The foundation of Finland's political system was created during the centuries when Finland was an integral part of the Kingdom of Sweden and from 1809 part of the Russian Empire. By the beginning of the 20th century many forms of legislative work had already been largely established.
The Grand Duchy of Finland's Diet of the Four Estates - nobles, clergy, burghers and peasants - began meeting regularly in 1863 and passed some 400 pieces of legislation. This strengthened faith in Finnish society and encouraged discussion regarding alternate social models. Finns strongly opposed Russian efforts to bring Finland more tightly into the Empire's grip.
The civil discontent that broke out in Russia following military defeat at the hands of Japan opened the way for parliamentary reform in Finland in autumn 1905. The Diet of the Four Estates supported a proposal calling for the establishment of a unicameral Parliament and the introduction of universal suffrage. The Emperor approved the proposal and the Finnish Parliament was established in 1906.
Parliament's first years during the period of autonomy were politically unstable, and this caused many problems for decision-making. Parliament was dissolved several times and new elections were held practically every year. The First World War and the Russian Revolution facilitated Finland's separation from the Empire, and so Parliament declared itself the supreme organ of state in November 1917 and Finland was able to declare independence just a few weeks later.
The first year following independence was marked by a tragic civil war and heated debate over the form of government. In the end Finns decided on a republican constitution that nevertheless gave the President broad powers, including the right to dissolve Parliament. The basic premise of the Constitution of 1919 has remained unchanged in the current Constitution: Political power in Finland is vested in the people, who are represented by Parliament. The Government must enjoy Parliament's support and MPs can measure confidence in the Government by submitting an interpellation.
Finland's parliamentary system was sorely tested in the 1920s and '30s. The foundations of Finnish legislation were created at that time despite sharp political divisions as a result of which governments were often short-lived. The democratic system faced perhaps its biggest crisis in 1929-32, when the far-right Lapua Movement took direct action against the left and threatened to overturn the government. Violence and illegal activities quickly eroded popular support, however. Conservative respect for the law stifled hopes of a coup, and extremists found themselves isolated. Almost everywhere else in eastern Europe anti-communist pressures led to authoritarian right-wing regimes.
Parliament's establishment signified a leap from the medieval Estates to the most modern parliamentary system of its time.
The parliamentary reform brought with it universal suffrage for citizens over the age of 24. This signified a tenfold increase in the electorate, compared with the old Diet. No longer was the right to vote dependent on social status or gender. Finnish women became the first in the world to exercise full political rights, including the right to stand for election. The 19 women who were elected to Parliament in March 1907 were the first women MPs in the world.
Nearly 900,000 voters went to the polls on 15-16 March 1907. The turnout in the first parliamentary elections was 70.7 per cent. When the votes were counted the biggest winner was the Social Democrats, who had played a major role in the fight for universal suffrage. Seats were divided as follows: Social Democratic Party 80, Finnish Party 59, Young Finns Party 26, Swedish People's Party 24, Agrarian League 9, Christian Labour Alliance 2. Parliament held its first session on 23 May 1907, and P.E. Svinhufvud was elected Speaker.
The voting age was lowered to 21 at the end of the Second World War so that young veterans could vote in the post-war elections in 1945. The voting age was subsequently lowered to 20 in the 1960s and 18 in the 1970s.
For a long time after the war the domestic political scene remained unstable, and Finland had 16 different governments in 1948-1963. This period nevertheless saw major social reforms and the building of the welfare state.
Agrarian Finland rapidly industrialised and urbanised. With rising economic prosperity, social security and welfare were improved by supplementing existing legislation and enacting new laws. Parliament approved a system of child allowances in 1948, the National Pension Act in 1956, the Health Insurance Act in 1963, provisions concerning unemployment benefits in 1967, the Comprehensive School Act in 1968 and the Primary Health Care Act in 1971.
Since the mid-1960s Finland's political scene has been marked by strong majority governments, except for a short period in the early 1970s. Governments have generally remained in office for the entire electoral term. The practice of changing governments after the election of a new President was also given up.
A period of intense development began in the early 1980s. The committee system, which dated back to the old Diet, was reformed in 1991 to correspond to the division into ministerial sectors, and committees were allowed to serve for the entire electoral term. As MPs' work has evolved into a year-round job, it has been necessary to develop Parliament's forms of work and to increase the Parliamentary Office's resources.
One goal of development work has been to make the plenary session a national forum for political debate and give MPs better opportunities to discuss timely issues. The function of the Grand Committee was changed in the early 1990s, and Parliament no longer refers legislative proposals to it as a rule.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the opportunity to participate in European integration also led to changes in parliamentary work. The Grand Committee became Parliament's integration committee in the EEA stage and then Parliament's European affairs committee.
The first overall reform of Finland's fundamental laws entered into force on 1 March 2000. The old Constitution, the Parliament Act and certain other Acts were consolidated into the Constitution of Finland. The new Constitution makes it easier to comprehend Finland's political system and the division of powers and mutual relations among key actors.Finland's political system has moved in a more parliamentary direction, with the position of Parliament and the Government being strengthened in relation to the President of the Republic. Parliament elects the Prime Minister. The new Constitution enhances Parliament's role as Finland's supreme organ of state.
Nineteen women were elected to the Finnish Parliament in 1907 and were the first women MPs in the world. The low point came after the 1930 elections, when the figure dropped to 11. In the 2011 elections 85 women were returned to Parliament - more than ever before. Since the late 1960s the number of women MPs has grown fairly steadily.
The Parliament that was elected in 1939 continued to serve until 1945. During the Winter War, from December 1939 to February 1940, Parliament was evacuated and met in the town of Kauhajoki. Among all the European countries that fought in the Second World War, Britain and Finland were the only European countries where Parliament continued to meet without interruption during the war.