The Friday after Thanksgiving, all of the Fulbrighters were invited to have lunch at the Finnish Parliament in Helsinki. The lunch, which was arranged by Fulbright Finland and Finnish Fulbright alums who now work in parliament, was hosted by Hanna Sarkkinen and Mats Lofstrom, two members of parliament. MP Sarkkinen is from the leftist party, and MP Lofstrom is from the center party representing the Aland Islands. As you can imagine, this combination led to some fascinating conversations.
The lunch started with the members sharing their thoughts on hot topics in Finnish government and the items that would likely play an important role in the next election this coming spring. One issue of relevance that I’ve been following is the potential restructuring of the Finnish healthcare and social security systems. This restructuring would create an intermediate body between municipal regulation and federal regulation, allowing the provinces to play more of a role in the administration of these services. Although I’m not sure if I have a clear opinion on this issue, nor do I feel warranted to have one, it has been discussed with worry by some of the physicians at the hospital. While this is the case, the members of parliament seemed quite positive about it, suggesting it would decrease bureaucracy and increase flexibility in these systems.
The perspectives of each member in attendance, while sometimes quite different, were always extremely cordial and straightforward. You could sense their respect for one another in their dialogue, each acknowledging the others’ background and its influence on their perspective. For instance, MP Lofstrom from Aland represents a very rural, sequestered (and completely Swedish speaking) part of Finland, and so his political values are quite different from that of MP Sarkkinen who comes from the very techie (and predominantly Finnish speaking) city of Tampere. In addition to their respectful manner, another thing that we all noticed immediately was their relatively young age. MP Sarkkinen is just 30 years old and was only 27 when she was elected (To put this into perspective, we have Fulbrighters who are 27 right now). MP Lofstrom, while a little bit older, is still under 40. Although not all members of parliament are this young, the average age of all Finnish MPs (44 years of age) is by far lower than in the US (58 years of age in the house, 62 years of age in the senate).
Eventually, we had time to ask the members of parliament some questions. Of course, many of us wanted to know what Finnish elections are typically like, and how these national elections fit into the greater scheme of things with the EU. Finnish elections typically don’t have the same level of political advertisements, and they are rarely characterized by negative ads. Additionally, there is no necessity to vote according to party due to the sheer number of political parties and the intentional focus on the individual candidate rather than the political institution. This system seems to succeed in putting the country, and not politics, first.
After lunch, we began our tour of the parliament building. We were able to sit in on a voting session and see the votes come in on various issues. The environment in the parliamentary room was, again, extremely respectful and light. There were even times when laughter ensued after a vote, with jokes across party lines keeping things friendly. While the light-hearted environment was fascinating, the thing that struck me the most was the statue at the front of the room. At the center, there is a statue of a mother holding a saluting child, all covered in gold. We asked our tour guide what the statue represents, and he said that it is there to remind the members of parliament of their true duty: to make Finland a better country for the next generation. While I think it must also help remind the MPs of the importance of mothers to a happy, healthy society (because the maternal and child health scholar in me can’t not think that), I believe the intended message is one that we all need to be reminded of, especially when it feels like our nation is continuously putting hostile politics before our children’s futures.