26th Jun 2019

Eurosceptic populism invades Finnish election

  • "First Greece, then Ireland and just before the election, Portugal: all this has come as a godsend for the True Finns" (Photo: Søren Sigfusson/

The Finnish general election is on Sunday 17 April. The election results are expected to be announced around midnight. These two items are about the only thing that can be said with certainty before this election. The advance of the anti-immigrant and eurosceptic populist True Finns Party, along with the crisis in the euro countries, has shaken up the country's political patterns.

As a rule, the difference in the traditional parties' electoral support has been a few percentage points at the most. Now the opinion polls are showing something quite different. Until now the True Finns have always been classed as a small party with the support of a few percent (about four in the last election). In the run-up to the coming election support for the party is almost as much as 20 percent.

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The state of affairs between the opinion polls and reality is still a great mystery, but it seems certain that the True Finns will win a large victory of some kind. And that means, above all, that electoral support for the three traditional largest parties - the Centre Party, the National Coalition Party and the Social Democrats - will decrease. In the run-up to Sunday's election it seems like there will be four parties in Finland which all have about 20 per cent support.

In the last four years, Finland has had a right-wing government consisting of two large parties (Centre and National Coalition) and two smaller ones (Green League and Swedish People's Party). Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen was replaced this summer by Mari Kiviniemi due to internal crises in the Centre Party.

It is quite possible that the True Finns will get into the new government. But equally the party may end up in opposition. Normally two of the three main parties would join together to form the core of the government. At the time of writing, it is really difficult to predict the election results. In Finnish politics there are no insurmountable party blocs, but in principle, everyone can form part of the government with everyone.

The dividing line in this election has first and foremost been EU policies and the attitude towards supporting the countries in crisis. First Greece, then Ireland and just before the election, Portugal: all this has come as a godsend for the True Finns.

Roots in rural protest

There is every reason to try to discover what really lies behind the strong upswing for the True Finns.

This is not some new movement. Finnish populist roots go back to the 1950s, when the Finnish Rural Party, under the leadership of Veikko Vennamo, came into being as a protest movement against the structural changes affecting rural life. At the height of its power at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s the party achieved electoral support of about ten percent.

After Vennamo, the party got into government but the movement was soon dissolved and almost disappeared. The True Finns were formed from what was left of the Rural Party and its leader Timo Soini acknowledges Vennamo as his mentor. According to Soini's school, populism is an instrument for the people to express their own will and to bypass the bureaucratic expert elite.

Soini has a long political career behind him and also has practical experience as a presidential candidate. He was known for many years as a kind of harmless political stand-up comedian with a verbal turn of phrase and rich metaphors that were in a class of their own compared to the other party leaders.

It was the last election to the European Parliament that started to upset the established positions. The very eurosceptic Soini was the election winner and won a seat in Brussels. He then focused on his role as the challenger of the "old" parties and captured the position as the most visible opposition leader, despite the fact that the left-wing opposition parties in the parliament are large.

Political scandals are not forgotten

Soini's message hits home with those voters who are frustrated and alienated from politics.

In recent years one scandal has succeeded another in Finnish political life. Many politicians, first and foremost in the Centre and National Coalition parties, have received dubious funding from shady businessmen. Complicated affairs with women have brought very bad publicity to both the former Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen (Centre Party) and the former Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva (National Coalition Party). Well-known politicians have been involved in all sorts of court cases.

Public confidence in politicians has been struck a blow. At the same time, the politicians have been forced to take difficult decisions on Finland's participation in redressing the financial crises in the weak countries of the Eurozone. One single thing has stood out clearly in this obscure complicated matter: money is flowing out of Finland. The necessity of giving this aid has been explained in complicated language and rejected in simple language.

Political skills are generally weak and it has been difficult to find the differences between the parties. According to a recent study, only 31 percent of Finns support the governing parties. One third of the population believes that the largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, is in government.

Virtually all current party leaders in Finland are modern, elegant men and women in their forties who scatter political jargon around.

One man show

Soini stands in contrast to all that: he is a completely different type of person with an incredible ability to compress and simplify the political message. At the same time, the True Finns have built up their machinery at grassroots level across the whole country. The party has reached out to people the other parties have lost.

The result has been outstanding. Soini has become a kind of hub around which all other political discussions revolve. But also, the heavy election campaign has fallen on the shoulders of one man because the party has not had any other strong names to throw into the game at the national level. There are certainly other candidates at regional level, but first and foremost it is a one man show.

The party's candidates are a motley crew and amongst them there are distinct anti-immigrant views. Neither does the party leadership have much sympathy for a place for the Swedish language and Swedish teaching in Finland. Nor for development aid, climate policies and so on. The general impression is that of deep conservative values and a nationalistic spirit. The word extreme right is not used in Finland. The party's future shape depends however on which of the party's candidates finally win a place in parliament. In Finland the electoral system is direct proportional representation.

EU policies put to the test

Soini's own main theme is, however, criticism of the EU: "Where the EU exists, there are problems". This attitude may also be enough to close the door to the government for Soini, even if he wins the election.

But recently, after the crisis in Portugal, the political situation has become extremely complicated. The leader of the Social Democratic Party, Jutta Urpilainen, has put forward conditions under which Finland will put up securities. Such conditions are, according to Prime Minister Mari Kiviniemi and Minister of Finance Jyrki Katainen, absolutely impossible in the EU. It seems likely that the first task of the new and probably more eurosceptic parliament will be to discuss aid to Portugal in a situation where there is not yet a new government.

The tone of the election campaign has been exceptional, even bitter at times. There are plenty of election topics: the EU, pensions, taxes, Libya, nuclear power, the status of Swedish teaching, care for the elderly and so on. There is no longer any talk about NATO membership; that question has completely disappeared off the agenda.

The most crucial aspect is, however, to what extent this is going to be a protest election. For the first time in years there is a clear increase in interest in politics. Finnish electoral turnout has dropped to under 70 percent. But in the run-up to this election politics is being discussed everywhere.

This could be a fateful election for Finland. Whether the country focuses inwards or opens outwards will be decisive. The key question is how strong a foothold has the nationalist-oriented and conservative-value populism now got in Finland, and how will that affect the country's EU policy and other decisions in the future.

Markku Heikkilä is Head of Science Communications at the Arctic Centre at the University of Lapland in Rovaniemihe. The article first appeared in the Nordic Council / Nordic Council of Ministers' online news magazine, Analys Norden.

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