October 18, 2019

Nordic ideals of Estonia and Finland: a longing for a strong leader sets Finland and Estonia apart from Scandinavia

The political cultures of Estonia and Finland have moved closer to one another, but differ somewhat from Scandinavian countries.
The political cultures of Estonia and Finland have moved closer to one another, but differ somewhat from Scandinavian countries.

Finland joined Nordic cooperation in the 1930s and has valued being part of the Nordic countries ever since. Estonia has striven to be a member of the prestigious Nordic club since the 1990s. Today, the political cultures of Finland and Estonia share a surprisingly large number of common features, although there are also differences. The entrenchment of democratic values among citizens is at a good average European level in both, but lower than in other Nordic countries.

Democratic values and personal freedoms have a central role in the Nordic identity. The US International Republican Institute (IRI) and the French think tank Fondapol recently published the results of an extensive survey assessing the values and attitudes to their country’s political system among the citizens of 42 Western democracies (the survey was published on the Fondapol website, fondapol.org). According to the survey, two-thirds of both Finnish and Estonian citizens think that democracy works well in their respective countries. For example in Hungary, only 24% of the respondents were of the same opinion. In Finland and Estonia, voting in elections is quite broadly considered a meaningful channel of influence, and political freedoms are valued. Furthermore, people are quite optimistic about their future on both sides of the Gulf of Finland.

A factor that stands out in both Finland and Estonia but is missing in Scandinavian countries is a longing for a strong leader. Forty-four per cent (44%) of Estonians and 42% of Finnish respondents thought it desirable to have a strong leader who need not be concerned about the parliament or elections. The same opinion is shared by 34% of the citizens of EU Member States on average, but by much fewer in Scandinavian countries. These numbers are matched with extraordinarily high support for the president in Finland and a longing for a stronger institution of presidency among many Estonians. These results are, of course, contrary to the aforementioned high valuations of the democratic form of government. People’s value judgments do not make up a logical whole.

The survey paints a rather mixed picture of Europe’s democratic culture. In broad terms, the democratic state order stands on the weakest foundation in south-east Europe, including the Visegrád and Balkan countries, but also in politically unstable Italy. Scandinavian countries among others have the highest valuations of democracy. Democracy is weakening around the world, but still strong in most European countries.

The most alarming result of the survey is that the younger generation in many Western countries has a lower opinion of democracy compared to their parents and grandparents. These views probably stem from high youth unemployment rates in many countries and the economic uncertainty and poor future outlook perceived by young people. People expect democracy to deliver welfare and social justice. If an increasing share of citizens feel that the existing state order cannot provide these goods, they start to think whether another system, such as a strong leader or expert power, would be a better alternative.

Over half of young Estonian citizens under 35 favour the view that only people having ‘sufficient knowledge’ should have voting rights. In Finland, 42% of youth share the same opinion. The idea is much less supported by older age groups in both countries. These opinions may be due to the frustration caused by the rise of populists that belittle expertise. Such views are, of course, contrary to the fundamental principles of democracy.

The survey results indicate that Estonians aspire towards Nordic ideals. For example, gender equality is supported by 93% of the respondents. Yet the actual situation in Estonia is far from that of the Nordic countries and there is little interest in Estonia in the reduction of structural gender inequality. On the other hand, Estonia can be distinguished from the Nordic countries by its strong support for the death penalty found in two-thirds of the respondents. As an interesting detail, more than half of the young respondents in Finland and Estonia support the death penalty. In Estonia, young people are more liberal than the older generation, while in Finland, younger people are more conservative about this issue compared to their parents.

To sum up, the political cultures of Estonia and Finland have moved closer to one another, but differ somewhat from Scandinavian countries. We even have similar populist political parties enjoying similar rates of support, and both countries have attempted to moderate these forces by including them in the government. This attempt failed in Finland; the experiment is still under way in Estonia.

The study conducted by the International Republican Institute and the French Fondation pour l’Innovation Politique (Fondapol), „Democracies Under Pressure: A Global Opinion Survey of the State of our Democracies“, was presented by one of its authors, Thibault Muzergues, at a seminar organized by the Estonian Foreign Policy Instiute of ICDS on 9 October in Tallinn.

This article was originally published in the Finnish newspaper Kaleva.