Much ado about Greece in Finnish EU elections
In Finland the European elections will be about Greece, at least if Timo Soini, chair of the radical right-wing populist party The Finns, previously known as the True Finns, gets his way.
"If Greece isn't the issue, we will make it the issue," Soini told the Finnish daily Aamulehti, a few days after news reports indicated the third Greek bailout package might hit €10-20 billion.
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Soini has been a vocal opponent of any Finnish contribution to the two previous Greek bailout packages and to the European Commission's crisis efforts.
These issues are why Finland is likely to contribute to the predicted general rise of the hard right in the May EU vote.
The Finns' outspoken euroscepticism is one of the three top reasons why it won over 19 percent in the 2011 Finnish parliamentary elections, according to a major study by the Finnish ministry of justice.
The party is fielding a trio of heavy-hitters for the EU vote: well-known eurosceptic MP Jussi Hallo-aho, former christian democrat Toimi Kankaanniemi and current MEP Sampo Terho.
Soini himself is not a candidate for The Finns in the upcoming European parliamentary elections.
His absence may explain why the latest EU election poll saw a drop in support for the party to 15.2 percent – several percentage points below their forecast support for next year's national parliamentary elections.
The Finns seem set for victory anyway. Even 15 percent would be a significant advance compared to the nine percent the party gained in the 2009 European parliamentary elections.
Back then they had entered into an electoral alliance with the Christian Democrats and in the intervening years the party has seen a surge in support, climaxing in the 2011 national elections.
This time, no such alliance has been made and the party is likely to get two or even three seats.
'Six-pack' coalition government
Finland is run by the so-called six-pack government made up of the National Coalition, Social Democrats, Left Alliance, Greens, Swedish People's Party and Christian Democrats.
This leaves just two opposition parties, The Finns and the Centre Party, and three other MPs: two former members of the Left Alliance who were excluded from the party after opposing the first Greek bailout package, and James Hirvisaari, formerly of The Finns.
Hirvisaari was kicked out of the party after a well-known fascist made a Nazi salute while visiting the parliament as his guest and posted a picture of it on the internet.
The strongest Eurosceptic challenger to the Finns comes from the Centre party, which paradoxically also includes among its members the current EU economic affairs commissioner, Olli Rehn.
Rehn is challenged within the party by former MP and MEP candidate Paavo Väyrynen, who is demanding the Centre party work for a strong reform of the political programme of the European Parliament’s Liberal group (ALDE) or leave the group.
Rehn, on the other hand, is going to be on leave of absence in April and is likely to run for a seat in the European Parliament. He has not stood for public election in Finland since the 1990s and the effect of his candidacy on the success of the Centre party remains an open question.
On the issue of the euro, another parliamentary challenger to The Finns is the Left Alliance, which supports a referendum on the single currency.
It also supports a more integrated union with stronger solidarity between the core and periphery member states and a debt write-down for crisis countries. But The Left Alliance might lack credibility on the issue after giving its support to Greece’s tough bailout programme.
But even though The Finns were able to ride the wave of euroscepticism evident during the 2011 national elections, success is not guaranteed this time around.
The Centre Party, which suffered a dramatic loss in 2011, has seen a strong upsurge. It holds the position of the biggest party in several polls for the parliamentary elections and also does well in polls for the European elections.
Support for the two main government parties, the Social Democrats and the National Coalition, has been falling more or less steadily since the end of 2012, with the social democrats hitting an historic low in January with just 15.5 percent.
Meanwhile the smaller support parties have been treading water, going neither up nor down in the polls.
Grim economic outlook
All this happens against a backdrop of a grim outlook for the Finnish economy.
The traditionally strong Finnish export industries – IT, metalwork, machinery, timber and pulp – have all been losing ground, with exports falling fast and the eclipse of phone manufacturer Nokia – that recently sold its mobile phones unit to Microsoft – seen as another major blow.
Unemployment in December 2013 reached 7.9 percent, the highest in 13 years, exceeding even the joblessness rate during the height of the 2008-2009 euro crisis.
The "sixpack" government of the National Coalition party prime minister Jyrki Katainen has made severe cuts in Finnish municipal spending, reducing government funding by roughly €1 billion a year while simultaneously lowering corporate tax from 26 to 20 percent.
Meanwhile, the government has failed in all its primary goals.
A major reform of the Finnish municipal social and health care system has been stalled for the time being and a significant pension reform is to be similarly postponed until after the next parliamentary elections.
Of all the goals set by the current government, only curbing public debt remains on the agenda.
In mid-February, finance minister and Social Democrat chair Jutta Urpilainen announced that preliminary plans to cut public spending by as much as €3 billion during 2015 would reduce aggregate demand and create serious growth problems.
Economic advisors to the government soon backed up the statement, but suggested the cuts be spread over a three-year period.
Prime minister Katainen is seen by many as one of the main Finnish candidates for a place in the EU commission, with current Europe minister and former MEP Alexander Stubb - from the National Coalition Party of Katainen - as the runner-up.
Bailouts, austerity and euroscepticism
The Finns' Soini narrows the political alternatives in the European elections down to a choice between the austerity and bailout politics of the National Coalition's prime minister Katainen, and the euroscepticism of Soini himself.
He says that as leaders, Katainen and he represent "the only parties that have been consistent on the issue".
"The Finns have objected to the bailout packages and the National Coalition party has supported them," said Soini.
"The Centre Party has supported these measures while in government and objected to them when in opposition, and the Social Democrats have done likewise."
But internal rumblings within the Social Democrats might change the playing field.
Trade union leader Antti Rinne from the party's left flank recently announced that he would challenge Urpilainen for the position as party chair, a move that has forced Urpilainen to adjust her positions.
"It's not enough to trot out the need to increase the supply of labour. We need export industries and we need to hang on to the 'good jobs' we still have," Rinne told national television, criticizing the austerity policies that his own party has supported in government.
After Rinne announced his candidacy, Urpilainen has made some slight amendments for her demands for public austerity, putting her in some conflict with the sixpack government, in particular the National Coalition.
The election of the Social Democrats' chair falls two weeks before the European elections, making Rinne a significant factor in the electoral struggle. Currently Rinne has strong support in the party base, while Urpilainen is backed by the Social Democratic parliamentary group.
If Rinne wins, the elections might indeed be about Greece, but with a different backdrop to what Timo Soini expected and wanted.
“This Europe, that we currently inhabit, is not the Europe that the Social Democrats want. We need to show that we want a more social Europe”, Rinne told the national television channel, calling for a partial write-down of Greek sovereign debt.
Finnish voters will elect 13 MEPs to the 751-seat European Parliament on 25 May.