In an interview with Helsinki Times, Li Andersson, the former Minister of Education and current Left Alliance party chief, offered a fresh perspective on crucial issues shaping the upcoming presidential elections in Finland. Andersson's unwavering advocacy for human rights and climate change sets her apart from her peers, particularly in the realms of defence, global conflicts, international relations, and domestic affairs.

Standing out prominently in the recent presidential elections’ debates, Andersson distinguished herself with a vocal stance on Israel's ongoing aggression in Gaza and has called for sanctions against Israel while every other candidate hesitated to do so. Her commitment to principled foreign policy was reiterated in her conversation with the Helsinki Times, where she emphasized her clear standpoints on human rights and international law. Another major focus of her presidential campaign is the crucial need to address climate change, as Andersson see the climate crisis as an integral part of Finland's foreign policy. 

“I have been advocating very clearly for value based foreign policy, which means that I do have more clear standpoints when it comes to respect for human rights and international law. I also think Finland hasn’t done enough in terms of the war in Gaza, or took a clear stand for the protection of civilians in Gaza.”

Expressing puzzlement at the cautious approach of Finnish politicians and the current foreign policy leadership, Li Andersson hoped that it is not due to Finland’s NATO membership. “We have a lot of examples of NATO member countries such as Norway, France, who have taken much more clear stances, in the UN system. So, there is every possibility for Finland to do more than what we have done so far. Finland could support the South African case in the International Court of Justice and advocate for sanctions against Israel. There are a lot of options for Finland, if there is a political willingness to do more to end this war and to protect the civilians who need humanitarian assistance in the Gaza Strip,” Andersson commented.

Andersson highlighted what she perceives as Western hypocrisy in handling the Gaza conflict, emphasizing that Finland is not immune to this criticism. “This also goes for Finland. There are a lot of risks of regional escalation and a larger war in the Middle East connected to the war in Gaza. I feel that we will see an even bigger divide between the so-called Western countries and the global South, who have very rightly shown that the West is not consequent, when it comes to breaches of international law, and protecting civilians and human rights,” she added.


Nuclear weapons concerns over U.S. defence agreement

Li Andersson offered her distinctive outlook on Finland's defence agreement with the U.S., specifically addressing concerns related to the speculated transport of nuclear weapons within the country. Andersson stressed the critical need for more information in the parliament on certain aspects of the agreement, particularly highlighting their unequivocal stance against the presence of nuclear weapons on Finnish soil. “We do not want nuclear weapons here. It is important for us to align with the standards set by other Nordic countries. We need to get a parliamentary consensus on this,” Andersson said. She asserted that Finland should take inspiration from the Nordic policy approach within the NATO alliance, pointing to Norway as a notable example. Notably, Norway, a NATO member since 1949, has opted against hosting permanent NATO bases or nuclear weapons on its territory. 

Furthermore, Andersson expressed additional apprehensions about the handling of potential crimes outlined in the agreement.“According to the agreement, Finland would waive its primary right to exercise criminal jurisdiction to the U.S. when it comes to crimes committed to Finnish soil, including the ones where U.S soldiers are involved. We advocate for the flexibility to reclaim this authority, especially in cases involving victims, such as sexual abuse, rape, or other forms of violence. We strive to ensure no Finnish victim is compelled to face trial in a U.S. military court,” she added.


Migrants’ crisis at the eastern border 

On asked whether she views the migrant crisis at Finland's eastern border with the same lens of human rights, Andersson acknowledged the necessity of taking action in response to clear indications of Russian authorities directing migrants to the Finnish border. However, she also voiced reservations about the long-term viability of a completely closed border. “I have been a bit critical of the government agenda. I understand the need to take action, because we have very clear indications and proof that the Russian authorities are creating this situation, but I don’t think it is a good long-term strategy to have the border completely closed,” Andersson pointed out.


She elaborated, “When it is possible, I think we should open at least one border crossing point because there are people living in Finland who have family relations at the Russian side, and a real need to be able to cross the border for family reasons. We also need to ensure that Finland adheres to the standards laid out in the UN Refugee Convention. We cannot disregard asylum rights either because some of the migrants might genuinely have a case for international protection. So, we need to be ready to address their possible applications for assistance.”


Ukraine conflict and relations with Russia

Amid Russia's persistent aggression in Ukraine, Li Andersson foresees no immediate improvement in Finland's relations with Russia.“That depends on when and how there will be peace in Ukraine. As long as the war in Ukraine continues, no European country will be able to re-establish bilateral connections with Russia. So that needs to happen first. And after that, how good of a relation we can have with Russia, will also be dependent on Russia’s leadership and policies.”

Expanding on the significance of Russia's policies, Andersson remarked, “If it would be a continuation of what has been going on in Russia under Putin, which meant human rights abuses within Russia, no freedom of speech, no real democracy or possibilities for people to voice their opinions, I don’t think that Finland can have good relations with Russia. I believe that Finland should be a consequent defender of human rights with regards to Russia.”

As such, Li Andersson believes that Finland's support to Ukraine as wells as its alignment with other EU countries is justified, considering Finland's geographical proximity to Russia. “This is a big issue for Finland, given we’re also a neighbouring country to Russia. Prior to NATO membership, we maintained military non-alignment, and we have our historical experiences of wars with the Soviet Union. It’s crucial for smaller nations to stand in solidarity with Ukraine, asserting that powerful nations cannot simply use force to seize what they desire.”

However, Andersson is hopeful that, if a chance arises, Finland can play a strong role in peace talks for Ukraine, maintaining its legacy in mediation and peacebuilding.


Finland’s NATO membership 

Andersson acknowledged that Finland's NATO membership represents a significant change in its security policy. However, she emphasized the autonomy of member countries in determining their foreign policies, stressing that NATO itself doesn't dictate these policies. 

“It’s important to stress that NATO does not decide on the foreign policy of its member countries. So, Finland still has all the possibilities to have the foreign policy we desire and a foreign policy based on important values which I think should be especially respect for human rights, international law, and peace building. So of course, there is a risk that some politicians want to change the foreign policy agenda of Finland, and say that we need to do this because of NATO, but I think that is an incorrect argument.” 


Relations with China and eastern bloc 

On improving relations with eastern countries, Andersson believes that Finland should not limit the discussions within inflexible blocs, and instead focusing on building strong partnerships across the Global South, avoiding a narrow Western-centric approach. 

“Steering away from rigid bloc-oriented discussions, Finland’s focus should be on establishing robust partnerships across the Global South, rather than confining ourselves just to a Western-centric approach. We need larger coalition globally to work together on significant challenges such as the climate crisis and involve all countries like China, India and U.S.

She suggested that most presidential candidates share the view that a nuanced strategy is essential when dealing with a country like China. This strategy, according to Andersson, should involve multiple dimensions rather than relying on a singular approach. “At the same time as we ensure that we do not have critical dependencies from authoritarian countries.”


Enhancing defence amid hybrid warfare 

On defence, Andersson pointed out Finland’s longstanding tradition of adopting a comprehensive security approach, and envisions similar measures, beyond the military to encompass various societal actors, including civilian entities and authorities. “Take cyber-attacks, for instance—a domain where collaboration with companies, diverse authorities, and the military is important for readiness across different scenarios.”

“Equally important is enhancing media literacy among Finnish citizens, ensuring they possess the skills to critically analyze information found online. This approach aims to uphold a high level of trust in news outlets and traditional media. So, it is vital to have a whole-of-society strategy that involves collaboration with a diverse range of societal actors,” she added.


Economic challenges 

Andersson identifies two major concerns affecting the Finnish economy. She delved into the tremendous decrease in tax revenues and problems arising due to demographics of Finland. “One of the major issues concerning the Finnish economy is at taxation level and the heavy decline in tax revenue during this government period. To have a balanced finance, we need to talk about income and our taxation policies. While this decrease is partly attributed to the success of environmental taxes in promoting electrification and reducing pollution, it requires a re-evaluation of income and taxation policies to maintain fiscal balance,” Andersson highlighted.

Highlighting the pressing requirement to position Finland as an appealing destination for foreign workers and address the workforce imbalance, she explained: “The other big issue is demographics - something that the current government is not that willing to discuss. We have a high number of aging populations who need more social and health care services, which also requires more financing and less young people working, which creates a lasting imbalance in the economy. We need better migration policies and we need to ensure that these people get proper employment and education.”

However, she criticized the current government for maintaining a restrictive immigration policy, hindering discussions on essential topics like demographic challenges and structural discrimination.

Andersson also laid out her core strategy of promoting substantial investment in research and development for companies, to enhance Finland's global appeal, “This has always been the strength of the Finnish economy, leveraging our a highly educated and innovative citizens. However, there’s room for improvement in productivity development within this framework. Given the dynamic shifts in our labour market, driven by green transition, automation and digitalization, it is crucial to establish robust mechanisms for adult education, ensuring individuals have the opportunities to reskill and upskill to adapt to evolving demands.”


Climate policy & state welfare 

Li Andersson has expressed disagreement with the current government on two major fronts: climate policy and immigration policy. She asserts that the government's efforts in addressing these crucial challenges have been insufficient. “Unfortunately, the current government is not doing enough. Especially if you look at the traffic sector, the emissions are likely to rise. Finland also lags in preserving our carbon sinks, which are diminishing faster than emissions are declining. To meet climate targets, decisive political decisions are essential, with a heightened focus on reducing emissions within the traffic sector, and safeguarding and expanding our carbon sinks at the same time. We need a more comprehensive approach, ensuring effective climate action.” 

Elaborating on her plans to tackle these issues while highlighting her role as opposition, Andersson said, “Our plan is to get back into government after the next parliamentary elections, which would be the best way to affect this. Meanwhile, in our opposition role, we’re challenging the current government on multiple fronts. They are implementing substantial cuts in social security, making significant alterations to labour laws that could detrimentally impact Finnish workers, and scaling back climate policy ambitions. We are exerting pressure to steer the government in a different direction.”


Rise of right-wing in EU & Finland’s reputation

In light of the surge in right-wing governments across the EU, including Finland, Andersson drew attention to a series of scandals that hit the new government in July 2023, involving earlier racist remarks made by certain party members. “It definitely affects the international reputation of Finland. It's a matter we as opposition, are committed to challenging, striving to prevent the implementation of certain aspects outlined in the government program, particularly concerning migration policy. These measures, if enacted, could prove detrimental to the immigrant community in Finland and discourage potential future residents,” Andersson pointed out.

Andersson also stated her disapproval of recent plans to reduce Finnish embassies abroad, citing budget cuts as the sole motivation. She sees it as a potential challenge for individuals abroad, particularly in family reunification processes or visa applications. Andersson emphasizes the importance of maintaining close cooperation with other Nordic countries and regions to ensure continued global service provision.” This is one of the decisions they are doing purely because of cuts in the budget, which is not a good argument in my opinion.”


President’s role

While Andersson understands the limited powers that comes to the President of Finland as compared to the Prime Minister, she underscored President's crucial role in public discourse. “Every president needs to act according to the Constitution, which designates responsibility for foreign and security policy, but it has to do with in collaboration with the government. This requires cooperation from the President, irrespective of the government’s composition, to seek common ground on critical matters related to foreign policy.”


“Moreover, the president, as a prominent and influential political figure in Finland, plays a crucial role in public discourse. While lacking formal powers in certain decision-making process, the president wields an influence through commentary on diverse issues and by shaping public debates. That’s why I think the candidates should state their views on the future of Finnish society, on issues such as racism, immigration policy, and the future of the Finnish welfare state, because these are the domains where the president has indirect but an important role.”


Campaign cost and Funding Sources 

Andersson disclosed the overall budget for her presidential campaign as €186,000, which includes €100,000 from the Left Alliance Party. It also comprises donation of €40,000 from private individuals, in addition to contributions from local organizations.


-Sonali Telang - HT