Populism in the Deep North: How Finland is Turning Right
Andrea Walton 15 May 2019

«We are critical of immigration that can harm both the Finnish economy and being potentially dangerous in terms of security. To understand, in short, the so-called humanitarian welcome and the entry into Finland of unskilled and uneducated workers».

This is what Riika Purra, political advisor of the Finns Party (previously known in English as the True Finns), a radical national conservative and Eurosceptic party, told ResetDOC recently. The statement describes some of the movement’s basic political principles regarding immigration. These words are very similar to the electoral manifestos of other European radical conservative parties. All are preparing for a formative date at the end of May that could well change the trajectory of European politics forever.

Upcoming elections for the European Parliament (EP), which will take place in member states between 23—26 May, are set to be a crucial political moment for the whole of Europe. Nationalistic and conservative parties are almost certain to increase their vote share and seats in the EP, according to almost every opinion poll taken in recent months. These parties are usually Eurosceptic and want to halt the process of European integration. The size of their growth will contrast with the decrease in popularity of Social Democratic and Christian Democratic parties, which are in deep crisis in many countries around Europe. Finland, a Scandinavian country that lies in the deep Arctic north of the continent and shares a long border with Russia, is no exception. The massive growth of Finns Party support has been surprising and the real risk is that the movement will emerge as Finland’s first party in future elections. Traditional and moderate parties have not disappeared but struggle to succeed at the ballot box.

The Finnish parliamentary elections on 14 April this year produced an extremely fragmented result, which will make the formation of the new executive laborious and fraught. The Social Democrats managed to eke out a narrow win for first place, with just 17.7 percent of the vote. Immediately behind—by a mere few thousand votes— came the Finns Party (17.5 percent). All the other movements, from the moderate center to the liberals, and the Greens to the radical left, splintered the remaining votes.

During the campaign trail, electoral posters were deployed all around the country but always in a Finnish style—modest and unassuming with little to distinguish them. Still, in remarkably peaceful Finland, certain politicians came in for threats and assault during the campaign. Sauli Niinisto, the President of the Republic, convened a meeting of all the political leaders in an effort to head off any escalation of violence and to condemn these acts.

These consultations provided European political observers and analysts with a certainty. Finland is no exception: even here a Eurosceptic, anti-immigration and nationalist movement, as the Finns are, enjoys strong popular support and is well rooted in the social structure of the country. This should not be surprising given the strong electoral success achieved by parties with similar ideological coloring in other Scandinavian countries, such as the Swedish Democrats in Stockholm and the Progress Party in Oslo. The usually quiescent Finnish people, who generally shun loud attention-seeking, have nevertheless prompted the whole of Europe to focus its attention on the country.


Birth and growth of a political phenomenon

The political base of the Finns Party is Finland’s rural areas. Here, the fight against climate change is arguably perceived as a threat, and mass immigration—given the relatively small size of the Finnish population—is also probably seen as something negative for more traditionalist voters. The Finns Party was born of a political split in the then Center Party (an agrarian movement) in 1959. After a period of turbulence, the Rural Party formed in 1966 with a political program championing the interests of small farmers and unemployed people. The movement experienced alternate electoral fortunes in the ‘70s and ‘80s, but unfulfilled political promises after the 1983 elections saw the party fall in disgrace.

From the ashes of this movement the True Finns were born in 1995. Since 1997, the party has been led by the charismatic Timo Soini. Gradually the party recovered electoral support, obtaining 1.6 per cent of the vote in the 2003 elections and 4.1 per cent in 2007. The turning point came after the global economic crisis of 2008. In 2009 European elections, the Finns obtained 9.8 percent of the vote and in the national elections of 2011 they jumped to 19.1 per cent of the vote, thus becoming the third party in the country. The 2015 elections saw a moderate drop in consensus, to 17.7 per cent. This did not prevent the party from joining the ruling center-right coalition in Helsinki and also undergoing a split from its more moderate wing in 2017.

In that year, in fact, the primary elections for the party leadership rewarded Jussi Halla-aho, moving the True Finns even further to the right. Halla-aho is a very controversial politician, who has insulted the Islamic religion and its important figures. He remains a fierce critic of immigration.

The Finn’s splinter faction has disappeared into political oblivion, below the electoral threshold needed to access the Eduskunta, the unicameral Finnish parliament. Thus, in the cold and deep north of Europe where the sun seldom shines but rain is a given, centrist and reassuring policies appear to be an endangered species.

Public and media opinion tended to view the True Finns—at least in its first years of life—as a marginal protest party, almost grotesque in its vulgar political claims. Proudly populist, the movement advances a conservative socio-cultural program: combating mass immigration and multiculturalism, defending the “common man” against the power of Helsinki’s political elites; reducing or eliminating the Europeanization of Finland, and opposition to progressive social reforms, such as civil unions or marriage for same-sex couples. On the economic side, the party supports private enterprise, as a key driver of general welfare, but also affirms that business must behave responsibly toward individuals and the community in general.


Basic principles

The Finns Party’s popularity has thus rested on policies that reflect the above-mentioned conservative–nationalist credentials. In a word, the party pitches the electorate on the need for more domestic security, less Europe and—especially—much less immigration. Their approach has been quite radical for a moderate country like Finland but, in many ways, successful. Their recent electoral campaign video, widely criticized, consisted in six minutes of footage in which establishment politicians and journalists were shown taking bribes and foreigners depicted preying on women and children.

Riikka Purra, a political advisor of the movement, told me that the party takes a clear, uncompromising approach to the fight against crime and the issues of internal security are tackled by with a clear approach. “More punishments for crimes of a sexual nature and when we talk about immigrants who perform criminal acts”, she affirms, “is the best solution to reduce migration flows”. Crimes committed by foreigners are probably emphasized to prime the population to the potential (if exaggerated) dangers of uncontrolled immigration.

“We are critical of the European Union”, says Purra “but we do not support the need for a referendum on an exit of Finland from the Union since, at the moment, it would not make political sense”. Many conservative movements in several European countries, in fact, have changed their positions on the subject, moving from a favorable approach to abandoning the Union to a more pragmatic vision of internal reform, to be obtained, of course, with the political strength that these parties will obtain in the European consultations.

The Finns Party deems Russia “an imperialist country that enacts imperialist and illegal policies” according to Mrs. Purra, and a possible entry of Finland into NATO is judged “with skepticism and not supported but, in any case, with an open mind”. Close relations with Moscow have marked much of the recent history of the country. Having become independent only in 1917, after a century of Russian domination, Finland fought two conflicts with its powerful neighbor between the late 1930s and mid-1940s. After the second world war Helsinki was subject to intense influence from Moscow and the country, albeit democratic and capitalist, had to keep a distance from the Western bloc, remaining outside NATO. The silent and wooded 1,340 thousand kilometers of border between Russia and Finland are a constant reminder, for many Finns, of how vulnerable Finland would be if relations with Russia were to deteriorate. In those dark forests, in fact, the menace of the past could return and become an imminent threat.


Changing the national agenda

In the fragmented Finnish political context, it seems unlikely, even in the future, that the Finns Party, like any other formation, can aspire to a position of political domination. The proportional electoral system, in fact, has always made the formation of political coalitions, often extended to more than two parties, necessary for governments to form. However, the agenda of the Finns Party has shifted in just a few decades from the margins of the political mise-en-scène to its center. The Finns movement, even in a fragmented context, has even come close to first place in more than one election. Reducing immigration flows, skepticism about the fight against climate change and a severe approach to the fight against crime—united with criticism toward Brussels—are all issues dear to the party that are now projected into the political arena of Helsinki. The other political parties, in fact, must, in one way or another, take them into account during the preparation of their own political programs.

The great victory of the Finns Party, therefore—in addition to the obvious electoral success—consists in the new political priorities it has managed to cement at the national level and in the birth of a new narrative that is increasingly popular also in other parts of Europe. The themes of the common people against the elite, the closure of borders and the rebirth of nationalism have never been as strong in the post-war era, in a Europe that—before the global economic crisis of 2008–09—seemed to be heading toward a future of prosperous integration. The Finns Party, which even survived a dangerous split, continues to run for electoral leadership and in the future can even aspire to become crucial for political stability in Helsinki.


Photo: Martti Kainulainen / Lehtikuva / AFP

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