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Constitution of Finland

For the constitution of the Grand Duchy of Finland see: Swedish Constitution of 1772
The Constitution of Finland (in Finnish, Suomen perustuslaki, or in Swedish, Finlands grundlag) is the supreme source of national law of Finland. It defines the basis, structures and organisation of government, the relationship between the different constitutional organs, and lays out the fundamental rights of Finnish citizens. The original Constitution Act was enacted in 1919, soon after Finland declared its Independence in 1917, but the current Constitution came into force on 1 March 2000.

Historical background and reform

Finland's current constitutional laws are: the Constitution Act of Finland (2000); the Parliament Act (1995); the Procedure of Parliament (2000) and the Act on the High Court of Impeachment (1995).

The fundamental principles of the Constitution Act of 1919 and the Procedure of Parliament of 1906 remained unchanged during the first fifty years of Finnish independence, as there was little pressure or need for any amendments to the Constitution Act. However, this did not prevent the Constitution from adapting to the changing needs of the day. The flexibility of the Finnish Constitution is due to the use of exceptive laws, a distinctive feature of the Finnish system: instead of amending or changing the Constitution, an act may be made as an ad hoc exception to it. Such an exceptive law does not become part of the Constitution and it may be repealed like an ordinary act. Exceptive laws were formerly much used, even to the point of threatening to undermine respect for Constitutional provisions. Today, their use is limited.

The first major constitutional reform came in 1983, with the re-writing of many important provisions governing parliamentary procedure, mostly in the Parliament Act. However, the most extensive and important reforms came in 1987, when provisions on the holding of consultative referendums were added to the Constitution. The indirect form of electing the President of the Republic via an Electoral College was replaced by a system which combined the Electoral College with direct election, and the provisions governing the postponement of ordinary legislation were amended by shortening the period for which a bill could be postponed.

In 1991, the direct popular election of the President was introduced, with provision for a second ballot where necessary. The new system was used for the first time in 1994. The President's term of office was also limited to two consecutive terms of six years, and the President’s powers were also limited in that he or she could henceforth only dissolve Parliament on receipt of a reasoned request from the Prime Minister and having first consulted the Speaker and the party groups in Parliament, and only while Parliament was in session. The 1991 reform also amended the provisions in the Constitution Act and the Parliament Act relating to State finances.

The extensive reform of Basic Rights in Chapter II of the Constitution Act came into force in August 1995, and the remaining powers of a one third minority to postpone ordinary legislation to the next Parliament were now abolished, marking the final transition to majority parliamentarism in respect of ordinary legislation.

The need to integrate and update the constitutional legislation was seen by this time as being urgent. For instance, while in most other European countries constitutional provisions are all contained within a single constitutional act, in Finland, they were fragmented and contained across several acts.

The process of constitutional reform began in the late 1990s, after Finland's accession to the European Union, partly because of the arguments which had emerged between the Parliament and the President when arrangements were being made for decision-making in European affairs, such as whether the President should participate in the meetings of the European Council together with the Prime Minister.

In 1995, a working group of experts, the Constitution 2000 Working Group, was appointed to examine the need to consolidate and update the constitutional legislation. The Working Group proposed that all constitutional provisions be brought together into a single statute and concluded that the most important questions of constitutional law to be addressed in the reform were the reduction of the scope of constitutional regulation, the development of relations between the highest organs of government, the clarification of questions of power and responsibility in international affairs, and constitutional recognition of European Union membership. The Working Group also drew up a proposal for the structure of the new Constitution.

After the Working Group had delivered its report, in 1996 the Government appointed the Constitution 2000 Commission to draft a proposal for a new, integrated Constitution to come into force on March 1, 2000. The Commission was instructed to draft its proposal for a new Constitution to replace the four existing constitutional laws in the form of a Government bill. The Commission completed its work on June 17, 1997, and during 1998, the bill was considered by the Constitutional Law Committee, which finally produced its unanimous report on the bill in January 1999. On February 12, Parliament gave its approval for the Committee's proposal for the new Constitution to be left in abeyance until after the parliamentary elections. The new Parliament elected in March 1999 approved the new Constitution in June that year and it was ratified by the President of the Republic.

Main provisions

Structure

The official text of the constitution consists of 131 Sections, divided into 13 Chapters, as follows:

  1. Fundamental provisions
  2. Basic rights and liberties
  3. Parliament and the Representatives
  4. Parliamentary activity
  5. The President of the Republic and the Government
  6. Legislation
  7. State finances
  8. International relations
  9. Administration of justice
  10. Supervision of legality
  11. Administration and self-government
  12. National defence
  13. Final provisions

Fundamental provisions and basic rights

The opening chapter on fundamental provisions continues the affirmation of Finland's status as a sovereign Republic, the inviolability of human dignity and the rights of the individual, and the sovereignty of the Finnish people. It also affirms the principle of representative democracy and the position of Parliament as the highest organ of government, the separation of powers, the independence of the courts, and the principle of parliamentary government. The provisions for constitutional rights closely mirror the European convention on human rights, including the educational, social and economic rights in addition to political liberties. The international human rights obligations of Finland are set as the highest legal norm of the law, even above constitution.

Provisions on the Constitutional Organs

The Constitution establishes a government under a parliamentary system. It provides for a strong, directly elected President of the Republic, a Government comprising the Prime Minister and the Ministers who form the Council of State (Chapter 5) and the Parliament of Finland (Chapter 3). It also establishes an independent judiciary and two judicial systems: one general, and the other administrative.

Parliament

One of the main goals of the constitutional reform process was to move Finland further in the direction of a parliamentary system of government. Accordingly, the new Constitution strengthens the position of Parliament as the highest organ of government and makes it easier for the legislature to carry out its work — this despite the fact that the new Constitution's provisions on the organization and procedures of Parliament contain no fundamental changes in terms of content, and the legal provisions on Parliament and Representatives remain largely unchanged.

Under the Parliament Act, Parliament has traditionally been entitled to receive from the Government and the relevant ministries whatever information it needs to carry out its functions, while the parliamentary committees have enjoyed a similar right to be provided with information and reports on matters within their purview. The new Constitution extends Parliament's right to be informed by giving individual Members of Parliament the right to receive information from authorities which they need to carry out their functions, provided the information concerned is not classed as secret and is not related to the preparation of the Government's budget proposal.

The new Constitution rationalizes and tightens up Parliament's legislative procedures in respect of the readings of a bill in plenary session following preparation in committee, reducing the current three readings to two.

Parliamentary supervision of the Government and of the overall administrative machinery of government is to be enhanced by transferring the National Audit Office, which monitors management of the public finances and compliance with the Government budget, from its current position under the Ministry of Finance to become an independent office working in conjunction with Parliament.

A new Procedure of Parliament, which supplements the provisions on Parliament contained in the Constitution, came into force at the same time as the new Constitution on March 1, 2000.

The President of the Republic and the Government

The main changes in the new Constitution relate to the constitutional regulation of decision-making by the The President of the Republic and the formation of the Government. Regulation of presidential decision-making procedures are specified more precisely, while the Government, responsible to Parliament and dependent on the confidence of Parliament, is given a greater role in presidential decision-making. The most notable change was the transfer of the final decision on the introduction and withdrawal of Government bills from the President of the Republic to the Government, this including bills in the area of foreign affairs.

In relation to the formation of the Government, the provisions of the new Constitution transfer the appointment of the Prime Minister from the President to Parliament. The new Constitution thus marked the end of the President's leading role in the formation of the Government. The President now only takes a prominent role when the parliamentary groups are unable to reach agreement on a suitable basis and programme for the Government, and on a suitable candidate for Prime Minister.

Criticisms

The judicial and constitutional system in Finland has been criticized for missing any de facto function to uphold the constitution, as well as failing to separate powers. Laws cannot be ruled unconstitutional in the supreme courts of the judicial branch, but are previewed by the legislative branch. This structure is unusual among democratic nations. The Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Sweden are the only other such countries which lack a constitutional court - the UK's constitution is uncodified, and the Netherlands has, in the view of many, separated powers.

The new Constitution does expressly direct the courts to give precedence to the Constitution if an evident conflict arises in some particular case; the courts may not, however, strike down acts or pronounce on their constitutionality. The old Constitution also directed the supreme courts to request, if needed, the explication or amendment of an act or decree, but this provision has been removed and the responsibility for maintaining the constitutionality of the laws now rests completely with the Parliament.

The new constitution does not provide an uncontroversial answer to whether Finland's policy in the European Union is headed by the President or the Prime Minister.

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