Jari Vilen Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Finland and the Global 
    Economy: Conversation with Jari Vilen, Minister for Foreign Trade, Finland, 
    January 23, 2003 by Harry Kreisler

Page 2 of 6

Politics in a Democracy

What got you interested in politics? Obviously, that's another perspective that arises in your story.

It is true. I would never have ever believed that my interest in politics would eventually lead me to be a minister in the government. I'm thirty-eight now. I've been in politics for twenty-two years.

My goodness.

I started when I was a high school student. There was an election in Finland in 1979, and one party won the landslide victory. But for some reason that party wasn't invited to be a member of the government, and I thought it was wrong. I started to study the programs of the different parties, and I thought that it should be a fair thing. If people give their judgment for the parties, they should also be given the right to govern the country. Eventually, in two year's time, it led me to choosing to join the Party.

Which party is that?

It's the National Conservative Party, which is the Finnish bourgeois party, which actually was, in Lapland -- and still is in Lapland -- the minority party. I've been raised in political circumstances, being one of the political minority members. I became quite a young member in my city council. I was a city councilman there. There were forty-three members of the city council, and I was a member of the group which had four members. So that was my high school for politics. Every time you wanted to achieve something, you had to be better in argumentation, you had to convince the majority to agree with you. That was the actual starting point of my political career.

If students watch or read this interview, what would you tell them about what it takes to be a political leader in a democracy?

The commitment, belief in the system, belief in your own values and the principles of the party. I studied the programs of different parties. My family doesn't have anything to do with politics; we are a family of entrepreneurs. All of us need to have a good relations with the politicians, but [we were] not participants in politics. So I studied the programs and I found something which was closest to my heart, and it has been a part of my own life for over twenty years now. So, to believe the system, participate in the system, but also to realize that especially in my country -- which has a multiparty system, which means that all the governments have to be coalition governments -- [a politician needs] the capability to negotiate and find compromises, and even try to find the consensus in difficult matters. I think that one of the strengths of Finland today is this tradition of consensus-seeking in my nation.

I would assume that education is also important for being able to change things in a political system. That is, the whole problem of political education, making voters understand something that they might not have understood before. Talk a little about that, and the skills that are required.

We've been investing very heavily in our educational system. Finland is a very rich nation today -- a nation of five million people, only five million in the whole country, spread out in an area which is extremely large. For that five million people, you have about twenty-two universities and thirty polytechnics. So we have over fifty institutes for a higher education, for five million people. Our country decided to invest in education and training because we believed that the only success for a small nation is to be the best of the specific sectors. Today, we have proof in businesses like Nokia. But also investing in the primary and secondary education, because one of my paths to the international world and international business, and even internationalization, was the fact that even at the primary school level, we were told about everything about the world -- not just about Finland, not just about Scandinavia, not just about Europe. We had a chance to explore and learn new things, new cultures, new religions, new areas. This gave me the hunger to study more and more about different countries.

Next page: Finland's Adaptation to a Changing World

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