth.

The election result made the formation of a new government exceptionally difficult, and for the first time since the continuation war Finland ended up with a 6-party coalition. The biggest bone of contention during the negotiations was the state budget. While the National Coalition Party (NCP) used estimates of the finance ministry and the OECD that Finland would run a deficit of about 8 billion euros during the next parliamentary term if nothing changed the Social Democrats (SDP) and the Left Alliance put their estimates below 1 billion euros. In the end they compromised not quite in the middle at 2.6 billion.

This is completely irresponsible. It means that Finland’s debts will continue to increase during a period of economic growth (estimate: 3-4%). This parliamentary term would have provided the last chance to correct the structural budget deficit before the country’s workforce will start to shrink towards the end of the decade. One would think that the current debt crisis of some Eurozone countries and the United States has made it sufficiently clear how dangerous this development is…

The new government claims that they will achieve their unambitious goal by both raising tax income and cutting spending in equal parts. That is not really the case, though. About half of the spending cuts in the state budget are reductions in monetary transfer to municipalities. Only if the municipalities chose to compensate 100% of these income losses by reducing their own expenses will the end result be half tax hikes and half spending cuts on a nation-wide level. It is much more likely though that cities and communities will partly reduce their expanses, partly increase taxes (90% expect to do that) and partly just take on more debt. So most likely the overall decrease in debt increase will be even less than expected.

Out of the remaining actual savings most cuts are planned in the education sector. This is particularly ironic as it reduces the chances for coming generations to pay back the debt that is being accumulated right now.

Many commentators agree that this is a very leftist government programme. Left Alliance leader Paavo Arhinmäki said that never before in his life has he seen such a socially oriented agenda. The SDP scored the most important ministries, in particular the finance ministry. It will be interesting to see how party leader Jutta Urpilainen will handle the implementation of these measures as finance minister. She has already started to contradict herself. While during the government formation process she insisted that the expected deficit was less than 1 billion over the next four years, after she was sworn in she claimed that the she inherited a budget deficit of 8 billion from the previous government – the exact same figure that the new prime minister Jyrki Katainen had put forward.

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Brown ID cards are not a yellow star

“Racism! Yellow star on the chest!” commentators are crying over the new colour scheme for ID cards with blue cards being issued for Finnish citizens and brown ones for foreign residents. For once I think the outcry is unjustified and in fact based on a misunderstanding.

The new ID card, version for foreigners

The new ID card, version for foreigners

It is understandable that in the current political climate actions like these tend to raise additional attention, but colour-coding of ID cards is nothing new. In fact, I have been possessing a Finnish ID card for about two years. Its beautiful red colour means that its holder is a foreigner and that it cannot be used as a travel document. My Finnish friends have a nice white version of the card that can be used for crossing borders. The reason why I and many others paid 40€ for it is that many stores and institutions require a card with picture and social security number, and this is the best option.

So why are many media outlets reporting that this is a big change? The original press release issued by the police has it right: red foreigner cards will be brown from June onwards. Wow, big deal. Then YLE and Helsingin Sanomat both reported it in a way that made it sound like the colours for foreigners will now start to be different than for citizens…

I for one applaud that Finland is issuing those ID cards to non-citizens at all. Not all countries do that. However, what I would really like to see is a EU-wide ID card that would be the same for all EU citizens. Passports are standardized, why not ID cards?

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Is positive discrimination positive or discrimination?

Lately there has been a lot of discussion about racism and positive discrimination in the Finnish political scene. The whole affair was started by an anti-racism declaration proposed by the Perussuomalainen parliamentary group, but I did not want to write about them yet again. However, now the idea got support from the youth organization of Kokoomus as well.

The background story: for some reason many people accused the Perussuomalaiset of racism, so they wanted to show that they are, in fact, not racists by drafting a declaration for the other parties to sign that condemns all forms of discrimanation. In the paper they are also condemning all forms of positive discrimination which means giving certain advantages to some groups. The text was produced by none other than Jussi Halla-aho, pronounced immigration critic and apparently a very gifted writer. In fact, the PS parliamentary group did not even notice the hot issue he was bringing up when voting on it, according to a statement by group leader Pirkko Ruohonen-Lerner in HBL (not available online).

Today the youth organization of Kokoomus came out with a statement that calls for the abolition of all positive discrimination as well, even calling this racism. They immidiately received criticism from their own party, namely education minister Henna Virkkunen and MP Lasse Männistö. They point out that the Kokoomusnuoret themselves receive funding based on the criteria that they are young (to enhance political participation of young people) and that they have been campaigning for measures that would fall under their definition of discrimination, e.g. special benefits for young people and war veterans.

To me the definition of what makes for discrimination or positive discrimination is not very clear and I don’t think that laws are a particularly good instrument to deal with either. For example, are special measures to promote the position of women – who make up for a little bit more than half the population – positive discrimination? Are they just discrimination against men (=minority)? Or are they just a temporary means against a practical imbalance in certain areas?

Either way, I have a hard time believing the Halla-aho would write a declaration that just purely condemns racism without any secondary motive. And sure enough, he writes on the Homma-Forum that the point of this exercise was to get their political counter-part (SFP, the Swedish People’s Party of Finland), to take a stance on the declaration and then use it against them when it comes to special quotas for Swedish studies at the University of Helsinki. Also the Kokoomusnuorten chairman Wille Rydman is talking about “quotas that have raised tentions between different groups”, possibly refering to the same thing. Which makes me wonder: is the change of the status of the Swedish language in Finland once again such an important aim for these people that they are even willing to “compromise” their reputation for it?

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The scary and fascinating currency of the future

I think the Internet is one of the greatest achievements of humankind and I have always defended its independence and at times slightly anarchic characteristics. Its latest by-product, however, is nothing short of scary and fascinating at the same time: a global anonymous non-traceable currency.

Most people probably have not heard of the term “Bitcoin” yet, but chances are that this might change pretty soon. Bitcoin is a decentralized virtual currency based on a peer-to-peer architecture and a really nifty cryptographic algorithm. It is an open source project with one of the core developers being Martti Malmi from the Aalto University.

Here is a short explanatory video by the project team:

So, Bitcoins live on your computer and can be verified against the network. There is no central authority like a central bank that issues them and the governments are not able to control it. If Bitcoins or a similar currency take off widely this could completely change governance, economy and public order as we know it. It provides a perfect mechanism for money laundry, illegal transactions and tax evasion, but it also has serious advantages like making banks redundant, preventing governments from printing money or manipulating markets as well as introducing a truly global means of exchange. More knowledgable people than me, like internet entrepreneur Jason Calacanis , have spent their time researching this issue and came to this conclusion:

After month of research and discovery, we’ve learned the following:

1. Bitcoin is a technologically sound project.
2. Bitcoin is unstoppable without end-user prosecution.
3. Bitcoin is the most dangerous open-source project ever created.
4. Bitcoin may be the most dangerous technological project since the internet itself.
5. Bitcoin is a political statement by technotarians (technological libertarians).
6. Bitcoins will change the world unless governments ban them with harsh penalties.

I highly recommend reading his article. It is fascinating. I think that actually his last point is going to happen: law makers will try to fight currency systems like these vigorously.

The founder of the original Swedish Pirate Party, Rick Falkvinge, thinks that eventually the attempts to shut down cryptocurrencies will fail similar to crack downs on peer-to-peer technology for file sharing. In his blog post he outlines the consequences of a non-traceable currency: current forms of income and wealth taxation will not be enforceable if the government cannot see how much you earn or possess. Instead he suggests replacing these personal taxes with a higher VAT tax rate and introducing a basic income for all citizens to alleviate the unbalanced effects of such a flat tax. I don’t think his proposal is going to work, though, because eventually the value-added tax will not be enforceable either.

I will follow this topic further because I don’t feel I have understood the concept and its consequences to the full extent. But it does seem that crypto-currencies like Bitcoin have a huge potential to be a global game changer, for the good and bad.

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Is Europe disintegrating?

Bureaucracy and the European Union are unfortunately synonyms for quite a lot of people from all walks of life. I was hoping that the advantages of European integration would become more appreciated if for some reason they could not any more be taken for granted. It seems that now this theory is going to be put to the test.

The two biggest projects to date that make the EU (or most of it) so attractive and powerful are the freedom of travelling and the monetary union. Both of them are struggling to some extent at the moment.

The growing debts of many Euro states have led to a crisis that puts the stability of the common currency into question. Suddenly it seems possible that countries like Greece would leave the Euro zone and reintroduce their own denomination, even if the political leaders try to suppress this discussion. The support for the Euro is declining in several countries.

While the above has been on the horizon for over a year the attacks on the Schengen treaty have come as a surprise to me. First it was the founding members Italy and France that started to demand treaty changes in order to deal with refugees from Northern Africa. This week Denmark decided to reintroduce controls at its borders with Germany and Sweden. Even commissioner Cecilia Malmström is thinking about allowing suspension of the Schengen treaty in more situations than currently.

Combine this with growing nationalistic tendencies in general and you can easily get the impression that not only European integration has come to a halt since the establishment of a constitution for Europe has failed. Indeed the EU is starting to disintegrate.

I can only hope that this serves as a wake-up call, at least for the younger generation who have grown up as Europeans and do not even know a world any more where you had to show a passport when visiting your neighbours.

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16 parliamentarians would not have passed citizenship test

At least 16 out of the 200 members of the Finnish parliament can consider themselves lucky to have Finnish parents. Had they been immigrants their citizenship application would most likely have been rejected because of the punishable offences they have committed.

Only Finnish citizens can stand in parliamentary elections. While I assume that all of the MPs do fulfil the period of residence and language skill requirements some articles in today‘s press seem to suggest that a hypothetical citizenship application would have been rejected, at least initially, for failing the integrity requirement. The Immigration Service writes on their web site:

Integrity is one of the requirements for naturalisation. If you have committed a punishable offence, you do not meet the integrity requirement. An on-the-spot fine for a petty offence is not an obstacle to naturalisation. However, if you have received several day-fines, a waiting period may be ordered for you during which you will not be able to acquire citizenship without justifiable grounds

Among the MPs who have received substantial fines are several high profile figures like Jan Vapaavuori (kok), Housing Minister in the outgoing government. He has been convicted of assault, theft and driving under the influence of alcohol and has even received a suspended jail sentence. Sirkka-Liisa Anttila (kesk), Minister of Agriculture, received a suspended sentence, too, for a false statement in court. Kimmo Sasi (kok) who held several ministerial posts in the past has been fined for causing a deadly traffic accident.

Out of the 16 MPs in question 7 belong to the “True Finns” (Perussuomalaiset), amongst others the vice chairman of the party Pentti Oinonen. This is particularly peculiar because the party would like to tighten immigration criteria and clamp down on criminals. And yes, the yellow press’ new darling among Finnish politicians, Teuvo Hakkarainen (ps), is also on the list, twice: for handing over a vehicle to a drunk person and for cutting down trees without permission.

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Meet Teuvo Hakkarainen, newly elected MP

So far the Finnish political scene has refrained from demonizing the True Finns (Perussuomalaiset, PS). Extremist populist parties rising in popularity had a harder time in other European countries. Swedish politicians try to exclude the “Sweden Democrats” (Sverigedemokraterna) wherever they can. When Austria’s FPÖ entered the government other EU countries even tried to exclude the country’s whole government from certain meetings. With little success, mind you. I am actually happy that such a thing is not happening in Finland. The people have voted as they have and treating the “True Finns” differently and changing the rules would only help their cause of complaining about how far politicians are from ordinary people’s lives.

However, sticking to the rules means having to make painful concessions. This week the PS took over the chairmanship of several important parliamentary committees. The administrative committee, which also is in charge of immigration policies, is now chaired by the most outspoken immigration critic Jussi Halla-Aho. The committee of foreign affairs is headed by EU-critic and party leader Timo Soini, while Jussi Niinistö – who had announced earlier that he considers closing down the country’s only Swedish-speaking garrison in Dragsvik – becomes the head of the defence committee.

On the other side, having so many new and inexperienced politicians in their ranks is certain to provide colourful stories which might make their voters think twice if this is really how they wanted to be represented. Take the case of Teuvo Hakkarainen. It should be noted that this is not one of the many representatives who made it into the Eduskunta thanks to the slew of votes that Timo Soini received in Uusimaa. Hakkarainen collected 3371 personal votes in his home province of Keski-Suomi, putting him in second place on his party’s candidates list there.

On his first day as member of parliament a reporter from the daily Helsingin Sanomat interviewed him. In the video interview Hakkarainen complains about “niggers” seeking asylum and about the shouting from Minarets:

The thing is: there is not a single Minaret in Keski-Suomi that could wake him up at 5 o’clock in the morning. In fact, there is only one proper mosque in Finland, in Järvenpää, and shouting from there is not permitted.

That is not his only position that seems to conflict with reality, though. Hakkarainen, as many others in his party, would like to reduce the decision-making powers of the EU, and in particular monetary transfers to troubled countries like Greece, Portugal and Ireland. Today, Ilta-Sanomat wrote that Hakkarainen’s sawmill company, Oy Haka-Wood Ab, which he owns together with relatives, received 461 750 Euros from the EU’s Regional Development Fund. I suppose he does not mind money transfers in this case…

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Politics is not a spectator sport

Dave Meslin, a community activist from Toronto, Canada, has recently held a talk at TEDx in which he claims that most people are not apathetic when it comes to politics, but they are at times actively discouraged to get involved. Watch his entertaining talk below, it only takes 7 minutes.

TED is an amazing conference series. I highly recommend browsing through their archive.

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How much is a party member “worth”?

In the week following the parliamentary elections basically all relevant Finnish parties saw a surge in new membership applications – yet another sign that politics in this country are going through a fundamental change.

Let’s have a look at how efficiently these parties have managed to rake in votes. This cannot be measured yet in terms of money spent per vote received because not all candidates have declared their campaign finances yet. However, it is already clear that budgets have been smaller than in the 2007 elections – partly a result of the campaign financing scandals.

Money is not the only resource that parties rely on, though. I would say people are more important than money! So here are the number of votes received and the number of party members for all of the parties that managed to get a seat in parliament:

Party votes members
National Coalition Party (kok) 599 138 41 000
Social Democratic Party (sdp) 561 558 50 000
True Finns (ps) 560 075 5 000
Centre Party (kesk) 463 266 163 000
Left Alliance (vas) 239 039 9 100
Green League (vih) 213 172 4 600
Swedish People’s Party (sfp) 125 785 28 000
Christian Democrats (kd) 118 453 13 000

A couple of observations: obviously the True Finns did really well. The number of party members has yet to catch up with their rapidly risen popularity. The Centre’s big losses look even more appalling in the light of these numbers: each party member could only mobilize just under three voters – including himself!

Another interpretation of this “human resources efficiency” chart could be how close to their absolute minimum support these parties have performed. This would mean that Keskusta and SFP will most likely not be doing much worse in the future while Perussuomalaiset and Greens still have potential for decline. However, this would assume that party membership doesn’t change much – but that is not the case, as mentioned in the introduction. Particularly the Greens seem to be recruiting a lot of new members these days, over 1000 in the past week alone.

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