Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila’s centre-right government resigned on Friday after failing to push through a flagship social and health care reform package, just five weeks ahead of a legislative election.
There has been a hard-fought struggle for the wide-reaching reform for over a decade, dividing successive governments.
Sipila called the failure to pass the reform “a major disappointment”.
He has since 2015 headed a coalition made up of his Centre Party, the conservative National Coalition, and the eurosceptic Blue Reform party, a moderate faction spun off from the far-right.
The three parties were unable to agree among themselves on the package, which Sipila had made one of his top priorities in office. He had repeatedly threatened to resign if the reforms did not go through.
A former businessman who earned millions as an IT entrepreneur before becoming prime minister in 2015, Sipila considered the shake-up as key to cutting the ballooning costs of treating a rapidly aging population.
The proportion of over 65-year-olds in the Nordic country, which has a population of 5.4 million, is expected to reach 26 percent by 2030.
Among the reforms discussed were a centralisation of services into new regional healthcare authorities — which would take over from the current local municipalities — and the use of more private health care providers, a subject of heated debate.
But the coalition partners were unable to agree on issues such as how much the system should be opened up to give patients freedom of choice, among others.
A recent scandal of neglect allegations that came to light in privately-run elderly care homes helped turn the political mood further against any more privatisation of the country’s healthcare.
Claims that the reforms would bring three billion euros ($3.3 billion) of savings to the country’s welfare bill have also been repeatedly called into question.
Sipila threw in the towel when it became clear the government would not be able to submit a proposal to parliament before the election set for April 14.
“My government works on a ‘results or resign’ principle. I am a man of principle and in politics you have to carry responsibility,” Sipila told reporters, adding: “I am taking my share of responsibility.”
– ‘Sitting duck’ –
Finland’s President Sauli Niinisto said he had accepted the government’s resignation and asked it to continue on a caretaker basis until a new one has been appointed.
The current cabinet will retain their jobs until a new government is formed after the election, but will only work to finish off business that is already in progress.
Politicians in Finland were split over Sipila’s decision to resign so close to the election.
The head of the opposition Social Democrats, Antti Rinne, told reporters outside parliament the government had turned itself into “a political sitting duck”.
Member of parliament Kalle Jokinen, from the conservative National Coalition Party — a partner in Sipila’s government — said it would have been better to see a working government in place up until the election.
“You could call this a failure for the government,” Jokinen said.
But a member of the parliamentary committee on health and social affairs, Veronica Rehn-Kivi of the liberal Swedish People’s Party, called it a “victory” for the welfare state and individual citizens.
The Social Democrats have been leading opinion polls in the run-up to the election, with Sipila’s Centre party trailing in third place at around 15 percent.
A programme of austerity cuts and tighter benefits rules during his administration has been unpopular in a country where the welfare state is a cherished national asset.